A Texas trial court recently denied Garland ISD’s request for pretrial judgment against a former employee who argued that she had been the subject of race-based discrimination.  Among Maria Garcia’s assertions was that she had been prohibited from speaking her native language, Spanish, on the job.  In its ruling, the trial court referenced a 1980 decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in another case involving an aggrieved Garcia, Garcia v. Gloor, in which an English-only rule was upheld on narrow grounds.

I asked Meredith Walker, an attorney in the Irving office of Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green & Treviño and member of the Texas Council of School Attorneys about the 1980 ruling.

“In this case, the employer had a rule prohibiting employees from speaking Spanish on the job unless they were communicating with Spanish-speaking customers.  In analyzing the English-only rule, the Fifth Circuit determined that it did not discriminate against the plaintiff on the basis of national origin.”  The plaintiff in Garcia v. Gloor, Walker explained, was fully bilingual and was permitted to speak Spanish on breaks and during free time at work.  Conversely, Maria Garcia attested that she was made to pronounce English words as a form of ribbing, that her supervisor forbade Spanish in the workplace, and that her accent was a constant source of mockery.

About the 1980 decision, Walker said, “Had the plaintiff not been fully bilingual or had the employer forbidden the use of Spanish during the plaintiff’s breaks, the outcome would have been different.  But based on the facts presented, and in the absence of any guidance from the EEOC, the Fifth Circuit found no discrimination.”

So what guidance has the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provided since?  “The EEOC’s guidelines on discrimination because of national origin specifically address English-only rules.  [They] specifically state that a ‘rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment.’  In other words, the EEOC presumes that such a requirement constitutes discrimination on the basis of an individual’s national origin and, as such, ‘will closely scrutinize’ any such rule.”

Walker said that the United States Supreme Court has declined on several occasions to directly address the issue of English-only rules.  “In 1994, the justices refused to hear an appeal of a finding that an English-only rule did not discriminate against bilingual employees,” she said. Another opportunity was presented in 1997, when Arizona passed an amendment to its constitution making English the state’s official language, but instead of ruling on the merits, the Court declared the issue moot owing to the plaintiff’s no longer being employed by the state.  “Two years later,” Walker went on, the high court “let stand the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the amendment.”

Finally, I asked her how she advised her clients on this issue.

“The rulings that have addressed English-only rules are very fact-specific and, as such, difficult to apply across the board.  Nevertheless, case law and EEOC guidelines do make clear that a blanket prohibition on speaking a language other than English at work constitutes discrimination.  While a school district may have a legitimate business necessity for its employees to speak only English while performing their duties, prohibiting them from speaking their native language while on break or in free time is impermissible.

“While the safest approach is to not adopt an English-only policy, if a school district felt strongly about this issue, I would advise them to consult with their legal counsel so that together they could carefully review such a policy to evaluate, among other issues, its business justifications and necessity; whether there was another way to accomplish what they are seeking with the policy; and whether the employees to whom the rule applied were 100-percent proficient in English.”

For more on Garcia v. Garland in particular and Texas school law in general, be sure to peruse the latest issue of Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest.

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