Mocking an employee’s accent may constitute work discrimination

FILIPINO registered nurse, Nancy Ortiz, worked for Dameron Hospital in Stockton, CA for about 10 years. Born in the Philippines, English is her second language and she speaks with a thick Filipino accent. Ortiz is over 40 years old.

Towards the ninth year of her employment at the hospital, and at this time working as a unit coordinator, Ortiz started reporting to a new department director. This new director oversaw the unit coordinators, 99 percent of whom are Filipinos.

Every time the director met with the unit coordinators, she provided “negative feedback,” and “humiliate[d]” them. She insulted unit coordinators on their accents and derided their supposed poor English language skills. Singling out Filipino unit coordinators, she told them during a meeting, “I don’t know how Dameron gets you guys. Your accents are thick. You don’t know what you are doing.” She stated that “those of you with a thick accent, those of you that cannot speak English … need to go back to school and learn how to read and write grammar.”

The director also stated that “she was tired of attending meetings where Filipinos and minority workers over 40 were present.” She told the unit coordinators that they could “step down, step up or step out,” and handed them job openings in other departments.

A clinical manager named Bassey Duke testified that the director repeatedly told him that the Filipino nurses were “too old and had been there too long.” She said that “the unit coordinators are old dummies and they don’t speak English and I want to get rid of all of them.” At some point, the director provided Duke with names of unit coordinators she wanted to get rid of, including Ortiz, because they were “dumb,” “didn’t speak English,” and “ma[d]e too much money.” She told another manager that the Filipinos are “stupid” and said, “I don’t even know what they are saying half the time,” and “I don’t even know how they got the job speaking the way they do.”

Duke said the director pressured him to say that he had seen Ortiz sleeping on the job so that she could “go ahead and fire her,” but he refused to lie and was later terminated. Duke told Ortiz and several other unit coordinators about the department director’s desire “to get rid of the minority nurses over 40 years old at Dameron, especially the Filipino nurses whom she specifically expressed hatred towards.” 

The director gave Ortiz poor evaluations and placed her on performance improvement plans. She also went ahead and falsely accused Ortiz of sleeping on the job. Ortiz felt she had no choice but to resign because she was about to have a mental breakdown from all the stress. She sued the hospital and the department director for employment discrimination based on her national origin and age.

Defendants argued that it did not fire Ortiz because she quit. However, the appellate court ruled that Ortiz was constructively discharged. A constructive discharge occurs where the employer either intentionally created or knowingly permitted the intolerable working conditions, such that a reasonable employee faced with those conditions would have felt compelled to resign.

The court also ruled that Ortiz presented enough evidence to show that the director had a discriminatory motive when she focused her derogatory comments on the Filipino nurses’ accents, their supposed poor English language skills, and the fact that they’re Filipinos. Discrimination on the basis of an employee’s foreign accent is a sufficient basis for finding national origin discrimination.

California law provides several remedies for victims of employment discrimination, including: back wages; front pay (for future lost earnings); reinstatement; damages for emotional distress; punitive damages (where the employer’s conduct was oppressive or malicious); and attorney’s fees and costs. In some cases, an injunction order may be obtained to stop the discriminatory practice.

Since discrimination law can be complex, employees who believe they were terminated from work due to their race or age may want to consult with an experienced employment attorney to explore their legal options.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com” www.joesayaslaw.com. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas in 2018.]

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