By Chris Hoenig
A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch broke antidiscrimination laws when it fired a Muslim employee who insisted on wearing a head scarfat least the fifth time that the company or CEO Mike Jeffries have been sued for discrimination.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against A&F on Hani Khan’s behalf after her 2010 firing from the San Mateo, Calif., Hollister store. Abercrombie claimed that Khan’s hijab violated the policy governing the look of its employees and hurt sales, but Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers didn’t agree.
“Abercrombie only offers unsubstantiated opinion testimony of its own employees to support its claim of undue hardship,” Rogers wrote in the judgment.
The company continues to deny the claims, however. “Abercrombie & Fitch does not discriminate based on religion and we grant religious accommodations when reasonable,” spokesman Bruce MacKenzie said.
The case now moves to a liability trial, which will determine just how much the company will have to pay. The judge cleared the way for the jury to award punitive damages during the trial, which is set to begin later this month.
History of Discrimination
This is at least the third time that a federal judge has found that Abercrombie illegally discriminated against a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab. U.S. District Judge Edward Davila ruled earlier this year that the company violated Title VII laws in the case of another California woman, who was denied a job because of her headscarf. That case also awaits a liability trial.
In 2011, a federal jury awarded Samantha Elauf $20,000 in compensatory damages after she was denied employment at an Oklahoma Abercrombie Kids store because she wore a hijab during her interview. Like Rogers, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell ruled that Elauf’s headscarf would not have caused the company any undue hardship, although the jury declined to award any punitive damages.
In 2004, a class-action lawsuit was filed that alleged Abercrombie’s policies discriminated against Black, Latino and Asian employees and job applicants. The company agreed to pay $40 million to settle the claims.
CEO Mike Jeffries’ former pilot filed a lawsuit against him last year, alleging age discrimination. Michael Stephen Bustin claims he was fired in 2009 because the then-53-year-old did not fit with the company’s image of younger, trendily dressed employees.
Jeffries has also helped convict himself in the court of public opinion. When asked about not selling women’s clothing larger than a size 10, Jeffries all but admitted to discriminating against bigger women. “A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong,” he told Salon magazine. “Are we exclusionary Absolutely.”
Actress Kirstie Alley immediately launched a PR campaign against Jeffries and Abercrombie, which was later joined by celebrities including Miley Cyrus and Ellen DeGeneres.
Stock Tanks as Investors Grow Tired
Investors appear to be getting tired of A&F’s discriminatory policies. The company’s stock price (traded on the S&P 500 under ticker symbol ANF) has fallen nearly 25 percent so far this year, while the S&P at large is up almost 20 percent.
While long-term investors have seen stocks soar over the past five years (the S&P is up over 35 percent during that time), Abercrombie shareholders haven’t made a dimecompany stock has lost more than a quarter of its value in the past five years.