A woman who said she was fired for speaking Spanish at work has lost her lawsuit against her former employer.
U.S. District Judge John Gerrard dismissed a lawsuit late Thursday filed by Rocio Reyes against Pharma Chemie Inc., a Syracuse company that makes nutritional supplements for animals and humans.
The company said it instituted a policy prohibiting Reyes and another woman, Monica Cortez, from speaking Spanish at work as a quality-control issue because all the other workers spoke only English. Cortez also sued, but her case fell dormant after she apparently left town and her lawyer was unable to find her.
Gerrard rejected Reyes' claim that she was discriminated against because of her race and national origin, among others things.
Reyes began working for PCI in 2008 in the packaging department. Reyes and Cortez were the only Hispanic employees of PCI and would talk with one another in Spanish while working, according to court records.
According to PCI, when a supervisor would give Reyes and Cortez directions in English, they would not respond to the supervisor, but would speak to one another in Spanish, which left the supervisors uncertain if their directions had been understood, according to court records.
On March 4, 2010, PCI adopted a policy that said employees had to speak English "while performing work to promote efficiency, safety, and monitoring of the workplace by supervisors and others who speak English."
But it also said: "Exceptions are made … if employees have a good ability to communicate in a language other than English, and no other employees are in the area, the employees may communicate in the non-English language that they all understand. Employees are not required to speak English when not performing work. For instance, the requirement does not apply during work breaks, lunch breaks, personal calls, or any other personal time or activity."
After the policy was adopted, Reyes and Cortez continued to speak Spanish during work and PCI did not discipline them.
In April 2010, Reyes and Cortez filed charges of discrimination with the Nebraska and U.S. equal opportunity commissions.
Later that month, Reyes was terminated as part of a reduction in force, along with two other non-Hispanic employees. Cortez also gave notice that she was quitting.
In his ruling, Gerrard said: "The Court need not decide whether Reyes' claims are based 'solely' on national origin. The line dividing the concepts of 'race' and 'national origin' is fuzzy at best, and in some contexts, national origin discrimination is so closely related to racial discrimination as to be indistinguishable."
Gerrard said that under federal civil rights law (Title VII), "language itself is not a protected class. Nor are language and national origin interchangeable.
"Title VII does, however, prohibit the use of language as a covert basis for national origin discrimination, and 'differences in language and other cultural attributes may not be used as a fulcrum for discrimination'," Gerrard said.
Gerrard said Reyes failed to prove that PCI's policy was motivated by or resulted in race or national origin discrimination.
"Whether Reyes brings her claim under the theory of disparate treatment, disparate impact or hostile work environment, the result is the same. Reyes has not presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that PCI's policy violated" state or federal law, he said. "The only adverse employment action Reyes has alleged is her termination. But Reyes was not fired for violating the language policy."
Gerrard also said such policies are permitted only where the employer can show the rule is "justified by business necessity."
"PCI has … offered several reasons for the policy: to decrease mistakes being made on the packaging line and to allow supervisors to monitor employees' performance," he said. "While the policy may have demonstrated a lack of sensitivity on PCI's part, this is not the same as prohibited discrimination."
Greg Perry, PCI's lawyer, declined to comment. Aaron Smeall, who represented Reyes, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.