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Kent African hair braider sues state to remain open and free of harassment

Salamata Sylla, owner of Sally
Salamata Sylla, owner of Sally's Africain Hair Braiding in Kent, filed suit against the state Department of Licensing after it attempted to close her business if she didn't get a cosmetology license.
— image credit: COURTESY PHOTO, Daniel Berman, Institute for Justice

Salamata Sylla sat in her Kent business hopeful that a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the state Department of Licensing (DOL) helps keep her African hair braiding shop open.

"I hope so," said Sylla, a single mother of three young children, during a Monday interview at her small East Hill shop. "Because without it where will I go or what will I do? How will I survive with my children, will I be going to a shelter? This pays my bills and puts food on my table every day. I worked really hard to build my clientele."

Well, it's kind of a tangled mess, but it appears Sylla already has won the right to remain in business.

The Institute for Justice, a national public-interest law firm based out of Arlington, Virginia, but with a chapter in Bellevue, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle on behalf of Sylla after inspectors told her during visits and on the phone that her business could only operate if she had a cosmetology license. It takes about 1,600 hours of schooling and costs more than $12,000 to obtain a license.

"The lawsuit challenges the Department of Licensing’s contention that she needs a cosmetology license to braid hair (cosmetology school doesn’t teach hair braiding)," said Nico Perrino, spokesman for the Institute for Justice.

"Nine years ago (in Washington) we filed a lawsuit that challenged the same licensing requirement and the department backed down," Perrino said in an email. "But they seem to be back at it again. This lawsuit will be part of a nationwide initiative we are launching that challenges irrational and unconstitutional licensure of natural hair braiding. We hope to vindicate braiders’ right to earn an honest living, free from arbitrary government regulation."

Once the state DOL got word about Tuesday's lawsuit, the department contacted Sylla and her attorneys and claimed it was all a miscommunication and that she can operate the shop without a cosmetology license.

"We had a relatively new investigator who went there last summer and observed her doing hair extensions," said Christine Anthony, spokeswoman for the DOL, during a Tuesday phone interview.

Anthony said hair extensions often include the use of dyes, glue and chemicals, which require a license.

"(The investigator) believed she (Sylla) needed to be licensed and she had no cosmetology license," Anthony said.

The state sent out another investigator a month later after an attorney contacted the department on behalf of Sylla. That investigator came back with a new report.

"She (Sylla) was hand weaving in the extensions and for that you do not have to be licensed," Anthony said. "So we closed the case."

But nobody told Sylla until Monday that the case had been closed.

"After we closed the case we failed to notify her," Anthony said. "We called her (Monday) to explain."

That explanation doesn't do enough, said attorney Wesley Hottot, who wants in writing that Sylla's operation is legal. The state DOL told Hottot that the letter to Sylla last summer had a typo saying she "does not" meet the definition of natural hair braiding instead of "does" meet.

"It's been more than a year of conduct by inspectors who told her on the phone and in person that she needed a cosmetology license," Hottot said during a phone interview. "They've been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. This does not make up for a year of harassment by the DOL. It's progress but it doesn't make up for the harassment."

The inspector who did the initial inspection at Sylla's shop no longer works for the state DOL, leaving the position months ago for another job, Anthony said.

Sylla moved to Seattle in 1999 from Senegal and quickly learned how to braid hair from her sister, who had a shop in Seattle and later in New York.

"I was 15 and the second day I got here starting doing hair," Sylla said. "She showed me how and I've been doing hair braiding since then."

After working several years braiding hair in Seattle, Sylla opened her own shop on Kent's East Hill in 2012. Her shop is in a small strip mall across from Kent-Meridian High School. It's called Sally's Africain Hair Braiding, using the French spelling of African in the name and her nickname of Sally.

"I like what I do," said Sylla, who added about a dozen African hair braiders operate in the Seattle area. "It helps me keep my dignity and take care of my family. I will fight for it."

The Institute for Justice has taken on numerous hair braiding cases across the nation where states try to close the businesses.

"We've been able to bring successful lawsuits on restrictions on hair braiders in the past," said Bill Maurer, executive director with the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter and an attorney. "The question is will this keep up the string or not. We're pretty confident. There's no reason for this restriction to exist."

Anthony said the DOL's regulation of hair braiding policy issued in 2005 remains the policy today and that no cosmetology license is needed for natural hair braiding. She said the state will clarify with inspectors the hair braiding rules as well as the notification process so there is no miscommunication in the future.

As far as the lawsuit, Anthony said she hadn't seen a copy of it.

"But we know it incorrectly states that we require a natural hair braider to hold a cosmetology license, we do not," she said.

Hottot, the attorney for Sylla, wants the policy clarified and followed by state inspectors.

"It's their obligation to control their enforcement officers and make sure they enforce the state law," Hottot said. "It's a constitutional violation if they allow their inspectors to say you have to get a license."

Even though Sylla will be able to stay open, Hottot said the lawsuit remains applicable.

"The lawsuit is still relevant and important to protect Salamata from this treatment… It's heartening that the state wants to correct this but we want to make sure they follow through and not change their mind when the spotlight comes off."

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