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The Farmer's Daughter: Iowa Woman Fired for not Being Cute?

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on January 25, 2010 8:55 AM

Upon learning the details of the case about to be discussed here, you will be forgiven for looking over your shoulder to see if Don Draper is standing behind you. Yes, this one takes us back to the good old days when companies thought it was legitimate, not to mention lawful, to hire and fire a gal based on looks, weight and, heaven help us, sex appeal. Take heed, because the the "Mad" old days are not quite gone in the Heartland, that is the Heartland Inns of America, LLC., who have been sued for allegedly firing a successful employee because she just wasn't cute enough.

The basic facts of the case are enough to make one head out for a three martini lunch. The plaintiff, Brenna Lewis states she was employed by Heartland Inns, working her way up the food chain from the night shift at the Waterloo Crossroads property, gaining compliments from customers and pay raises, until she reached the "A" shift behind the front desk of a Heartland property in Ankeny, Iowa. That's near Des Moines.

Unluckily for Lewis, Barbara Cullinan, Heartland's Director of Operations, allegedly took one look at her "slightly more masculine," sort of "an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look," and suddenly decided a second interview was necessary. After the interview Lewis, with not so much as one disciplinary action on her record, was fired. Ellen would not approve.

The Court of Appeals, in a detailed opinion, found that Lewis could have been subject to sex discrimination. The Court discussed cases that found that "sex stereotyping can violate [the law] when it influences employment decisions." The Court cited examples of illegal stereotyping such as companies who required only female employees to wear uniforms, contacts instead of glasses, or be "comparatively thinner" than their male counterparts

The Court agreed with Lewis that the treatment she allegedly received would not have happened if she was not female. Indeed, it might strain the imagination to ask a male desk clerk to have more of a "midwestern girl" look. As the court reminded the parties, we are past the days when companies could "base employment decisions for jobs such as Lewis' on sex stereotypes, just as Southwest Airlines could not lawfully hire as flight attendants only young, attractive, "charming" women "dressed in high boots and hot-pants[.]" Don would not approve.

However to swing the clock back just a bit, the Chief Judge of the Court in his dissent, rushed to the defense of cute chicks everywhere. It is quite acceptable to Chief Judge Loken if an employer potentially refuses "to hire a female cheerleader" because she is not cute enough. Outside the NFL, you'll be hard pressed to find employers with that particular hiring issue on their hands. Nonetheless, Judge Loken writes that employment decisions "based on a person's physical appearance is not discrimination "because of . . . sex" unless it is a pretext for disadvantage women candidates." Wonder if anyone looked at his picture during the hiring process.

The Appeals Court has sent the case back to the lower court for trial.

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