A housekeeper at a hotel in the Poconos who was fired after wearing her hair in cornrows won $25,000 in damages after she brought a racial discrimination case.

U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania held that Carmelita Vazquez, who is black and Hispanic, proved that her superiors at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide discriminated against her when they fired her in 2007.

“Because Starwood’s appearance policy permitted employees to wear braids and other non-African-American/Hispanic employees did not suffer adverse employment action when wearing braids, yet Vazquez was discharged for wearing such a hairstyle, she adequately demonstrated that her termination occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination,” Caputo said in his opinion issued after holding a bench trial last month.
In order to prove a case of disparate treatment under Title VII, Vazquez had to show the court that “(1) she belongs to a protected class, (2) she was qualified for the position she sought to retain or attain, (3) she was subjected to an adverse employment action, and (4) the action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference that the adverse action was taken on account of her membership in the protected class,” according to the opinion.
Starwood maintained an appearance policy for its employees requiring that their “hair should be conservative in style (and in color) and should not fall on the face or obstruct eye-to-eye contact. Hair may be required to be pulled back or tied back (or in the case of some food and beverage positions, a hair net or hat may be required),” according to the opinion.

That policy was enforced by individual managers who would determine what hairstyles would be considered conservative, Caputo said.

The assistant executive housekeeper at the hotel where Vazquez worked, Paradise Stream, had testified that the policy would allow employees to have individual braids, but not cornrows that expose the scalp. Another manager who worked in a different department at the hotel had agreed with that interpretation.

“The perception at Paradise Stream is that a design of cornrows that shows an excessive amount of scalp is not allowed under the appearance policy and is unprofessional,” Caputo said.

Over the course of Vazquez’s roughly seven years as an employee at the hotel, she had been disciplined several times for the way she wore her hair starting in 2004, when she was disciplined for wearing her hair in twists that showed her scalp, Caputo said.

In 2007, Vazquez was told that if she didn’t undo the braids in her hair, she would be fired. When she indicated that she wouldn’t, she was fired, according to the opinion.

“The Notice of Termination of Employment of Carmelita Vazquez indicates that she was discharged for a rule violation. The explanation of termination states: ‘Carmelita will not take out the braids in her hair,’” according to the opinion.

However, a white employee was allowed to wear her hair in such a way that her scalp was visible, according to the opinion.

There was disagreement between Vazquez and her manager over what that hairstyle was. Vazquez said it was done in cornrows. The manager said it was a French braid.

Caputo was convinced by Vazquez’s argument that the reason she was given for being fired was pretextual—her termination letter said that she wore braids, which wouldn’t violate the appearance policy.

“The explanation of termination indicates that Vazquez was discharged for wearing braids, and not for having cornrows or revealing an excessive amount of scalp, which, as testified by supervisors and managers at Paradise Stream, was not a violation of the appearance policy. Thus, the court finds that Starwood’s stated reason for terminating Vazquez was based on a violation of the appearance policy is false,” Caputo said.

Referring to the white employee who wore her hair in braids, Caputo said, “Moreover, because other non-African-American and Hispanic employees … were not counseled, sent home, or discharged for wearing braids in their hair, the court concludes that Vazquez established by a preponderance of the evidence that discrimination was a determinative factor in Starwood’s decision to terminate her employment.”

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or sspencer@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.

(Copies of the 20-page opinion in Vazquez v. Caesar’s Paradise Stream Resort, PICS No. 13-3264, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •