The City of Altus, OK decided to adopt an ‘English-only’ policy that required its employees to communicate in English in all work-related communications. An exception was made for employees that had to communicate with citizens who spoke limited English. The only significant national-origin group affected by the policy was a group of 30 Hispanic city employees. They sued the City claiming discrimination based on race and national origin.
While a district court initially ruled in favor of the City, a U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the verdict of the lower court. The appeals court ruled that 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. Additionally, the court said, and the City eventually conceded, that there was no business reason for the implementation of an English-only policy. (Maldonado v. Altus, 10th Cir., No. 04-6062, 1/11/06)
The lesson for businesses: Courts strictly scrutinize English-only policies. If you decide to implement an English-only policy, you need to decide if the policy will:
(1) encompass only business-related conversations,
(2) is supported by legitimate business reasons,
(3) is enforced only in accordance with its terms, and
(4) does not create a hostile work environment for non-English-speaking employees.