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Language Restrictions in the Workplace

Karen Morris was employed by a winery in Madera County for more than 22 years, but when she complained about her unsafe working environment and the behavior of her co-workers, she was fired. Ms. Morris worked as a lab technician for Mission Bell Winery, and reported finding rat droppings and mold in her work area. After filing the complaint, she noticed a degeneration in her work relationships. Her co-workers began to speak only in Spanish around her, a language she neither speaks nor understands. After filing a further complaint, her employment was terminated. Ms. Morris is now suing her former employer for wrongful termination.

Can an employer make rules about which language can be spoken at work?

Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, an employer that employs five or more persons may only restrict or ban the use of a specific language at the workplace if all of the following conditions apply:

  • There is an overriding business need to restrict the use of a language for the sake of the safety and efficiency of the business
  • Restricting the use of the language fulfills that need
  • There is no alternative means that would be less discriminatory and equally effective
  • The employees have been notified of the circumstances and times in which use of the language is restricted

In all other circumstances, restricting the use of a language could constitute unlawful discrimination. Ms. Morris based her claim for wrongful termination partly on the grounds that her employer retaliated against her legitimate complaints about the use of Spanish around her, but her co-workers may well have been within their rights to speak Spanish. Whether the Madera County Superior Court upholds Ms. Morris’s claim remains to be seen.

If you have suffered discrimination at work, call the Los Angeles employment discrimination attorneys at The Ruttenberg Law Firm, P.C. for advice on your employment rights.

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