Reinstated suit alleges racial bias in Virginia
WASHINGTON – Seandria Denny wanted to do something special for Mother’s Day. So she treated her mom to a full package at the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon and Spa in Vienna, Va. — manicure, massage, hairstyling, the works.During her mother’s visit to the upscale spa in 2002, Denny showed up and tried to add a hair coloring. It was then, she said, that a receptionist uttered the words that turned a day of pampering into a protracted legal battle.”We have a problem,” the receptionist and then the manager allegedly told Denny. “We don’t do black people’s hair.”Outraged, Denny told the salon to send her mother home. She said the salon tried to style Jean Denny’s hair anyway but did a shoddy job. “Her hair looked like her finger was in a socket,” she said. “They just blew-dry it out and sent her out the door.”Denny and her mother sued Elizabeth Arden for racial discrimination in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. A federal judge dismissed the case. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reinstated the suit this week and sent it back to Alexandria for trial, ruling that “there can be no doubt that plaintiffs have presented not only strong but direct evidence of the salon’s intent to discriminate.””It is hard to imagine plainer evidence of purposeful discrimination than when services are denied expressly because the purchaser is African-American,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for a three-judge panel. “It is, of course, entirely possible that the trier of fact may ultimately see this matter Elizabeth Arden’s way. The record before us, however, at least draws into serious question the neutral and non-racial explanations for whatever happened here.”In court papers, Elizabeth Arden accused the Dennys of trying to make a “federal case” out of what was merely the salon’s inability to schedule the coloring that day. A lawyer for the company, Stephanie Quincy, said it “unequivocally denies that we have discriminated based on race.” She said the 4th Circuit ruling “does not indicate that there was discrimination. It merely says plaintiffs have alleged discrimination, not that they have proven a case.”What, if anything, the receptionist told Seandria Denny that day remains in dispute. Elizabeth Arden denies the statement was made.Carla Cooley, who was the general manager for Elizabeth Arden salons in 2002, said in court papers that some of her stylists had little experience doing black women’s hair.”We didn’t have a lot of African American guests requesting hair services at Elizabeth Arden,” Cooley said in a 2004 deposition. “I’m going to be honest with you on that. It didn’t come up very often. Most of our African American guests really have a salon they go to and they love, and they wouldn’t even think of trying somewhere else.” Cooley’s statements are not a part of the salon’s defense, and the salon maintains that scheduling is the sole reason Denny’s request was not accommodated.Seandria Denny, 31, of Vienna chose Elizabeth Arden because “I wanted to give my mother a full day of pampering. She’s old, she has raised nine kids and she still works hard.”Denny paid $295 for a “Miracle Morning” package that included a facial and lunch. Her mother redeemed the gift on May 26, 2002. Denny said she decided to surprise her mother and add the coloring to make her mother’s black hair “a little lighter.”Denny said the manager tried to explain to her that “doing black people’s hair requires a technician who is trained for it.””I said, `What do you mean, you don’t do black people’s hair?’ The salon was full of people, and it was very embarrassing,” Denny said. “I guess they think that doing a black person’s hair is different from a Caucasian person’s hair, but there is no difference. Every woman uses a curling iron.”NeCole Cumberlander, vice president of the Professional Beauty Association, a trade group, said blacks tend to have drier hair texture. In decades past, she said, “it probably was true that you needed specific types of tools in order to do textured hair or African American hair.”That is no longer true, she said. “The tools are pretty universal now, and any product line will have a line that is designed for a drier texture of hair,” said Cumberlander, who owns a salon and cosmetology school in Cleveland. “There should have been at least one person on staff who could have done this woman’s hair, especially at a salon of that caliber.”Shaken by the confrontation, Denny and her mother filed suit in May 2004. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton dismissed the suit in January 2005, ruling that the Dennys had not provided sufficient evidence of discrimination and that “the fact that Plaintiff was displeased with her hair style certainly cannot be said to be regarded as atrocious.”The 4th Circuit upheld Hilton on several grounds but reinstated the suit under a law that forbids racial discrimination in the making and enforcing of contracts. Judge Paul Niemeyer sided with Wilkinson. Judge Robert King dissented on parts of the decision but agreed to send the case back to Alexandria for trial.