On July 23, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that a Rastafarian police officer who refused to cut his hair may take to trial some of his claims of religious discrimination and retaliation. In Dodd v. SEPTA, 2008 WL 29202618 (E.D. Pa. July 2008) the Court partially denied the summary judgment motion of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), holding that SEPTA’s proffered reasons for disciplining and discharging the plaintiff, Niles Dodd, may be pretextual for bias against Dodd’s religion and its requirement that he maintain uncut hair.
During the course of his seven year employment with SEPTA, Dodd became a Rastafarian. However, SEPTA’s appearance policy required male officers to keep their hair under their hats. Dodd was formally disciplined on several occasions for violating the policy. Subsequently, in late 2004 and early 2005, Dodd wrote and distributed memoranda criticizing SEPTA. As a result of these memos, SEPTA conducted an investigation to determine whether Dodd violated SEPTA’s procedures for making internal complaints when he filed his memos. The investigation ultimately led to Dodd’s discharge. Dodd sued SEPTA, claiming that he was subjected to religious bias, disparate treatment, a failure to accommodate his religion, hostile work environment harassment, and retaliation in violation of Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
The Court found that Dodd was a member of a protected religious class, was a qualified police officer, and sustained several adverse employment actions, including an involuntary psychological test, several suspensions, and termination. In addition, the Court also found that SEPTA was aware of Dodd’s religion prior to the adverse actions and that its alleged nondiscriminatory reasons for firing Dodd, i.e., his repeated violations of the appearance policy and his violation of internal complaint procedures, may have been pretextual. The Court noted that Dodd was the only SEPTA officer ever to be disciplined for a violation of the department’s appearance standards, despite the fact that at least two other officers wore their hair below the uniform hat.
The Court also concluded that: (1) SEPTA’s appearance policy unlawfully interfered with Dodd’s religious beliefs, due to the fact that one of the tenets of Rastafarianism prohibited him from cutting his hair; (2) SEPTA failed to make good faith efforts to accommodate Dodd’s religious beliefs (e.g., letting Dodd wear a ponytail would not have caused SEPTA undue hardship); (3) Dodd’s ongoing encounters with his supervisors regarding his hair and religion were sufficiently pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment that had a detrimental effect on him; and (4) Dodd’s memoranda and his EEOC complaint implicated SEPTA’s nondiscrimination policy, and constituted protected activity for Title VII purposes; thereby, raising an inference of retaliation.