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Appearance discrimination claims can lead to viable court action

published in The Oklahoman | August 8, 2013

When a dental assistant in Iowa sued her employer for wrongful termination and sexual discrimination, many in the media ran wild with headlines claiming she was fired for being “too hot.” But is there such a thing as appearance discrimination – whether someone is too attractive … or not attractive enough?

“Potentially,” answered labor and employment lawyer Josh Solberg, who was interviewed on the topic for The Oklahoman. He explained that while the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled that the dental assistant’s firing was lawful because it had less to do with appearance and more to do with jealousy and concern from the dentist’s spouse who saw the assistant as a big threat to her marriage, it is possible that some appearance claims could lead to viable court actions.

He pointed to two federal cases in which the employees prevailed on sexual discrimination claims involving appearance. “In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a female accountant who was denied partnership in part due to her failure to ‘dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry’ was a victim of unlawful sex discrimination,” he said. In another case, a federal court of appeals ruled that a major airline discriminated against females when it implemented a policy requiring its female flight attendance to adhere to certain weigh restrictions.

Solberg also noted that disabled persons may be able to bring a cause of action under the American with Disabilities Act and ADA Amendments Act of 2008 if they were the subject of an adverse action which was based on “an actual or perceived impairment that is not both transitory and minor.”