Airline to Face Claims Over Mohawk Haircut
(CN) - Continental Airlines must face claims that supervisors discriminated against a gay flight attendant by making him trim his "unprofessional and extreme" mohawk haircut, a federal judge ruled.
The dispute stems from a haircut that flight attendant Ray Falcon allegedly consented to receive to keep from losing his job with Continental Airlines in 2010.
Falcon claims that soon after he checked in at the Newark Liberty International Airport crew room to work a late flight to Paris, the duty desk attendant alerted in-flight supervisors that Falcon sported a mohawk hairstyle.
The supervisors then sent Falcon back to the crew room, where he was allegedly told that his "unprofessional and extreme" hair violated the airline's appearance standards.
Falcon, who has worked for Continental for nearly five years, says his superiors told him to correct his appearance himself or be removed from the Paris flight.
But even after Falcon applied gel to flatten his hair, his supervisors - knowing that he is gay - remained intent on removing him from the flight, he claims.
In order to stay aboard, Falcon says he had to have a fellow flight attendant cut his hair.
Falcon later reported the incident to Shirley Minn, the base director for Newark in-flight operations, three union representatives and human resources.
A lead supervisor then investigated and later testified that none of Falcon's superiors involved should be punished because they "did the right thing" and were "trying to help" him.
Though Falcon never filed a union grievance or suffered a pay cut, demotion, or other disciplinary action because of his mohawk, he applied for benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act. Falcon says he now misses about one flight per month, has sought psychological treatment from a licensed therapist, and has been prescribed medication.
He sued Continental and three supervisors in state court last year, but dropped the managers from his suit in May. The complaint asserts claims for sexual orientation discrimination in violation of New Jersey law, battery and emotional distress.
Continental removed the matter to federal court and asked for summary judgment. Last week, U.S. District Judge Jose Linares partially denied that motion, holding that a jury must decide whether Continental created a hostile work environment.
"While the court is mindful that plaintiff's supervisors testified that they were not aware of plaintiff's sexual orientation, the court is also mindful that plaintiff was open about his homosexuality," Linares wrote. "Plaintiff also asserted that his supervisors were aware of his sexual orientation in his supplemental statement. Continental did not specifically admit or deny this assertion as required. The court, therefore, considers plaintiff's assertion that his supervisors knew about his sexual orientation to be admitted for purposes of deciding this summary judgment motion."
But the judge awarded Continental summary judgment as to the battery claim, finding that Falcon's haircut did not constitute an "unauthorized invasion" of his person.
"Continental's alleged discriminatory application of its grooming standards to plaintiff may, if true, reflect an irrational prejudice against homosexual persons," Linares wrote, but added that the incident was not outrageous or extreme enough to sustain an emotional distress claim.
Falcon has also admitted to being familiar with Continental's personal appearance policy, which "prohibits any extreme hairstyles and requires flight attendants' hair to be neat, clean and professional in style," the ruling states.
United Airlines, which acquired Continental last year, reported over $37 billion in revenue in 2012.