• The Lighter Side of Employment Law: Courts Rule That Being "Blonde" or "Southern" Is Not Protected by Title VII
  • October 21, 2003 | Author: Kurt N. Sherwood
  • Law Firms: Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, P.L.C. - Detroit Office; Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, P.L.C. - Kalamazoo Office
  • As employers well know, employment discrimination laws prohibit the termination of employees on the basis of their gender, race, national origin, and other protected characteristics. Two recent federal court decisions demonstrate, however, that employees are willing to stretch the bounds of these laws to outrageous proportions. In one case, a female employee sued her employer for "blonde" harassment; in another, the employee sued for harassment based on her southern accent.

    Fortunately, the courts considering these cases refused to extend legal protection to employees that far.

    In Shramban v Aetna, Plaintiff, a white Jewish woman from Moldavia, claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of her race, sex, religion, and national origin. While working at Aetna, Plaintiff's supervisor made comments regarding Plaintiff's hair color (and "what people say about blondes"), her "Russki way" and her "Moldavian way," asked personal questions about her boyfriend/husband, and mimicked her accent.

    The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that although the supervisor's comments may have been disparaging, unprofessional, and in poor taste, they were insufficient to prove that the harassment was motivated by Plaintiff's race, national origin, gender, or religion. The Court noted that "being blonde is not a protected group under Title VII," and found that the supervisor's immature teasing and taunting did not amount to a hostile work environment since it did not occur with the frequency sufficient to be considered pervasive or regular.

    Schafer v Cost Plus, Inc., involved a woman who claimed her former employer discriminated against her based on her national origin as a person whose "ethnic and cultural upbringing was rooted in the Southern traditions and particular affectations of the regional flavor of that American locale" (i.e. she claimed she was discriminated against because of her southern accent). In particular, Plaintiff alleged that her supervisor told her that her accent made her unintelligible over the store intercom, sounded "ignorant," and "was not cute."

    The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan held that Plaintiff's allegations were not actionable under Title VII since "Southernness" is not a protected trait. The Court also held that even if the supervisor did make the alleged statements, they amounted to nothing more than simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents which did not amount to a hostile work environment.

    Although the characteristics at issue in the above two cases are generally not protected under employment laws, it is important to note that employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin remains prohibited under Title VII.

    Furthermore, employers should be aware that most states have their own employment discrimination statutes which may include additional protected classifications.