Justices May Take Up English-Only on Job


The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Clinton Administration for its view on the legality of company policies requiring workers to speak English only.

The high court sought the opinion in a Bay Area case in which a policy barring two bilingual workers from speaking Spanish to each other was upheld by a lower court. The justices have not yet decided to hear the case but are expected to do so after the Justice Department makes its views known.

The U.S. Equal Employment Commission has decreed that English-only policies in the workplace are illegal, except when they could be shown to be a “business necessity.” That view is based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination against employees based on race, religion, gender or national origin. The EEOC said that English-only rules are a type of discrimination.

But last July, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the EEOC was wrong. On a 2-1 vote, it ruled that English-only policies are generally legal, unless there is further evidence of “hostility toward Hispanic workers.”


The issue arose in a small meatpacking plant in South San Francisco. In 1990, Kenneth Bertelson, the company president, received complaints from a black and an Asian worker who said they had been subjected to derogatory comments in Spanish from two Latino workers.

In response, Bertelson issued a new rule: “It is hereafter the policy of this company that only English will be spoken in connection with work. During lunch, breaks and employees’ own time, they are obviously free to speak Spanish if they wish.”

The two Latino workers, Priscilla Garcia and Maricela Buitrago, complained to their union when they were reprimanded for speaking Spanish to each other on the assembly line. When the union filed a suit, a federal judge ruled the policy illegal, but the 9th Circuit Court reinstated it.

For now, the 9th Circuit decision in the case (Garcia vs. Spun Steak, 93-1222) stands as the law in California and the other West Coast states under its jurisdiction.

In other actions, the court:

* Agreed to rule on whether companies can enforce mandatory-arbitration clauses in their contracts (Allied-Bruce Terminix vs. Dobson, 93-1001). Federal law supports arbitration as a quicker, less expensive way to settle disputes. But last year, the Alabama Supreme Court said that two Alabama homeowners cannot be forced to use arbitration in their dispute with an Arkansas-based termite inspection company, even though their contract with the company required arbitration.

The state court said that Congress does not have the power to displace state law governing such legal disputes. The justices will hear the company’s appeal this fall.

* Heard arguments on whether a prominent Los Angeles law firm can be forced to pay damages to federal regulators for alleged legal malpractice growing out of the failure of an Orange County thrift institution (O’Melveny & Myers vs. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., 93-489). The case has drawn wide attention in legal circles because regulators say they are seeking up to $1 billion in damages from law firms that advised failed S&Ls.;


But the justices were highly skeptical of the government’s argument and gave strong indications that they would reverse a U.S. appeals court decision in California that cleared the way for damage claims.