Abercrombie & Fitch Sued For Religious Discrimination

SAN FRANCISCO – Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch violated federal law when it fired a Muslim employee for wearing a hijab (religious head scarf), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed today.

According to the EEOC’s suit, in October 2009, Umme-Hani Khan, a 19-year-old Muslim woman, started working at the Hollister store (an Abercrombie & Fitch brand targeting teenagers aged 14 through 18) at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo, Calif. As an “impact associate,” she worked primarily in the stockroom. At first she was asked to wear headscarves in Hollister colors, which she agreed to do. However, in mid-February, she was informed that her hijab violated Abercrombie’s “look policy,” an internal dress code, and was told she would be taken off schedule unless she removed her headscarf while at work. According to the EEOC, Khan was fired on Feb. 23, 2010, for refusing to take off the hijab that her religious beliefs compelled her to wear.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion and requires employers to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs or practices of employees unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Northern District of California after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC seeks back pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages and injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination. Two non-profit organizations, the Legal Aid Society/Employment Law Center and the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations, also intervened in the case to represent Khan.

“Ms. Khan held a low-visibility position, willingly color-coordinated her headscarf with the store’s brand and capably performed her stockroom duties for four and half months until a visiting manager flagged her hijab as a violation of their ‘look policy’,” said EEOC San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado. “What undue burden did this retail giant face that prevented them from allowing her to practice her faith? Moreover, what kind of statement of intolerance are they sending to their teen customers?”

Today’s lawsuit is the second Bay Area suit the EEOC’s San Francisco office has filed against Abercrombie & Fitch over its failure to accommodate workers who wear a hijab. Just last year the EEOC filed a case concerning Abercrombie’s refusal to hire an applicant due to her headscarf at the ‘abercrombie kids’ store in Milpitas. The company’s ‘all-American look’ policy has been a focus for prior EEOC litigation, resulting in 2005 in a six-year consent decree and $40 million paid to a class of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and women who were excluded from hire or promotions in their workforce.

“The company’s ‘all-American look’ policy is un-American, because it excludes people because of their race, national origin, gender or religion,” said EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo . “Equal opportunity and fair treatment for all –that’s all-American, and that’s what the EEOC will continue to fight for.”

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. operates retail stores under the brands Abercrombie & Fitch, for men and women over the age of 18; abercrombie kids targeting preteens between ages seven and 14; and Hollister Co. for teenagers 14 through 18, with more than 1,000 stores in North America.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.