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  • Pennsylvania court rules language based discrimination is a violation of federally protected civil rights
    April 13, 2017
    A 2016 federal court ruling demonstrated that language-based discrimination constitutes a form of national origin discrimination prohibited by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    In recent years, an increasing number of cases involving language access law has filled federal courtrooms around the country. With each new case, the courts further articulate how federal language access law must be applied in real-world contexts. With that in mind, it is important for businesses, government agencies, healthcare providers, and other organizations to keep abreast of these legal developments to avoid ending up in courtrooms themselves.

    In this post, Bruce Adelson – a nationally-recognized expert in language access law — breaks down a 2016 case where a Pennsylvania federal court ruled that discriminating against someone based on his/her ability to speak English is a form of national origin discrimination, and therefore a violation of federal civil rights laws.

    This decision impacts everyone, in healthcare, government, business settings and more, and their federal legal obligations.

    The Case

    In late 2016, a federal court in Pennsylvania rejected the School District of Philadelphia’s attempt to throw out a civil rights class action lawsuit by parents alleging that Philadelphia’s public schools discriminate against their children. The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case to support the parents’ claims, seeking “to ensure that the national origin protections of [federal law] are applied properly,” according to the Justice Department’s Statement of Interest as filed with the Court. The parents also asserted that they and their children experienced disability discrimination under federal civil rights laws.

    The parents claimed that the Philadelphia School District provides “inadequate translation and interpretation services to limited English proficient (“LEP”) students with disabilities and their parents.” The parents and their children in this case speak primarily Spanish.

    In their complaint, the parents alleged that the inadequate translation and interpretation services deprive the School District’s LEP students and their parents the ability to meaningfully participate in the Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) process. Specifically, according to the Court, the parents claimed:

    “During the 2012-2013 school year, the School District employed an outside contractor that may have translated some special education documents. However, as of the 2013-2014 school year, the School District no longer employed this outside contractor. Additionally, the Translation and Interpretation Center, an internal department within the School District, never translated an IEP in its entirety…

    Although the School District has attempted to provide some interpretation services during IEP team meetings, those efforts have been sporadic and incomplete. Additionally, the School District has failed to conduct evaluations of LEP students in their native language.”

    The parents alleged that their federal language access civil rights and those of their children under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Equal Education Opportunities Act (EEOA) had been violated by the School District’s alleged translation and interpretation failures.

    The Philadelphia School District denied the parents’ claims and tried to convince the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that the parents had no federal case. In part, the School District argued that discrimination based on limited English proficiency is not the same as discrimination based on national origin, the discrimination prohibited by Title VI and the EEOA.

    The School District also asserted that it effectively has no broad, all-encompassing obligation to translate into Spanish as many documents as the parents claimed. The translation obligation is informed by a case- by-case determination, according to the School District, and any failure to translate certain documents into Spanish is not enough to prove federal civil rights discrimination. The School District filed a Motion to Dismiss the parents’ complaint and allegations.

    The Court disagreed with the School District and denied the Motion to Dismiss. The case may now proceed all the way to a full trial.

    U.S. District Judge Goldberg, citing the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lau v. Nichols and the arguments of the Department of Justice, decided that “… language based discrimination can constitute an actionable form of national origin discrimination. The numerous cases cited by the United States and the DOJ’s guidance, read in conjunction with Lau, foreclose dismissal of Plaintiffs’ EEOA and Title VI claims.”

    The Court restated the Justice Department’s recitation of the federal law of national origin and language based discrimination. The Court’s discussion is provided below:

    “In their statement of interest, the United States notes that, consistent with Lau, numerous federal courts have found that language based discrimination constitutes a form of national origin discrimination prohibited by Title VI. See, e.g., United States v. Maricopa Cty., Ariz., 915 F. Supp. 2d 1073, 1079 (D. Ariz. 2012) (“longstanding case law, federal regulations and agency interpretation of those regulations hold language-based discrimination constitutes a form of national origin discrimination under Title VI”); Serna v. Portales Mun. Sch., 499 F.2d 1147, 1153 (10th Cir. 1974); Jones v. Gusman, 296 F.R.D. 416, 454 (E.D. La. 2013). 

    The United States also points to federal regulations and guidance which require federal funding recipients to take reasonable steps to communicate with LEP persons in languages other than English to ensure meaningful access under Title VI… The United States asserts and the School District concedes that the DOJ’s guidance on a recipient’s obligations to LEP individuals are entitled to deference in the Title VI context. “

    Federal language assistance and access law has far reaching impacts that arise from myriad sources and requirements. Public school districts, as well as cities, states, counties, and health care providers should proactively assess their legal obligations, evaluate their compliance and prepare legally compliant Language Access Plans and related policies and procedures to help ensure they are on the right side of federal law.

    © Bruce L. Adelson, special for Bromberg.  2017 All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

    Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Senior Attorney.  During his Justice career, Mr. Adelson had national enforcement and policy responsibility. 

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