English-only policy a violation of Title VII?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Apr 3 12:01:50 UTC 2007

Did English-only policy violate Title VII?
 (April 2, 2007)

Issue: One month after you hired Anna, a bilingual woman of Cuban descent,
to fill an administrative assistant position, your company adopted an
English-only policy. The policy provides that no Spanish will be spoken in
the main office unless a customer does not speak or understand English.
Anyone heard speaking Spanish in the office is subject to discharge. The
policy does not restrict employees from speaking Spanish outside of the
main office during breaks. All employees working for your company speak
English and some, but not all, speak Spanish. Anna refused to sign the
memorandum indicating that she understood the policy. After being
discharged for tardiness and absenteeism, she files suit, alleging that
the policy discriminated against her in violation of Title VII. She does
not claim that she was discharged for refusing to adhere to the policy;
instead she argues that the policy discriminated against her based on her
national origin because it restricted her ability to speak in her native
language. Will she be successful?

Answer:      No. In a case with similar facts, a federal trial court in
New York ruled that an employee failed to show that the employers
English-only policy discriminated against her based on her national
origin. The court, citing the EEOCs Guidance on National Origin
Discrimination noted, an employer may have a rule requiring that employees
speak only in English at certain times where the employer can show that
the rule is justified by business necessity. In reaching its conclusion,
the court assumed that the employee established that the companys policy
restricted bilingual employees from speaking Spanish at certain times. It
was then up to the employer to show that the policy was justified by
business necessity.

Business necessity. The court concluded that the employer had a business
necessity for maintaining the policy because it was vital to the business.
The company operated a dispatch center, which handled calls from customers
and provided communication to drivers relaying pickup information. The
English-only policy was necessary to avoid instances of miscommunication,
particularly between taxi dispatchers and drivers. Requiring employees to
converse in English in the main office, except when the needs of customers
dictated otherwise, served an essential business purpose by making sure
communications were not misunderstood. This was not a case, the court
noted, in which an English-only policy was applied to employees who spoke
no English or whose ability to speak English was limited.

Moreover, while the employee objected to the policy, she failed to suggest
that any alternative policy and practice would satisfy the business
necessity of avoiding miscommunications, explained the court. The employee
sought the right to speak Spanish as a matter of preference, the court
stated, but she never alleged any inability to speak English, and,
therefore, was not unduly burdened by the limited policy.

Source: Gonzalo v. All Island Transp (EDNY 2007) 89 EPD 42,736.



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