By Ken Stone
Lawyers for Albertsons and a U.S. agency have notified a federal court that they have settled a lawsuit accusing a San Diego store of forbidding employees from speaking Spanish around shoppers.
According to the original suit, filed May 3, 2018, the Albertsons store on Lake Murray Boulevard near Navajo Road in late 2012 began prohibiting employees from speaking Spanish around non-Spanish speakers, including when they spoke to Spanish-speaking customers and during breaks.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed suit, also alleged that managers at the San Carlos Albertsons publicly reprimanded Hispanic employees caught speaking Spanish.On Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day — a “Joint Notice of Settlement and Request to Vacate Pending Court Dates” was submitted to Judge Michael M. Anello in San Diego federal court.
The filing said the tentative settlement was the result of a full day of private mediation before retired Magistrate Judge Margaret M. Nagel of JAMS mediation service.
“Since the September 12, 2019, mediation, the parties have diligently focused on reaching final settlement through numerous conferences and correspondence,” said the notice. “The parties have reached final settlement and are in the midst of obtaining signatures for lodging a proposed Consent Decree and Order for the Court’s consideration, approval and entry.”
On Monday, San Diego-based EEOC attorney Connie Liem told Times of San Diego: “We hope to file a public consent decree with the court sometime by mid-March. I cannot disclose additional details. The decree will contain further details re the settlement.”
Albertsons didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
In its May 2018 complaint, the EEOC contended that Albertsons took no corrective action, despite numerous employee complaints about the no-Spanish edict, forcing employees to transfer to other stores.
In a training video, managers and employees were instructed that employees should not speak Spanish as long as a non-Spanish speaking person was present, the suit said.
In 2012, the suit said, store director Richard Brown and other supervisors told employees Guadalupe Zamorano, Hermelinda Stevenson and other Hispanic staff that they could not speak Spanish anywhere on the premises regardless of whether they were on break.
In July 2018, an Albertsons spokeswoman said: “While we cannot comment on this pending litigation specifically, Albertsons does not require that its employees speak English only. Albertsons serves a diverse customer population and encourages employees with foreign language abilities to use those skills to serve its customers.”
The Boise, Idaho-based grocer said the EEOC’s suit — which claimed “intentional, malicious and reckless conduct” — was barred because the alleged acts “were undertaken in the ordinary course of business for legitimate business purposes that were not discriminatory, retaliatory or harassing,” the grocer said.
In any case, the grocer says, the alleged acts were “neither severe nor pervasive and therefore do not constitute harassment.”
In addition, “Albertsons did not have knowledge of, ratify or approve any of the unlawful conduct alleged” by the EEOC.
Albertsons exercised “reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing, discriminatory or otherwise unlawful behavior by having, among other policies, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies,” its lawyers said.
The EEOC didn’t specify monetary damages — except to ask for “appropriate back and front pay with … interest on any lost pay and benefits.”
But recent EEOC suits have resulted in payments of $30,000 by an Illinois limousine service to a deaf job applicant and $2 million by a senior living company for failing to provide accommodations for Fresno employees with disabilities.
The feds also wanted the judge to grant a permanent injunction barring Albertsons from engaging in “national origin harassment and any other employment practice which discriminates on the basis of national origin.”
The consent decree might have been filed by now, but Albertsons said “key personnel” for signing the deal were out of the country but expected to return in about two weeks.
“The parties anticipate lodging the proposed Consent Decree and Order within 30 days,” the filing said.
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