“English Only” National Origin Discrimination Hostile Work Environment Claim Plausibly Alleged Under NYC Human Rights Law

In Lopez v. Advantage Plumbing & Mech. Corp., No. 15-CV-4507 (AJN), 2016 WL 1268274 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2016), the court held, among other things, that plaintiffs could amend their complaint to add a national origin discrimination (hostile work environment) claim under the NYC Human Rights Law (but not federal or state law) based on defendants’ “English-only” policy.

From the decision:

Workplace language requirements do not necessarily constitute discrimination because [l]anguage, by itself, does not identify members of a suspect class. However, courts have recognized two situations where such requirements may constitute discrimination on the basis of national origin.

First, … a policy prohibiting employees from conducting personal matters in languages other than English during breaks and other non-working hours may violate federal and state labor laws. … However, [plaintiffs] do not allege that the alleged English-only policy targeted personal conversations during non-work hours. To the contrary, they allege that the English-only requirement created unnecessary work problems because employees did not speak or understand English as well as they spoke and understood Spanish.

Second, … prohibiting certain non-English languages in the workplace while permitting others may constitute actionable employment discrimination. … Plaintiffs [] do not, however, allege that other employees were permitted to speak some other non-English language.

Because Plaintiffs do not allege the existence of either situation in which English-only policies may violate federal and state labor laws, they do not plausibly allege a hostile work environment claim under § 1981 or the NYSHRL and those proposed amendments would be futile.

[T]he above analysis does not apply to Plaintiffs’ NYCHRL claims, which must be analyzed separately and independently from any federal and state law claims and construed broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs. … To state a claim for discrimination under the NYCHRL, a plaintiff must only show differential treatment of any degree based on a discriminatory motive[.] With respect to hostile work environment claims, even a single comment’ may be actionable in appropriate circumstances. Defendants put forward no argument that Defendants’ alleged English-only policy would not violate the NYCHRL under this liberal standard and as a result, the Court will permit the proposed amendment with respect to [plaintiffs’] NYCHRL hostile work environment claims.

The court also held that plaintiffs could amend their complaint to add FLSA and NY Labor Law retaliation claims (finding that internal complaints about missing overtime amounted to “protected activity”), but that plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege that they were subject to pay discrimination (where they failed to identify particular “comparators” who were allegedly paid more than them).

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