Too Hot v. Not - What's an Iowa employer to do?

Iowa Employment & Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 06/07/2010 at 09:55 AM by The Newsroom

Too Hot? A 33-year-old female banker in New York recently brought suit against Citibank, alleging she was fired for being too attractive.  According to the suit, supervisors told the employee that her bosses could not concentrate on their work because her appearance - the shape of her figure in particular - was too distracting.  The suit goes on to allege that Citigroup instructed the employee to wear less provocative clothing.  When the employee pointed out that other female colleagues wore more revealing clothing, Citigroup allegedly responded that their body shapes were different and that the general unattractiveness of the other employees made comparisons inappropriate. 

This claim is currently in arbitration after the lawsuit was dismissed because of provisions in the employee's employment agreement.  While this case was not brought against an Iowa employer, it is a novel argument for discrimination, worthy of mention. Or Not? In contrast, in Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., et al. No. 083860 (8th Circuit, January 21, 2010), an employee filed suit claiming violation of Title VII for sex stereotyping based on the fact that she was not pretty enough.  The District Court for the Southern District of Iowa granted the employer's motion for summary judgment, disposing of the case, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, finding evidence of sex stereotyping sufficient to meet the plaintiff's burden at the summary judgment stage to show gender played a part in the employment decision.  As a result, this case is scheduled to go forward. So what evidence was presented against this Iowa employer? 

Ms. Lewis had been hired by an on-site supervisor and commended by the supervisor for her work.  Ms. Lewis then wanted to move to first shift (the daytime shift), and the transfer was initially approved until the second-level supervisor saw Ms. Lewis (who had an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look).  Ms. Lewis presented evidence that the second-level supervisor commented to Ms. Lewis on-site supervisor that the employer wanted front desk workers to be pretty and that Ms. Lewis did not have the Midwestern girl look.  The court stated, an employer who discriminates against women because . . . they do not wear dresses or makeup, is engaging in sex discrimination because the discrimination would not occur but for the victim's sex.  (Quoting Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F.3d 566, 574 {6th Cir. 2004}, in which a transgendered fire fighter who was born male and came to identify as a woman was told he was not masculine enough.) These cases provide a reminder to Iowa employers that discrimination and retaliation claims can come from anywhere and employers must treat all employees the same, regardless of how attractive they are or whether they conform to basic gender stereotypes.  Whether an employee lacks the Midwestern girl look or has a curvaceous figure that turns heads in the office, employers should strive to treat that employee the same as all other employees, keeping in mind to enforce any dress codes or uniform policies consistently in all situations.

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