EEOC Suing Sephora for Instituting English-Only Rule

Volume 2, Issue 19
December 18, 2003

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") has filed suit against Sephora, a high-end perfume and cosmetics retailer with locations across the nation, including Las Vegas. This case is centered on several women alleged not to have been offered other positions in the company, after the store that they worked at in New York City closed, because they spoke out in opposition to a work rule prohibiting them from speaking their native language while on the retail floor and at lunch. In suing on behalf of the women, the EEOC maintains that the "English-only" rule constitutes national origin discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sephora strongly denies the allegations.

With approximately 45 million residents in the United States speaking a language other than English at home, it should come as no surprise that more and more employers have workers who speak another language on the job. To address real or perceived work place issues resulting from the use of multiple languages, some employers have instituted so-called "English-only" rules that seek to limit the use of languages other than English while at work. The EEOC, however, has issued regulations characterizing the use of such rules as a form of national origin discrimination. Thus, the EEOC will presume that such rules are unlawful absent proof of a business necessity. See 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7

While the EEOC's regulation provides that an employee can establish a prima facie or preliminary showing of adverse impact discrimination by proving the mere existence of an English-only policy, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in Garcia v. Spun Steak Co., 998 F.2d 1480 (9th Cir. 1993), specifically rejected such an interpretation, holding that an employee must also offer proof of a discriminatory effect before the burden of proof shifts to the employer. However, the Garcia decision is strongly criticized by some members of the Ninth Circuit, leading many to speculate if the Ninth Circuit would reverse its holding in Garcia if given the opportunity to do so. See Garcia v. Spun Steak Co., 13 F.3d 296 (9th Cir. 1993) (Circuit Judge Reinhardt dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc).

The EEOC's regulations, and its current lawsuit against Sephora, should remind all employers of the need to closely scrutinize any work rules or practices that seek to limit the use of languages other than English in the workplace.

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