Lawsuit: Muslim Scarf Not Part of Abercrombie & Fitch 'Look'

EEOC charges Abercrombie denied a job to a Mulsim teen because of her hijab.

September 17, 2009, 11:29 PM

Sept. 18, 2009 -- Clothing giant Abercrombie & Fitch is not exactly known for its modesty, as evidenced by sexy catalogs featuring models in barely-there clothing. Now the company is being sued for allegedly denying a teenager the right to wear a religious headcovering.

A Muslim teenager hoping to work at one of the company's childrens clothing stores says she was told during an interview that her head scarf, known as a hijab, would violate Abercrombie & Fitch's strict but secretive "Look Policy," which governs everything from dress to the length of one's fingernails.

This week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit in Oklahoma federal court on behalf of Samantha Elauf, 17, whose hijab became an issue during a June 2008 interview for a position at Abercrombie Kids at the Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa, Okla.

In its lawsuit, the EEOC is citing violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act.

The complaint alleges the interviewer said that any "headgear" was prohibited by the "Look Policy," and the company refused to make an exception for Elauf to wear her hijab for religious reasons.

Elauf, who is not giving interviews, then filed a complaint with the EEOC.

"We determined the law had been violated and we tried to resolve it informally with Abercrombie," said Barbara Seely, regional attorney for the St. Louis district, which covers Tulsa.

Seely told that confidentiality rules prevented her from discussing the settlement attempt, but the EEOC is now seeking both compensatory and punitive damages on Elauf's behalf. It will also ask that Abercrombie make exceptions to its Look Policy for religious reasons.

The compensatory damages, Seely said, would amount to back pay "had she been hired." The cap for all damages against a company Abercrombie's size, Seely said, is $300,000.

An Abercrombie & Fitch spokeswoman told that they had been advised by their legal team not to comment on pending litigation.

"We have a strong equal opportunity employment policy and we accomondate religious beliefs and practices when possible," she said. "We are confident that the litigation of this matter will demonstrate that we followed the law in every respect."

The spokeswoman declined to provide with a copy of its Look Policy.

Seely said Elauf had found a job in retail, but did not know where.

Abercrombie & Fitch No Stranger to 'Look' Related Lawsuits

The St. Louis office of the EEOC has another pending lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch, this one filed in September 2008 against the company's Hollister chain. In that suit, the EEOC claims the company invoked its Look Policy in firing Lakettra Bennett, an assistant manager in Missouri, who had asked to wear a longer skirt in keeping with her Pentacostal beliefs.

Bennett was a recent Pentacostal convert and had asked to wear a skirt with a hemline that covered her knees, but was allegedly told that only a short skirt was acceptable work attire.

That lawsuit, still making its way through the legal system, asks for damages similar to the ones in the Elauf case.

Abercrombie & Fitch's Look Policy has gotten it in legal hot water before.

In August, Riam Dean, a 22-year-old British law student born without a forearm, was awarded $15,000 after claiming her prosthetic arm was cited as a violation of Ambercrombie's policy.

Dean was initially allowed to wear a cardigan on the sales floor, but was later sent to work in the back room because the sweater violated the company's strict dress code.

"I was treated very unfavorably comparison to their non-disabled workers," she told the U.K.'s Good Morning Television. "I definitely felt a difference."

While the court found that Dean did not suffer disability discrimination, it awarded her $15,000 for unlawful harassment and ruled that the company failed to comply with employment law.

In 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch spent $40 million to settle a lawsuit in which several thousand minority plaintiffs claimed that black, Asian and Hispanic workers were steered to the stockroom and the back of the store instead of the sales floor. After the lawsuit, Abercrombie hired 25 diversity recruiters and a vice president for diversity.

And in 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch pulled a t-shirt that said "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make It White." An Asian-American student group at Stanford University organized a successful boycott.

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