Kimberly C. Carter, Member of the Firm in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice, in the firm’s Los Angeles office, was quoted in Law360 Employment Authority, in “Don’t Read Too Much into Texas Schools’ Win in Hair Bias Suit,” by Anne Cullen. (Read the full version – subscription required.)

Following is an excerpt:

A Texas state judge recently ruled that a school district's policy barring a Black student from wearing locs did not violate a state law prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyles tied to race. However, experts said employers shouldn't interpret that decision as a sign that restrictive grooming policies will pass muster.

Judge Chap B. Cain III found Thursday that Barbers Hill Independent School District's restrictions on male students' hair length did not violate the state's Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act. The ruling represented a loss for a student who had challenged the repeated suspensions he faced for wearing locs pinned tightly to his head.

Texas' hairstyle discrimination prohibition, which went into effect in September and applies to workplaces as well as schools, was passed in 2023 as a wave of similar laws were enacted across the country barring bias based on hair textures or hairstyles commonly or historically associated with race, including cornrows, braids, locs and twists. 

Barbers Hill does not expressly prohibit these hairstyles, but it doesn't let male students wear hair in a way that extends below their eyebrows, ear lobes or the top of the collar.

It also bars updos that gather hair that would otherwise fall below these markers, the provision that ensnared the student who wore locs pinned to his head.

While management-side employment attorneys said Judge Cain's ruling sheds some light on outlines of the new statutory rules, they warned that businesses — especially those subject to other state CROWN Acts — shouldn't take this as a signal to craft similar grooming restrictions. …

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Experts also pointed out that Judge Cain's ruling clashes with a Texas federal judge's 2020 decision in an earlier legal challenge to the Barbers Hill policy.
In a Houston federal court, U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr. barred the school district from enforcing its policy against another Black student penalized due to his hairstyle, finding solid evidence that the hair length provision "was enacted with a racially discriminatory motive."

While his decision was handed down three years before Texas passed its CROWN Act, Judge Hanks found there was credible statistical data showing that Black students were more likely to be punished due to the hair length restrictions.

The judge concluded that the student had a good chance of winning his race discrimination case under the Equal Protection Act based on information in the record about Barbers Hill's selective enforcement of the hair length restrictions, irregularities in the way the rules were crafted, the increasingly restrictive updates to the policy and a lack of a good reason for the length constraints.

Kimberly C. Carter, a member at Epstein Becker Green, said the friction between Judge Cain's and Judge Hanks' rulings makes clear that businesses need to stay tuned to suss out the best way forward. An appeal is likely in the state court case, and Carter said that's something employers should continue to monitor.

"It behooves all of us, including employers throughout the country, to keep a close watch on how these decisions play out," Carter said.

She also said it's not a bad idea to take the most cautious path while the CROWN Act case law builds up. Some of her clients are opting for "the most inclusiveness" when it comes to culturally associated hairstyles, she said.

"That may be the safest route until we see these decisions play out on the state and federal level," Carter said.

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