Earlier this month a Maryland federal district court in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) certified a class action gender discrimination claim against L.A. Weight Loss Centers brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC alleges that L.A. Weight Loss discriminated against a class of qualified male job applicants by refusing to hire them due to their gender. In its complaint, the EEOC asserts that the employer believed that its predominately female clientele preferred female weight loss counselors, and that male applicants were systematically excluded from employment for this reason. L.A. Weight Loss denies the EEOC’s allegations.
The district court determined that the EEOC’s allegations meet the requirements for a class action claim and will allow the matter to go to trial. Reverse gender discrimination claims are relatively unusual, especially class action claims filed on behalf of men. In defending such claims, businesses generally will not be able to rely on customer preferences for defending their hiring practices. Gender can only be a determining factor in hiring in a handful of situations where sex is a “bona fide occupational qualification.” A BFOQ only exists where the employer demonstrates that gender is a clear disqualifier for the job (i.e., locker room attendant).
For jobs such as a weight loss consultant, the BFOQ analysis generally will not apply. Customers’ degree of comfort or stereotypical assumptions about one gender’s abilities cannot serve as a valid defense to a discrimination claim.