Finds Manager’s Requirement That Workers Be “Pretty” May Be Discriminatory

A federal appellate court recently reinstated a gender stereotyping case brought by a hotel front desk employee who claimed she was fired for not having the “Midwestern girl look.” According to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, “[c]ompanies may not base employment decisions for jobs . . . on sex stereotypes.” Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., No. 08-3860, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (January 21, 2010).

Factual Background

Brenna Lewis started working for Heartland Inns of America, which op-erates a group of hotels, in 2005. In 2006, she was assigned to part-time front desk shifts at two locations. Lori Stifel, who was Lewis’ manager at one hotel, received permission from Heart-land’s Director of Operations, Barbara Cullinan, to offer Lewis a full-time “A shift” position. Lewis accepted the offer and took over the job in December of 2006.

After Cullinan saw Lewis working the front desk, Cullinan told Stifel that she was not sure Lewis was a “good fit” for the front desk. Cullinan stated that Lewis, who wore loose-fitting clothes, avoided makeup and had short hair, lacked the “Midwestern girl look.” Although the front desk job description in Heartland’s personnel manual did not mention appearance, Cullinan ordered Stifel to move Lewis back to the night shift. Stifel refused, citing the “phenomenal job” Lewis had been doing.

The following week, Cullinan insisted that Stifel resign. At the same time, Heartland informed its general managers that hiring for front desk positions would require a second interview.

Cullinan then notified Lewis that she would need a second interview to “confirm/endorse” her current position. Lewis protested, noting that other Heartland staff members had not been required to have a second interview. Three days later, Lewis was fired. In its termination letter, Heartland asserted that Lewis had “thwart[ed] the proposed interview procedure” and exhibited “host[ility] toward Heart-land’s most recent policies.”

Lewis filed a lawsuit in federal court against Heartland, its Human Resources Director and Cullinan, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Heartland and Lewis appealed this decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal Analysis

Lewis argued that Heartland fired her “because her appearance did not comport with its preferred feminine stereotype” and not because of her job performance or qualifications. The Eighth Circuit noted that the relevant issue was whether Cullinan’s requirements that Lewis be “pretty” and have the “Midwestern girl look” were because she is a woman. In considering this issue, the court found it relevant that Cullinan was a primary decisionmaker with authority to hire and fire and that the other individuals who took part in the decision to fire Lewis relied on Cullinan’s description of her conversation with Lewis.

The Eighth Circuit also noted that Cullinan had indicated that Heartland staff should be “pretty,” especially women working the front desk, and that she criticized Lewis’ “look” in the same conversation in which she ordered Stifel to move Lewis to the night shift. In addition, the court pointed out that Lewis had a history of good performance at Heartland. Based on these findings, the court concluded that one could infer that Heartland had a discriminatory motive to fire Lewis. As a result, the Eighth Circuit ruled that Lewis had presented sufficient evidence to proceed with her sex discrimination claim.

Practical Impact

According to a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Kansas City office: “While courts, as a general rule, continue to uphold employer-adopted appearance standards, it is clear that such policies are subject to attack unless care is taken in both drafting the policies and the manner in which they are applied and enforced. This decision makes clear that appearance policies should be carefully drafted to avoid a claim that they go beyond an employer’s legitimate interest in maintaining a particular image for business purposes and, instead, enforce a sexual stereotype. It is one thing to require both males and females to maintain a `professional’ image or appearance and another to specify the particular male or female `image’ that the employer believes to be `professional’.”

Note: This article was published in the January/February 2010 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

Browse More Insights

Practice Group

Employment Law

Ogletree Deakins’ employment lawyers are experienced in all aspects of employment law, from day-to-day advice to complex employment litigation.

Learn more

Sign up to receive emails about new developments and upcoming programs.

Sign Up Now