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Starwood Hotels Must Pay for Firing

(CN) - An international hotel chain worth billions wrongly fired a housekeeper of black and Hispanic descent for wearing her hair in braids to work, a federal judge ruled.

Carmelita Vazquez worked as a housekeeper at the Caesar's Paradise Stream couples-only resort in Mount Pocono, Pa. for about seven years. Managers there disciplined Vazquez for wearing her hair in twists and braids that showed her scalp in 2004 and 2006.

On the latter occasion, hotel management sent Vazquez home and did not allow her to return to work until she spoke with human resources. Her hairstyle supposedly violated the hotel's appearance policy, which states that employees' hair should be "conservative in style," but does not list specific hairstyles.

Jackie Manning, the resort's assistant executive housekeeper, has allegedly said that although employees may wear individual braids, cornrows that show the scalp are unacceptable.

Vazquez had to wear a hat to remain at work several times, while her daughter Aesther - who worked at Paradise Stream for five years - had to cover her cornrows with a garbage bag twice.

The trouble came to a head on May 28, 2007, when Vasquez came to work with braids. After she refused to remove them the hotel fired her, resulting in her lawsuit against the hotel's parent, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., two years later.

In her complaint, Vasquez claimed that other Paradise Stream workers were allowed to wear cornrows or braids of some kind during and after Vazquez's employment, including three white employees. But a month after Vazquez was fired, a dining room server was disciplined for her braids and later fired after she covered them with a scarf purportedly too "casual" for the workplace.

Vazquez's complaint asserted a disparate treatment claim for race/national origin discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though Starwood was awarded summary judgment as to Vazquez's disparate impact claim, her disparate treatment claim survived, and a non-jury trial was held on Nov. 21, 2011.

This past April, the 3rd Circuit brushed aside the claim that Vazquez's suit fell outside the statute of limitations. And last week, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled in Vasquez's favor on the remaining claim.

"Vazquez established a prima facie case of discrimination at trial," Caputo wrote. "She is a member of a protected class, she was qualified to retain her position, she was terminated, and the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. In particular, Vazquez was terminated for wearing braids, despite the testimony at trial that braids were not a violation of the appearance policy in the absence of an excessive amount of scalp being visible. Based on the testimony and exhibits at trial, Vazquez was not showing an excessive amount of scalp on the date of her termination. Moreover, a Caucasian employee, Amanda Weir, was not counseled, suspended, or terminated for wearing braids, which were not pulled together tightly and revealed scalp."

The resort's reasoning for firing Vazquez was pretextual, according to the judge.

"Starwood's explanation that Vazquez was terminated for violating the appearance policy is not credible as its notice of termination provides that she was discharged because she would 'not take out the braids in her hair,'" Caputo wrote. "She was not terminated for wearing cornrows, and the notice of termination does not indicate that she was showing an excessive amount of scalp at the time of her termination. Furthermore, the testimony at trial was that braids did not violate the appearance policy unless an excessive amount of scalp was visible."

Though Vazquez will not receive back or front pay, the court awarded her $25,000 in compensatory damages.

Starwood operates 1,169 hotels in nearly 100 countries and employs 171,000 at the properties it owns and manages, according to its website. It is expected to earn nearly $1.140 billion in 2013, according to last quarter's financial results.

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