A group of employees has sued the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, claiming the state-run facility enforces a discriminatory policy that bars workers from speaking Spanish during the workday.
The six plaintiffs, who are food service and custodial workers, allege they risk being disciplined or fired if they speak their native language.
“The policy prohibits all use of Spanish during working hours, including meal periods and rest periods,” according to the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court on June 18.
They claim this rule is laid out in a written policy that states, “English is considered to be the official language of the State of California and should be spoken while doing the work of the state, unless otherwise indicated by the needs of the clients or their families.”
The civil action — filed on behalf of Rosaura Herrera, Lillian Torres, Delfino Herrera, Jorge Torres, Ana Alicia Giron and Alfonso Ramirez — argues that this amounts to harassment and discrimination under California employment law, which bars workplaces from mandating what language must be spoken unless there is a “business necessity.”
All six plaintiffs say they have worked at the Costa Mesa location between 14 and 17 years. The 111-acre center is a live-in facility for those with developmental disabilities. It has come under fire recently for the deaths of six patients between 2002 and 2011.
State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for California’s Department of Developmental Services, Nancy Lungren, said officials are still reviewing the allegations.
The plaintiffs allege their supervisors often try to catch them speaking Spanish by eavesdropping on their conversations.
“Any use of Spanish results in disciplinary proceedings, which may lead to termination,” the lawsuit states. All six plaintiffs speak Spanish as their native language and English as a second, according to their allegations.
“As a result of their Hispanic national origin, they are treated as second-class employees, and are systematically bullied and intimidated by threatening termination for getting caught using Spanish,” the lawsuit says.
Lungren said she did not know if any other developmental facilities in the state have an English-only policy.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and an injunction stopping the state from enforcing any no-Spanish rule at the center.
Joseph Scully, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said his clients feared losing their jobs if they spoke out, but approached him after learning of a similar lawsuit he’d filed in 2014 when a Los Angeles Police Department detective complained that he was banned from speaking Spanish in the squad room.
“What happened is they all very much deeply resented it, but they were also fearful and frightened and intimidated,” Scully said.
Scully compared the policy to the segregational practice of banishing minorities to separate water fountains.
“To be told that you can’t speak that language imparts a feeling of inferiority, and it really is painful and damaging emotionally to have that happen to you,” he said.