11th Circuit Concludes Employer Ban On Dreadlocks Is Not Race Discrimination

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a 2014 dismissal of a race discrimination suit alleging an employer’s ban on dreadlocks violated federal law. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, No. 14-13482 (September 15, 2016). In 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed suit alleging race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act on behalf of an Alabama woman who said a prospective employer withdrew its employment offer after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks. The EEOC argued the employer’s policy requiring employee hairstyles reflected a “business/professional image” was interpreted as a dreadlocks ban and, thus, discriminatory due to the connection between dreadlocks and African-American racial identity. A U.S. District Court judge rejected the argument that Title VII protections should be expanded to include cultural characteristics and dismissed the claim on grounds that Title VII only prohibits discrimination based on physical, unchangeable characteristics, such as sex and race. On appeal, the 11th Circuit upheld the dismissal, holding that hairstyles are not “immutable physical characteristics” protected under Title VII even though a hairstyle could be “culturally associated with race.”


The EEOC is taking another shot at dreadlock bans in a lawsuit the agency filed in July 2016 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The new lawsuit alleges an employer ordering a male employee to cut his dreadlocks constitutes religious discrimination under Title VII. The EEOC argues the man wears dreadlocks as part of his Rastafarian beliefs and, thus, terminating him for refusing to cut his hair was discrimination based on religion. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ramnarain II, LLC d/b/a HospitalityStaff, No. 6:16-cv-01250 (Filed July 12, 2016, M.D.Fla.). While the case is in the early stages of litigation, it remains to be seen whether the court will accept the EEOC’s position. It is clear, however, that the EEOC intends to continue its pursuit in this area to create protections for employee hairstyles.


Employers with similar restrictions on appearance should be prepared to defend them based on legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons as the EEOC likely will continue to pursue actions against such policies. We encourage employers to review current policies and practices to identify potential opportunities for litigation and determine whether modification is necessary to comply with Title VII and similar state laws and regulations.


If you have a question, the St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.