That policy -- #1.13, Business Communications -- adopted in July 2002, states that "all work related and business communications during the work day shall be conducted in the English language with the exception of those circumstances where it is necessary or prudent to communicate with a citizen, business owner, organization or criminal suspect in his or her native language due to the person or entity's limited English language skills."
The policy does not apply to "strictly private communications between co-workers while they are on approved lunch hours or breaks or before or after work hours while the employees are still on city property if city property is not being used for the communication."
It also does not apply to "private communication between an employee and a family member so long as the communications are limited in time and are not disruptive to the work environment."
Twelve Hispanic city employees filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, arguing that the city of Altus failed to show there was a need to prevent them from speaking Spanish.
The Justice Department agreed with the employees but declined to take action. They then sued in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, where Judge David Russell ruled in February of last year for the city of Altus, upholding the city policy.
The plaintiffs appealed the case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, arguing that Russell should not have thrown out the lawsuit because, they say, the policy discriminates against Hispanic workers.
A three judge panel of the appeals court heard arguments in the case Jan. l0 and is expected to issue a written opinion on the issue in the next two or three months.
The case will be the subject of a closed-door executive session discussion at today's Altus City Council meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Altus City Hall.
In May of last year Tina Izadi became the first ever staff attorney for the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- and she immediately reached out to the Hispanic plaintiffs.
"This was waiting for me," Izadi said. She recalls that she had received a complaint from concerned parties in Altus about the policy, and on July 22, 2004, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief to the court of appeals "to ensure that the city isn't adopting a discriminatory policy."
On Aug. 9 the appeals court granted an order allowing the ACLU's amicus brief -- a term deriving from amicus curiae, a phrase literally meaning "friend of the court." It refers to a brief filed by someone that is not a party in the litigation but who believes the court's decision may affect their interest.
The ACLU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Izadi explained, are asking the court to adopt the EEOC guidelines in regard to "Speak-English-Only" rules. The plaintiffs are also represented by Attorney Mark Hammons.
As stated in the District Court order, the EEOC regulation "provides that an employer's English only policy applied 'at all times in the workplace' is presumed to be a 'burdensome term and condition of employment' which disadvantages an individual's employment opportunities on the basis of national origin in violation of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees against discrimination and specifically prohibits policies that have a "disparate impact" on minorities]. Under the same regulation, a policy requiring that employees speak only in English at 'certain times' is permissible, provided that the employer can show that the rule is 'justified by business necessity.'"
However, several of the plaintiffs testified that they had been told that the prohibition against speaking Spanish extended to those times when the policy was not applicable if a non-Hispanic were to enter the room or walk by during a break or a private telephone conversation with a family member.
"That clearly is not the policy," said Margaret McMorrow-Love, who is representing the city. She pointed to the explicit wording regarding breaks, off-hour time and private conversations. "They should have directed their question to the appropriate person, which is the human resources director," she said, referring to city Personnel Director Candy Richardson, who testified in the District Court hearing that she had explained that the city had not meant the policy to cover those specific times.
Love argued Monday in Denver that EEOC guidelines that require policy makers to prove that their regulations do not discriminate are in conflict with Congress' intention under Title VII. The burden of proof lies on the employees, she said, to prove that the policy affects one group of workers differently than others.
Love pointed out to the judges that Altus' Hispanic employees -- some 30 percent of city workers -- are bilingual.
Izadi, on the other hand, emphasized that "the only people this affects is the bilingual people."
As for whether the Hispanic employees can feel free to speak Spanish during those times when it is clearly permissible under the policy, City Attorney Catherine Coke said, "They can speak whatever language they want."
The city, Coke said, needs to let the litigation run its course, comparing it with another ongoing saga involving a struggling local aircraft company. "It's kind of like Luscombe," she said. "We're waiting on closure."
After the policy was enacted, on July 18, 2002, "We were the butt of the jokes for the next few weeks," said Lloyd Lopez, a plaintiff in the case. Lopez, along with a co-worker at the Street Department, Ruben Rios, were the first to be told by the department's director, Holmes Willis -- on June 12 of that year -- of the policy in incubation at city hall.
"My biggest beef is how they went about it," Lopez said. "If it was a policy, why didn't he announce it in front of everybody?"
Richardson testified on deposition in the District Court hearing that one of the reasons for the adoption of the policy was employee morale. In fact, Willis had told the workers at the department that City Administrator Mike Nettles put the word out that use of the Spanish language at the department and on the city radio was making some non-Hispanic workers feel uncomfortable.
Employee morale, Lopez said, was not a problem. It was after the policy came through, he said, that morale went down.
"What does the speaking of one language do to the morale of anybody?" Lopez asked. "It's not a morale issue ... it doesn't stop anybody from doing their work."
What's more, he said, "You feel like you're constantly being watched."
In the beginning, Lopez said, "their one problem was not a morale problem, it was a safety issue."
The city contends that the policy is justified by safety concerns, however the plaintiffs point out that no evidence has been offered of any accidents or near accidents, and that the policy is not limited to emergency communications.
The policy, Lopez said, gave rise to three distinct factions of workers -- those in favor of it, those against it and those who have no opinion in the matter.
Now, at 48, Lopez reflects on his younger years growing up in Hollis, where he and other Hispanic youngsters were disciplined regularly in the schools for speaking their native language.
"Growing up your whole life like that, it makes your language almost a burden sometimes," he said.