A federal appeals court, ruling Wednesday in a controversial discrimination lawsuit, upheld a 1985 court order barring Municipal judges in Huntington Park from forcing Latino clerks to speak only English during office conversations.
The ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Richard Gadbois to determine whether the discrimination claim by Alva Gutierrez could overcome arguments by the Huntington Park judges that it should be dismissed because they are immune as government employees.
If the judges' arguments are denied in district court, the trial will proceed on its merits.
Gadbois issued a preliminary order in 1985 against the judges' English-only rule and denied their claims that they were immune to the discrimination suit.
Cites 'Adverse Impact'
In the appeals court decision, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that English-only laws "generally have an adverse impact on protected groups" and can "create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation."
Reinhardt also ruled that the judges must answer pretrial questions about their decision to adopt the rule.
But Reinhardt added in his 46-page opinion that Gadbois must still consider immunity arguments by the judges before the case can reach the trial stage.
Lawyers for Alva Gutierrez, the former court clerk who filed the lawsuit, and for Southeast District Municipal Judges Porter deDubovay, Russell Schooling and John Bunnett, both said their cases would be bolstered by the new ruling.
Attorneys Gloria Allred and Gerald Sato, representing Gutierrez, said the appeals court's ruling was "a landmark victory." Gutierrez has asked for damages, lawyers' fees and a permanent court order against the English-only rule.
"The main thing is that the judges were trying to stop this case in its tracks and now the case goes forward," Sato said.
But Gregory Peterson, the Orange County attorney who represents the judges, said the appellate court's ruling on immunity will help his clients when the case reaches trial.
"We're fairly confident we'll have the case dismissed," Peterson said.
He contended that the judges will be protected because bias laws that now protect Latino workers against the discriminatory effects of English-only laws had not clearly been established when the judges issued their English-only regulation.
Peterson also played down the impact of the appeals court's upholding of the temporary injunction. He said that the judges never were able to put the English-only rule into effect and have no plans to do so in the future because "it appears that the insults in Spanish have ceased."
Gutierrez, who now works in a hospital, said the ruling left her "feeling great."
She filed the discrimination suit against the three judges after they issued a rule in March, 1984, forcing employees to speak only English during working hours, except on breaks and during lunch. The judges said the law was necessary because several clerks had complained that Gutierrez was insulting them and talking about them in Spanish.
Soon after the controversy erupted, Gutierrez went on medical leave. After suing the judges, she also filed a separate action with the county Civil Service Commission alleging discrimination.
The commission ruled last March that the English-only rule violated Civil Service guidelines prohibiting discrimination against county employees, but stopped short of rescinding the rule.