Elias Zarate vs Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners
Removing legal barriers to earning a living
Elias Zarate, a young man from Memphis, Tennessee wanted to pursue his dream to cut hair and support his family. Occupational licensing rules in Tennessee put that dream out of reach, however, because Elias never graduated from high school. Freshfields’ pro bono work helped Elias secure the freedom to earn a living free from arbitrary governmental regulations.
Even before the COVID pandemic turned kitchen tables into makeshift barber shops, one might have wondered what a high school degree has to do with cutting hair. As parents turned temporary barbers during the pandemic can attest, very little indeed. Since 2015, however, the state of Tennessee has required that individuals attain at least a high school level of education to cut hair as a licensed barber. Tennessee’s new occupational licensing rules erected a significant barrier for aspiring barbers like Elias Zarate that lack a high school degree.
Elias Zarate lost his mother in a car accident at a young age. By age 13, he was essentially on his own in the city of Memphis. Shortly before graduating from high school, Elias dropped out to care for his two younger siblings. He then taught himself how to cut hair to make ends meet. Eventually, Elias started cutting hair at a barber shop in Memphis, but he failed to obtain a valid barbers license. When Elias was fined by state officials for cutting hair without a valid barber license, he learned that to become a licensed barber, he would need at least a high school level of academic achievement. Unfortunately for Elias, Tennessee had introduced this new requirement for barbers in 2015. Importantly for Elias’ legal challenge, however, Tennessee did not impose a similar requirement for similarly-situated cosmetologists. In fact, in 2017, Tennessee dropped any academic achievement requirement for cosmetologist.
The Beacon Center of Tennessee worked with Elias to challenge Tennessee’s new academic achievement requirement for barbers and Elias’ case received national attention. Elias argued that the academic achievement requirement violated the Tennessee state constitution. Freshfields Associate Charlie Beller assisted the Beacon Center in its pro bono advocacy, including drafting motions to exclude expert testimony offered to support Tennessee’s purported “rational basis” justification for the academic achievement requirement.
After a two-year battle, Elias won his lawsuit against the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, with the judge ruling that the academic achievement requirement failed to satisfy even the minimal “rational basis” requirement under the Tennessee Constitution. The judge also ruled that the barber academic achievement requirement violated Tennessee’s equal protection clause by imposing different requirements on the similarly situated professions of barbering and cosmetology. The judge noted that “the two professions are practically the same, although traditionally distinguished by the gender of their clients” and that “such stereotypes cannot be deemed either rational or reasonable under the current statutory scheme.” Tennessee declined to appeal Elias’ victory, ensuring that Elias has secured his freedom to earn a living free from arbitrary governmental regulation.
Elias’ case exemplifies the widely criticized disparate impact of occupational licensing restrictions on immigrant and lower-income communities. His victory is a small but important step to eliminating anticompetitive and arbitrary governmental regulations that limit the freedom to earn a living. For more on Elias’ story, visit the Beacon Center’s case page, watch this short video, or listen to this podcast about the case.
 See, e.g. President Obama White House, Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers (July, 2015), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/licensing_report_final_nonembargo.pdf; D. Berliner, et. al., Occupational Licensing Run Wild, released by the Regulatory Transparency Project of the Federalist Society (Nov. 7, 2017) (https://regproject.org/wp-content/uploads/RTP-State-Local-Working-Group-Paper-Occupational-Licensing.pdf).