San Diego man sues employer for discrimination over natural hairstyle

An African-American man in California is suing his former employer, alleging that the company refused him a job because he refused to cut his dreadlocks.

Jeffrey Thornton of San Diego filed a discrimination lawsuit last week in state court. In the lawsuit, Thornton’s attorney, Adam Kent, accuses event planning company Encore Global of denying his client a job as a technical supervisor. An anonymous hiring manager at Encore told Thornton he first had to cut his locks off his ears, eyes and shoulders to land the job, court documents show.

“To accept the post, Mr. Thornton would have to materially alter his hairstyle, and therefore his appearance, cultural identity and racial heritage,” according to the lawsuit.

Encore is based in Illinois, but the company has an office in San Diego, where Thornton applied to work last month. Thornton worked for the company for four years in Florida before being put on leave in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the lawsuit says.

Encore said in a statement that Thornton misunderstood what the manager said and was welcome to join the company.


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“We regret any lack of communication with Mr Thornton regarding our standard grooming policies – which he appears to fully adhere to and we have made him an offer of employment,” Encore said in an emailed statement, adding that the Company officials “are reviewing our grooming policies to avoid potential communication issues in the future.”

Thornton’s trial also accuses Encore of having a personal appearance policy that discriminates against blacks. He is suing the company for an undetermined amount of compensatory damages.

First case to cite CROWN Act

The Thornton case marks the first time someone has accused an employer of violating California’s CROWN Act since the legislation came into force in January 2020. Although there have been legal actions focused on the hair discrimination before that, the Thornton case specifically invokes the CROWN Act, experts noted.

The CROWN Law prohibits companies from discriminating against employees or job seekers on the basis of natural hairstyles, including afros, Bantu knots, braids and cornrows. California has become the first state prohibit discrimination against natural hair in the workplace. A dozen other states, including New Jersey, New York and Virginia, now have similar legislation. The law is inspired by decades of black employees sharing stories of job refusals or avoided at work for wearing natural hairstyles.

Thornton is a Florida native who handles audio and visual needs for conferencing inside hotels. He told CBS MoneyWatch that he started growing his locks in 2019 and they are now 5 1/2 inches long.

“I had no problem growing my hair there,” Thornton said of his work for Encore in Florida.

Thornton said he moved to San Diego last year in hopes of overcoming the Coronavirus pandemic and get a better job in “the number one, or maybe the number two market in the country” for hotel conferences.

Trying to distract from appearance

Thornton said he was surprised to hear an official tell him that the locks were a problem because he believed California was more laid back than other states. Thornton said he has been doing audiovisual work as a freelance writer since the Encore incident. Thornton said he received Encore’s job offer but had not decided if he would take it.


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Encore made “a flagrant violation” of the CROWN Act, if what Thornton described in the lawsuit turns out to be true, said Wendy Greene, a professor of law at Drexel University who helped craft the CROWN Act. California.

In court, Thornton would likely argue that the length of his hair had nothing to do with how he was able to accomplish his tasks, Greene said. If Encore was arguing that it was just trying to get Thornton to comply with company appearance policies, then that “means the locks aren’t neat, clean, or professional,” she said.

“The purpose of the CROWN Act is not to force someone to cut their hair,” Greene said. “We are trying to get [employers] not worrying about what’s going on above the head and focusing on what’s inside the head and all the gifts and talents that come with it. “


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