8th Circuit reverses summary judgment for employer who fired woman for her “Ellen DeGeneres” look

by on January 25, 2010  •  In Employment law

In Lewis v. Heartland Inns, 2010 WL 184087, the Eighth Circuit reversed defendant's summary judgment in a Title VII suit brought by a woman who was fired from her job as a front desk clerk after a (female) management officer said that Lewis presented as "slightly more masculine" and had "an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look."  Subtle, huh?

The plaintiff was the kind lawyers die for – her direct supervisor (who was also fired for not firing her) described Lewis' work as "phenomenal," her previous supervisors marked her for quick promotions to the prime-time day shift, and a customer had written in to praise her.  Despite this, the uber-manager said that anyone filling that customer-intense service role should have a "Midwestern girl look."  Lewis, alas, was "tomboyish."

The Eighth Circuit ruled that the district court was wrong to insist that Lewis demonstrate that she was treated differently than male employees, stating that she needed to prove that she was discriminated against because of her sex, and the male comparator was only one way to do that. The court held that the evidence of gender stereotyping in the case placed it squarely within the scope of Price-Waterhouse v. Hopkins.

In discussing similar cases in other jurisdictions, the circuit court cited both Smith v. City of Salem, a Sixth Circuit case involving a transgender firefighter, and First and Second Circuit cases involving women denied promotions because they had young children. So dissimilar on the surface, yet exactly right as a coherent group of citations — these three cases, as well as the new decision, illustrate what sex discrimination looks like circa 2010.


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