The federal agency tasked with oversight of a range of employment laws has sued a Wisconsin company for requiring that its employees speak proficient English.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated in a lawsuit filed last month that the company’s English proficiency requirement amounts to discrimination based on the “linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.”

The EEOC has authority to bring suit and conduct investigations in all 50 states, so Florida employers should pay close attention to this developing issue, as it may represent a new frontier in workplace discrimination law.

The EEOC’s lawsuit claims that the Wisconsin company unlawfully terminated several Hmong and Hispanic employees for lacking English proficiency skills, which the EEOC claims were unnecessary to the employee’s job duties.

According to the EEOC, the terminated employees had previously received satisfactory performance appraisals, yet were terminated after a single 10-minute observation disclosed limited English proficiency.

To date, the law has made a distinction between two categories of English language-related rules in the workplace: blanket prohibitions against speaking any language other than English and English proficiency rules that are job-related for the position and consistent with business necessity.
While blanket English-only rules have been found to violate Title VII’s prohibition against national origin discrimination, English proficiency standards that are job-related and consistent with business necessity have generally been permissible. With regard to English proficiency requirements, courts may consider evidence of safety justifications for the rule or evidence of other business justifications for the rule, such as supervision or effective communication with customers, among other things.

The EEOC’s Wisconsin lawsuit may signal a renewed effort on the part of the agency to target English proficiency requirements and to limit the circumstances in which a business may adopt an English-proficiency requirement.

Employers who have English proficiency requirements for employees or who are considering implementing English proficiency standards should fully consider the positions involved and the business necessity of an English-proficiency requirement in order to ensure compliance with current law.

Should you need assistance in conducting such an analysis, please contact Gunster’s employment law practice team at 561-650-1980.

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This publication is for general information only. It is not legal advice, and legal counsel should be contacted before any action is taken that might be influenced by this publication.

Gunster, Florida’s law firm for business, provides full-service legal counsel to leading organizations and individuals from its 11 offices statewide. Established in 1925, the firm has expanded, diversified and evolved, but always with a singular focus: Florida and its clients’ stake in it. A magnet for business-savvy attorneys who embrace collaboration for the greatest advantage of clients, Gunster’s growth has not been at the expense of personalized service but because of it. The firm serves clients from its offices in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach, Stuart, Tallahassee, Tampa, The Florida Keys, Vero Beach and its headquarters in West Palm Beach. With more than 160 attorneys and 200 committed support staff, Gunster is ranked among the National Law Journal’s list of the 350 largest law firms. More information about its practice areas, offices and insider’s view newsletters is available at


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