February 6, 2023

Volume XIII, Number 37

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February 03, 2023

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New Lawsuit Reminds Employers to Check Their Grooming Policies

A suit filed last week in San Diego Superior Court serves as a reminder to employers about the importance of keeping up-to-date on California’s evolving Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). In the new suit, an employee, Jeffrey Thornton, claims that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race when his former employer, an event management company, allegedly told him that he would need to cut his hair, which Thornton maintained in locks. This is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, lawsuits filed that asserts claims under FEHA pursuant to the CROWN Act amendment, which took effect in January of this year.

California’s FEHA has long prohibited discrimination against applicants and employees based on race and color, among other protected characteristics. However, in 2019, lawmakers passed SB 188, also known as the CROWN Act (which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”), which amended FEHA and a portion of the Education Code, to expand the definition of “race” to include discrimination based on “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The amended FEHA specifically lists locks as among the types of “protective hairstyles” subject to protection.

The CROWN Act was designed to target workplace dress and grooming policies that may have a disproportionate and/or discriminatory impact on employees of color. This topic has been at the forefront of public discourse and was even the subject of a segment in the popular HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, earlier this year. Although Thornton’s employer maintains that this is a simple miscommunication (not unlawful bias), the lawsuit is a reminder to California employers to closely examine their discrimination, dress code, and grooming policies to ensure that they address the CROWN Act, and to train supervisors accordingly. Employers outside of California should take note as well; 13 other states have passed similar legislation, and that number is only likely to grow. Additionally, federal versions of the CROWN Act have been introduced in both the House and the Senate.

© 2023 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 341

About this Author

Kate Gold Labor and Employment Lawyer Proskauer

Kate Gold is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department in the Los Angeles office.

Kate has over 25 years of experience representing clients in a range of industries, across all areas of employment law.  An experienced litigator, she has represented clients in all types of employment-related suits, including class and collective actions, discrimination, retaliation and harassment, non-compete and wage/hour matters.  In addition to litigating, she conducts high-level workplace investigations and routinely counsels clients on matters involving the full range of state and...

Phillipe Lebel labor & Employment Attorney Los Angeles Proskauer Law Firm

Philippe (Phil) A. Lebel represents employers in all aspects of employment litigation, including wage and hour, wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, whistleblower, trade secrets, and breach of contract litigation, in both the single-plaintiff and class-action context, at both the trial and appellate level, and before administrative agencies. Phil also represents employers in connection with labor law matters, such as labor arbitrations and proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board. Additionally, Phil counsels clients to ensure compliance with federal...

Law Clerk

Dixie Morrison is a law clerk in the Labor Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Arbitration Group.