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Title VII's Application of Grooming Policies and its Effect on Black Women's Hair in the Workplace: EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols., No. 14-13482, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918 (11th Cir. 2016)   ×

Why EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions is Important

EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions is an important case because it is so recent and illustrates how most courts view Title VII as it is applied to race and workplace grooming policies. The Court affirms the trial court’s decision saying that hair texture is not sufficiently tied to race as under Title VII because it not an immutable characteristic, which is protected under Title VII.

Facts and Findings:

In EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, Chastity Jones filed suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions when the company offered her a job, but later, after realizing her hair was styled in dreadlocks, said that she would have to cut them off in order to retain employment with the company.[1] Chastity did not agree to cut her hair and the job was subsequently taken away from her.[2]

At the trial court level, the court found for Catastrophe Management Solutions, and this case was recently upheld at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The EEOC advanced four arguments to support their claim: “that dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth of the immutable trait of black hair texture; that the dreadlocks hairstyle is directly associated with the immutable trait of race; that dreadlocks can be a symbolic expression of racial pride; and that targeting dreadlocks as a basis for employment can be a form of racial stereotyping.”[3] The 11th Circuit countered saying that Title VII only protects people with respect to race based on immutable characteristics—characteristics that cannot be changed, and not cultural practices.

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 10.

Research Questions and Answers

I. What Is Critical in Advancing the Legal Understanding That It is Too Narrow to Limit “Race” under Title VII based on Immutable Characteristics?

In EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions (“CMS”), the court held in favor of CMS because a hairstyle is not an immutable characteristic, and thus, is not protected under Title VII.[1] The 11th Circuit outlined that historically, Title VII has only protected people with respect to race based immutable characteristics—characteristics that cannot be changed, as distinct from cultural practices.[2] The court recognized that the distinction between mutable and immutable characteristics is a fine line and illustrated this point by saying that “discrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.”[3]

But the court’s concession (that black hair texture is immutable) bolster’s this argument, that such hairstyles like dreadlocks and braids should also be deemed immutable because black hair texture is what makes dreadlocks and other braided hairstyles so ubiquitous in black society.[4] One of the EEOC’s arguments in the case at issue was that “dreadlocks were an outgrowth,” of black hair, meaning that the texture of black hair is inextricably linked to styles such like dreadlocks and braids.

Blacks do not usually have the option of literally letting their hair down, instead, healthy maintenance of black hair requires some type of manipulation and the most economical and lower maintenance styles are dreadlocks, twists, and braids.[5] The alternative for black women who often straighten their hair, add extensions, or other forms of manipulations often lead to hair loss and weakening of the structure of the hair follicles themselves.[6] Understanding that the texture of black hair inherently means that black women must have options to wear their hair in dreadlocks, and braids in order to maintain hair health is an important step in a less narrow view of “immutability” and it is critical for courts to recognize that this is not a cause for a cultural protection, but a mere outgrowth of the meaning of immutability itself.

II. What Does Social Scientific Literature Say and What Would a More Open Minded Court Be Open to?

The social and scientific literature addressing the issue of immutability in the area of equal protection jurisprudence has been to implore courts to broaden their interpretation of it. In Jessica Clarke’s article, Against Immutability, Clarke puts immutability into two categories--the old and the new concept of immutability.[7] Clarke argues that courts make moral judgments about what is accepted as immutable versus mutable. For example, characteristics like that are permissible to discriminate against are: weight, criminal conviction, and intelligence, because they are mutable characteristics.[8] But these mutable characteristics are loaded with negative moral judgments in American society. The new immutability concept is, in part, based on a descriptive premise that arose out of Obergefell v. Hodges where the court said “a certain trait should not be the basis for discrimination because it is a normatively acceptable, protected exercise of individual liberty or expression of personality.”[9]

Immutability should be viewed more broadly because individuals should not be able to discriminate against a characteristic simply because there is a normative acceptance of that form of discrimination. That logic is at the heart of arguing for further protection from banning ethnic hairstyles in the workplace; that simply because it is normatively accepted that ethnic hairstyles are an expression of personality or culture, does not mean that discrimination should be permissible. A more open minded court might be interested in broadening immutability beyond characteristics that are normatively accepted forms of discrimination.


[1] EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols., No. 14-13482, at *4, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918 (11th Cir. Sep. 15, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 28.

[4] Id. at 29.

[5] Aline Tanus, et al., Black Women's Hair: The Main Scalp Dermatoses and Aesthetic Practices in Women of African Ethnicity, V. 90(4), Anais Brasileiros De Dermatologia, (2015) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4560533/.

[6] Id.

[7] Jessica A Clarke, Against Immutability, V. 25, 1, The Yale Law Journal, (2015), http://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/against-immutability.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

Research Strategies

The best way to answer the above questions is to first start by reading background information about the topic. The easiest way to do this is to begin with using the JURN database. A description of JURN is available under the Secondary Resources tab. The researcher will enter JURN into any search engine and arrive at the JURN website, which is a free online academic database that contains millions of peer reviewed articles. Black Women's Hair: The Main Scalp Dermatoses and Aesthetic Practices in Women of African Ethnicity article can be found there, which is a very helpful resource in learning about the physical traits of black textured hair.

The next step is to read the case law provided. Under this tab there is a link to EEOC. v. Catastrophe Managements Solutions, that will take the researcher to a Google Scholar copy of the actual case.

Finally, in order to better understand the nuance involved, the last step is to read a journal article that talks more about the issue of immutability. A helpful article is Jessica A Clarke, Against Immutability, an article from the Yale Law Journal and can be found at the link provided below.