The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that several Hispanic plaintiffs should be permitted to go to trial on their claims that their employer's English-only policy violates federal antidiscrimination laws.
The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that several Hispanic plaintiffs should be permitted to go to trial on their claims that their employer's English-only policy violates federal antidiscrimination laws. See Maldonado v. City of Altus. In this case, the employer adopted a policy requiring employees to speak English in all work-related communications, except when necessary to communicate with a citizen in his or her native language because of the citizen's limited English skills. The policy exempted private conversations between co-workers that occur while on break or during lunch hours or before or after work hours, as long as city property is not used in the communication. The policy also exempted private communications between an employee and a family member so long as the communications are limited in time and not disruptive to the work environment.
The plaintiffs, eleven bi-lingual employees, sued the employer claiming, among other things, that the policy violated Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs claimed the English-only policy extended beyond its written terms to include personal calls, lunch hours, and breaks, if non-Spanish-speaking co-workers were in the vicinity. The plaintiffs submitted evidence supporting this claim. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer; however, the Tenth Circuit reversed this decision with regard to the Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983 claims.
The plaintiffs claimed that the English-only policy had an unlawful disparate impact on them by creating a hostile work environment. To establish a disparate impact claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that a facially neutral employment policy in fact falls more harshly on one group of employees than another, and is not justified by a business necessity. The court noted that, although hostile work environment claims are usually brought as disparate treatment claims, there "is no reason to prohibit discriminatory-impact claims predicated on a hostile work environment."
The Tenth Circuit rejected the trial court's determination that the plaintiffs failed to establish a disparate impact claim because they failed to show that requiring them to use the English language in the workplace imposed significant, adverse effects on the terms, conditions or privileges of their employment. The Tenth Circuit held that, based on the record evidence, a jury should be permitted to determine whether the impact of the English-only policy on Hispanic workers was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of their employment and create an abusive working environment.
The Tenth Circuit also held that the defendant failed to present sufficient evidence of a business necessity to justify the implementation of the English-only policy, which could have supported the grant of summary judgment. The court found "scant" evidence supporting such a business necessity. There was no written record of problems resulting from the use of Spanish in the workplace and little undocumented evidence of such problems. Additionally, the court noted that the plaintiffs claimed the English-only policy, as enforced, encompassed lunch hours, breaks, and private telephone conversations; the defendant conceded that there would be no business reason for such a restriction.
The Tenth Circuit also held that a jury should be permitted to hear the plaintiffs' Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983 disparate impact hostile work environment claims based on the imposition of the English-only policy.
Employers' Bottom Line:
The Tenth Circuit's decision in this case demonstrates the importance of ensuring that: (1) an English-only policy is narrowly tailored to encompass only business-related conversations; (2) the English-only policy is supported by legitimate business reasons; (3) supervisors enforce the policy in accordance with its terms; and (4) the policy does not create a hostile work environment for non-English-speaking employees.
If you have questions regarding the implementation or enforcement of an English-only policy, please consult the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work.