Supreme Court Will Consider Case Alleging Religious Discrimination in Employer’s Dress Code

Abercrombie_&_Fitch_Hong_Hong_store_2.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court will hear the appeal of a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14-86. The complainant alleged that the company, a retail clothing chain, refused to hire her because she wears a hijab, the headscarf commonly worn by many Muslim women. The company claimed that the hijab violated its dress code. It argued in court that the complainant never requested a religious accommodation during the job application process, although she wore a hijab to her in-person interview. An unpublished 2013 New Jersey decision addresses a similar religious discrimination claim by a Sikh man.

Abercrombie operates a nationwide chain of retail clothing stores that market a particular style, supported by a comprehensive, and often controversial, “Look Policy” for its employees. The complainant applied for a job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2008, when she was 17 years old. She wore a hijab to her interview, where an assistant manager reportedly gave her a good enough score on her style to recommend her for employment. A supervisor allegedly rejected her because the “Look Policy” does not allow employees to wear hats or other head coverings. The supervisor has since claimed to have had no knowledge that the headscarf–which the complainant wore to a job interview with an employer known for its expansive dress code–was worn for religious reasons.

The EEOC investigated her claims of religious discrimination and filed suit in 2009. Abercrombie settled two similar EEOC lawsuits in 2013. One alleged refusal to hire, and the other involved a woman who claimed that the company fired her after a district manager visited the store and disapproved of her hijab. The company paid a total of $71,000 to the two women and agreed to allow female employees to wear hijabs. The Oklahoma case was already pending when the settlement occurred.

A U.S. district judge ruled in the EEOC’s favor on opposing motions for summary judgment, holding that Abercrombie was liable for religious discrimination under Title VII. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 798 F.Supp.2d 1272 (N.D. Ok. 2011). The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, however, finding that Abercrombie should not have been held liable because the complainant “never informed Abercrombie prior to its hiring decision that she wore her headscarf or ‘hijab’ for religious reasons” and never requested an accommodation. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 731, F.3d 1106, 1111 (10th Cir. 2013). The EEOC appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 10th Circuit’s ruling improperly places the entire burden on job applicants and employees to request religious accommodations.

An unpublished decision from a New Jersey federal court addresses many of the same questions. A Sikh man attended training for a sales position at an auto dealership. As part of his religious practice, he left his hair uncut, maintained a beard, and wore a turban. During training, he was asked if he was Sikh, and if he would consider shaving or trimming his beard for the job. He said no, and he alleged that the general sales manager of the dealership stated that he would not be hired otherwise. The court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. EEOC v. United Galaxy, Inc. et al, No. 2:10-cv-04987, opinion (D.N.J., Jun. 25, 2013). The parties settled the lawsuit in November 2013.

If you need to speak to an employment discrimination attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

Question of Whether EEOC Must Make a Good Faith Effort to Conciliate Will Go to Supreme Court, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 3, 2014
EEOC Alleges in Religious Discrimination Lawsuit that Employer Required Employees to Participate in Religious Activities, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, September 24, 2014
Plaintiff in Employment Discrimination Lawsuit Alleges that Employer Fired Him Because of Religion, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, July 8, 2014
Photo credit: By Iflwlou製作 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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