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Bryant Whitten, LLP

More employees suing over accent-based discrimination

A California hospital recently paid $1 million to settle a class action workplace discrimination lawsuit that was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of dozens of Filipino-American employees; the suit alleged the workers were harassed and discriminated against for speaking in their native language as well as with an accent. Statistics released by the EEOC reveal that such lawsuits are becoming more common as the nation's work force becomes more ethnically diverse.

According to the EEOC, claims of national origin discrimination increased 76 percent between 1997 and 2011. Many of these complaints involve allegations of discrimination based on workers' English language proficiency. For example, in one case, a truck driver sued FedEx claiming he was wrongfully fired due to his Russian accent. In another case, an Iraqi native working at a Four Points Sheraton claimed his co-workers mocked him because of his accent and his supervisors did not take appropriate action to remedy the situation; he received a $500,000 settlement.

Both federal and California law prohibit workplace discrimination based on ethnicity or national origin. An employer cannot treat employees or applicants for employment differently because they were born in a foreign country or appear to be of a certain ethnic origin. Additionally, an employer generally may not base an employment action on an employee's accent unless the accent has a significant negative impact on the employee's work performance.

An employee who is being singled out because of his or her national origin or for speaking with an accent should consult with a qualified workplace discrimination attorney, who can review the situation to determine if the employee has a viable claim of national origin discrimination.

Source: Inside Counsel, "Accent-related discrimination suits on the rise, says EEOC," Ashley Post, Dec. 26, 2012

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