Should an Employer Provide a Translator/ Interpreter for an Employee?

Legal Translation & Interpreting for LEP Employees

Legal translation and interpreting services play an important role in multilingual workplaces. We’ve blogged earlier about how the employer’s failure to provide translation of an agreement in employees’ language contributes to procedural unconscionability. The case which we are discussing today brings us to the third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. The name of the case is Juan Morales v. Sun Constructors, Inc.

When the Employee Is Not Fluent in English

Mr. Morales, a Spanish-speaking welder in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was employed by Sun Contractors Inc. Prior to commencing employment the two parties had entered into an employment agreement that contained an arbitration clause. Juan Morales signed this Employee Agreement at an orientation which he attended, as required by Sun Contractors. Other employees were also present at that orientation including Jose Hodge, a bilingual English and Spanish speaker, who translated parts of the orientation as well as certain portions of the Employee Agreement to Mr. Morales, per Sun Contractors’ request. However, Jose Hodge failed to translate the arbitration provision, and failed to tell Mr. Morales about such a provision being included in the Employee Agreement. Mr. Morales subsequently signed the Employee Agreement without knowing about the arbitration clause. As per the arbitration clause, any employment-related disputes between the employee and the employer were required to be arbitrated, with the employee waiving the right to a jury trial.

Mr. Morales was subsequently terminated by Sun Contractors for, strangely enough, dumping a urine filled bottle on someone while at work. Mr. Morales then brought forth a wrongful termination lawsuit against Sun Contractors. Sun Contractors then filed a Motion to stay the proceedings pending arbitration. In other words, Sun Contractors argued that the wrongful termination lawsuit should be stayed and an arbitration should be held pursuant to the employment agreement.

Mr. Morales counterargued by saying that although he did sign the employment agreement, he was not aware that the contract contained an arbitration clause. Mr. Morales argued that since he cannot read English, he was neither able to read the arbitration clause, nor was he informed of such a clause by anyone. And, therefore, Mr. Morales argued that the arbitration clause should not be enforceable.

The lower District Court agreed with Mr. Morales and refused to enforce the arbitration clause within the agreement. Sun Contractors then appealed that decision, and that is how the case ended up at the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals then reversed the decision of the District Court.

The Court of Appeals unequivocally ruled that a contract is enforceable irrespective of whether a party can read, write, speak, or understand the English language. In other words, the Court of Appeals put the onus on Mr. Morales stating that it was his responsibility to ensure that he understood the agreement. The Court also pointed out that Mr. Morales could have had the Employee Agreement formally translated. However, this was not a unanimous decision as there was a dissenting Judge. The dissenting Judge noted that he would have agreed with the majority decision of the Court of Appeals if Sun Contractors had told Mr. Morales that it was his responsibility to find an English to Spanish translator, or if Mr. Morales had employed an incompetent translator who could have failed to translate the arbitration clause. But, the dissenting Judge noted, Mr. Morales relied upon the translation services provided by his employer, Sun Contractors, and, therefore, he should not be faulted for not being aware of the arbitration clause.

Employers Beware, Use Professional Translators/ Interpreters to Communicate with Non-English-Speaking Employees

Regardless of the decision of the Court of Appeals, there is an important lesson here for the employers and the employees in situations where an employee is not fluent in the English language. We learn from this case the importance of employing the services of a professional legal translator/ interpreter. An employer could look at the decision of the Court of Appeals and feel that such a decision obviates the need to use professional translation and interpreting services.

However, that is not the situation at all. If Sun Contractors had properly translated the employment agreement for Mr. Morales, that would have prevented this case from leading to a protracted litigation. If Sun Contractors had used a certified professional legal translator, then he/she would have been able to fully translate the contents of the Employment Agreement to Mr. Morales. Furthermore, as we saw in this case, the lower District Court sided with Mr. Morales. Therefore, there is nothing stopping the courts in other jurisdictions from coming to a similar ruling as the District Court did in this case.

Contact legal translation service All Language Alliance, Inc. to hire a professional legal interpreter or a legal translator for your limited English-speaking employees who are fluent in Spanish, Russian, Croatian, Turkish, Mongolian, Portuguese, Italian, French, Lao, Haitian Creole, Amharic, Arabic, Bulgarian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and other foreign languages.

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