Are Employees Protected From Retaliation When They Complain About An English-Only Policy?
Having litigated employment discrimination lawsuits for nearly twenty years, our Citrus County, Florida employment discrimination lawyers have learned that employers are increasingly enacting speak-English-only policies. In doing so, employers generally argue that English-only policies are justified based on business necessity or safety concerns. However, as explained by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in EEOC v. Synchro-Start, Inc., 29 F.Supp.2d 911 (N.D. Ill. 1999), English-only rules may “create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation, and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory work environment.” Because of the discriminatory implications of a speak-English-only policy, employers often complain that an employer’s English-only policy is discriminatory. In Abdul-Latif v. County of Lancaster, 990 F.Supp.2d 517 (E.D. Penn. 2014), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed the issue of whether employees are protected from retaliation when they complain that an employer’s English-only policy is discriminatory.
Employer Enacts English-Only Policy
In that case, Betzaida Abdul-Latif (Abdul-Latif) brought a retaliation lawsuit against her former employer, Lancaster Employment and Training Agency (LETA), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Abdul-Latif, who is Hispanic and of Puerto Rican origin, claimed that LETA fired her in retaliation for complaining that LETA’s English-only policy was discriminatory and created a hostile work environment towards Hispanics.
Abdul-Latif was employed by LETA, which is a career services governmental agency of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as a case manager in the Employment, Advancement and Retention Program (EARN). The EARN assists welfare recipients gain and maintain employment through education and training. LETA requires all participates in EARN to speak English while in the program, including a requirement that they speak English while conducting their job search. LETA claimed that the purpose of the English-only policy was to improve clients’ English abilities to make them more competitive in the job market.
Employer Enforces English-Only Policy
LETA took various measures to enforce the English-only policy. The EARN manager, a woman named Long, met with several LETA employees who spoke Spanish and instructed them to stop speaking Spanish with each other. Abdul-Latif was also instructed by Long to speak only English with her clients. Abdul-Latif was further instructed to post signs in the workplace setting forth the English-only policy.
Abdul-Latif believed that the English-only policy was discriminatory and unfair because many of the EARN participants were native Spanish speakers and had difficulty speaking English. On more than one occasion, Abdul-Latif complained that the policy was unfair to the Spanish-speaking clients. Nevertheless, Long insisted that only English be spoken without exception. Abdul-Latif advised clients who complained about the English-only policy to file a complaint with the Lancaster County Human Relations Commission. About one month after LETA received notice that three clients had filed complaints with the Lancaster County Human Relations Commission, LETA fired Abdul-Latif. Abdul-Latif maintained that she was fired, in relevant part, for opposing the English-only policy.
LETA claimed that Abdul-Latif was fired because she used her work email account for personal gain in violation of county policy. According to LETA, Abdul-Latif’s work email account contained emails pertaining to her perfume sales business, applications for employment outside of LETA, and personal information. LETA further claimed that violations of the county’s email policy had been an “ongoing problem.” As a result, several employees, including Long, had been disciplined for using their work email accounts for non-work purposes. In fact, Long and another employee violated the email policy by forwarding an email ridiculing welfare recipients for not being able to speak English. Unlike Abdul-Latif, none of these employees, including Long, were fired for violating the county’s email policy.
Employee Protected From Retaliation
LETA filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Abdul-Latif’s retaliation claim. In doing so, LETA argued that Abdul-Latif’s retaliation claim was baseless, and she was prohibited from bringing her retaliation claim before a jury. The trial court denied LETA’s motion for dismissal and ruled that Abdul-Latif was entitled to proceed to a jury trial because she had presented sufficient evidence to establish that she was fired in retaliation for having complained about the English-only policy.
In denying LETA’s motion for dismissal, the trial court found that Title VII protected Abdul-Latif from retaliation for having complained about the English-only policy. The trial court explained that Title VII protects employees from retaliation when they “hold an objectively reasonable belief, in good faith, that the activity [they] oppose is unlawful under Title VII.” In other words, the trial court noted, an employee does not have to establish that the perceived discriminatory conduct in fact constituted unlawful discrimination under Title VII. Consequently, Abdul-Latif did not have to prove that LETA’s English-only policy was an unlawful employment practice under Title VII in order to be protected from retaliation for having complained about the policy. Applying these principles to the facts, the trail court concluded that Abdul-Latif was protected against retaliation because she believed, in good faith, that the English-only policy was discriminatory towards Hispanics. Although not squarely addressed by the trial court, the trial court could have also pointed out that Abdul-Latif’s good faith belief was objectively reasonable because courts, such as the Synchro-Start court, have determined that English-only policies can create a discriminatory work environment.
Other Employees Received “Lighter Discipline”
In denying LETA’s motion for dismissal, the trial court also found that Abdul-Latif had presented substantial evidence that her alleged violation of the county’s email policy was not the real reason for her termination. The trial court explained that although many of her co-workers violated the email policy, Abdul-Latif “was the only employee who was terminated.” Moreover, the trial court observed, Long and another employee were not fired even though they violated the email policy by forwarding an email ridiculing welfare recipients for not being able to speak English. As the English-only policy was “at the heart of this case,” the trial court reasoned, “the fact that these employees received lighter discipline” was compelling evidence that Abdul-Latif was fired in retaliation for having complained about the English-only policy.
Free Consultation With Citrus County Discrimination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have extensive experience representing victims of employment discrimination. If you have been discriminated against at work or have questions about your rights under employment discrimination laws, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Alachua County, Florida employment discrimination attorneys. Our employment and labor law attorneys take employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.