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Tomboyish Hotel Clerk Can Challenge Firing Under Title VII

January 26, 2010
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A front desk hotel clerk fired allegedly because of her “tomboyish” appearance can pursue employment discrimination and retaliation claims against her former employer, a federal appeals court has ruled.

According to the January 21 decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in Brenna Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, Lewis was promoted from nights to days at a hotel operated by Waterloo, Iowa-based Heartland Inns in December 2006.

The hotel’s director of operations first saw her after her promotion and said Lewis lacked the “Midwestern girl look,” according to court records.

“Lewis prefers to wear loose-fitting clothing, including men’s button-down shirts and slacks,” the appeals court said in its ruling. “She avoids makeup and wore her hair short at the time. Lewis has been mistaken for a male and referred to as ‘tomboyish.’ ”

At a January 2007 meeting, Heartland Inn director of operations Barbara Cullinan told Lewis she would need a second interview to confirm her new post. Lewis protested that other staff members were not required to have a second interview for the job and was fired three days later. She then filed suit, charging sex discrimination and retaliation.

A district court granted summary judgment in Heartland Inn’s favor, but a panel of the appeals court overturned the lower court in a 2-1 ruling.

The appeals court cited the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Price Waterhouse v. Ann Hopkins, in which it ruled a gender stereotyping claim could be filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the woman allegedly denied a partnership because she did not act feminine.

Subsequently, other federal appeals courts have upheld Title VII claims based on sex stereotyping, according to the 8th Circuit ruling.

“Cullinan’s criticism of Lewis for lack of ‘prettiness’ and the ‘Midwestern girl look’ before terminating her may also be found by a reasonable fact finder to be evidence of wrongful sex stereotyping,” the appeals court said.

Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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