A federal jury recently ordered an Alabama company to pay a former employee over $800,000 for retaliating against her after she complained of discrimination over her hairstyle.
Davita Key worked less than two days in 2017 for Dynamic Security, which provides services for the Hyundai plant in Montgomery and hired her to work in the mailroom there.
Key contended that after she informed her supervisors that she was pregnant, they told her that she couldn’t have her hair in dreadlocks. Although Key offered to change her hair or wear a hat, according to the suit, the company fired her and claimed she was unwilling to abide by its dress code.
She sued in federal court in October 2019. The jury ruled on March 30 that Dynamic Security improperly retaliated against Key after she told supervisors and human resources that she felt discriminated against.
Key said she did not get the chance to show her work ethic. “I never got the opportunity to show them who I was as a person,” Key told AL.com this week.
Key said the decision to go to the U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission and file a lawsuit was a last resort. She initially hoped to resolve the issue internally and continue working with Dynamic Security, she said.
“I did that after speaking to them and feeling like my voice was just not heard and I wasn’t taken seriously,” Key said.
The issue of hairstyle discrimination is complicated, said Leslie Palmer, an employment attorney who represented Key in her case. Federal law protects employees from being terminated based on the texture of their hair, but federal and state officials have split over dreadlocks.
“Wearing an afro is protected,” Palmer said. “The circuits are split as to whether dreadlocks fall into texture or style.”
Judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta have ruled that employers are allowed to prohibit dreadlocks, but several states have passed laws to protect the hairstyle because it is usually worn by Black employees. The decision by the 11th Circuit said workplaces can’t use hairstyle as a proxy for racial discrimination.
Key said she felt concerns about dreadlocks are closely tied to race.
“When I think about my hair, that is racial,” Key said. “This is my hair. It’s my race. That’s who I am as an African American woman. The texture of my hair is like this because I am African American. This is the texture of my hair, and the reason the texture is like this is because of my race.”
Concerns about her hair initially emerged during the interview, according to court documents, when an interviewer asked about Hyundai and Dynamic Security’s hairstyle policy. Another person involved in the conversation looked at Key’s hair and approved it if she wore it up.
She reported to work wearing her hair in the style that had been approved during the interview process. No one raised any concerns about her hair until she told her supervisors she was pregnant, according to her complaint.
Her supervisors sent her home early on her first day, according to court documents. The next day she came to work wearing a hat, but another supervisor pulled her aside. She asked Key if she felt discriminated against and then told her the Koreans who owned the plant “send little memos saying they do not want African Americans wearing their hair in dreadlock hairstyles,” according to court documents.
Key was asked not to return to the plant because of her dreadlocks and never received another assignment from Dynamic Security, she said.
Advocates nationwide have pushed for passage of the CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, at the state and federal level. Alabama officials have not enacted the law, which would include dreadlocks in the category of protected hairstyles, but 20 other states have, according to the Society for Human Resources Management.
The judge in Key’s case dismissed allegations of pregnancy and racial discrimination, but Key prevailed on her retaliation claims.
Susan Bullock, an attorney representing Dynamic Security, told AL.com that there are plans to appeal the verdict.
The trial lasted three days. Key said she had not spoken to many people about her experiences at Dynamic Security and felt apprehensive about testifying. Key has three children and said she hopes she has set an example for them to stand up for themselves and to challenge unfair treatment.
“It’s like, I’m not making this up in my head,” Key said. “It was a relief. It was something I’d been carrying and now I had some form of justice.”
Her other attorney, Heather Leonard, said it can be hard for employees to come forward, especially in Alabama, which has laws that give employers a lot of power over hiring and firing decisions.
“A colonoscopy is less invasive than what Davita had to go through in that courtroom,” Leonard said. “It’s a testament to her strength that she is willing to fight the fight that many people are too scared to fight. It’s a victory for her, but it’s also a victory for a lot of Davita Keys out there who might be intimidated or too scared to pursue their claims.”