Under Title VII, an unlawful employment practice is established when an employee demonstrates that gender is a motivating factor for an adverse employment action. Under that analysis, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Title VII claims of a female hotel desk clerk who was fired after a company decision-maker complained that the employee lacked the pretty and “Midwestern girl” look desirable in a front desk employee. Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., 8th Cir., No. 08-3860, Jan. 21, 2010.

Brenna Lewis began working for Heartland Inns of America in July 2005, starting out as a night auditor. In that job, Lewis worked the front desk from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., doing it well enough to receive two merit-based pay raises and positive customer feedback.

In December 2006, Lewis’ manager, Lori Stifel, received permission over the telephone from the company’s Director of Operations, Barbara Cullinan, to offer to Lewis a daytime (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) shift position on the front desk. Lewis accepted, and took over that position at the end of December. Although Cullinan initially had approved Lewis’ move to the day shift, her attitude changed after she met Lewis in person. At that point, Cullinan told Stipel that she wasn’t sure that Lewis was a “good fit” for the position, as Lewis lacked the “Midwestern girl” look that Cullinan felt was necessary at the front desk. By her own admission, Lewis is “slightly more masculine,” avoids makeup, and wears mens’ button down shirts and slacks. She has been mistaken for a male, and has been referred to as “tomboyish.” However, while Cullinan felt that front desk staff should be “pretty,” the front desk job description in Heartland’s personnel manual does not mention appearance.

Cullinan ordered Stifel to return Lewis to the overnight shift. When Stifel refused, Cullinan insisted that Stifel resign. Cullinan then required Lewis to re-interview for the day shift position, even though Lewis had held the position successfully for over a month. Lew protested, but attended the interview. Three days later, Lewis was fired. In its termination letter, Heartland stated that Lewis was “hostile” toward company policies and had attempted the “thwart” the interview process. Lewis then filed a lawsuit, asserting that Heartland fired her for not confirming to sexual stereotypes, and claiming that such conduct violated Title VII. The lower court disagreed and entered summary judgment in favor of the company. On appeal, the 8th Circuit reversed that decision, holding that sexual stereotyping can violate Title VII when it influences employment decisions.

Title VII prohibits discrimination based upon sex. In this case, Lewis provided evidence that Heartland found her unsuited for her front desk job based, not upon her work performance, but upon an appearance that was inconsistent with the company’s preferred feminine stereotype. At the summary judgment phase of a case, the question is whether a plaintiff has offered sufficient evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could find that the individual was discriminated against because of her sex. Here, the 8th Circuit found that Cullinan’s remarks, along with her discharge of Stifel for not taking Lewis off the front desk, and her imposition of a second interview even after Lewis performed successfully in the position, clearly provided such evidence.

The line between sexual orientation – which is not yet prohibited by federal law – and discrimination “because of sex” can be difficult to draw. However, employers must recognize that an employer who takes an adverse action against an individual because he or she does not fit within sexual stereotypes is engaging in sex discrimination because that discrimination would not have occurred but for the individual’s sex. If a company’s disciplinary actions are meant to punish or belittle non-compliance with gender stereotypes, the actions may constitute a violation of Title VII’s “because of sex” provision.