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Settlement Reached in Landmark Civil Rights Case
Twenty-three immigrant women workers who challenged English proficiency tests announced a settlement in their landmark federal civil rights case against a major multinational corporation. In the course of two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rivera v. Nibco, Inc. created important national legal precedents and strengthened the rights of immigrant workers to bring claims of workplace abuse against their employers. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
“The Rivera legal team is absolutely delighted for our 23 clients in this case who were utterly steadfast for well over a decade in their pursuit of justice,” said Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center (LAS–ELC) Senior Staff Attorney Christopher Ho, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “What they achieved was not only a great victory for themselves as individuals, but for all immigrant workers who may face discrimination and other violations of their legal rights.”
All of the plaintiffs are immigrant women who speak Spanish, Hmong, Lao, or Khmer as their primary languages. They alleged that they were arbitrarily terminated by the defendant in the case, Nibco, Inc., because of their limited English proficiency.
Martha Rivera, the lead named plaintiff in the case, said, “We are very happy that after 13 years, we won this battle against the discrimination that we feel was committed against us. This outcome shows what immigrant workers can do when they stand up for their rights. I always had faith that if we never gave up, we would obtain the justice we have been seeking.”
“This is the most important case I have tried in my legal career,” said co-counsel William J. Smith. “I am proud and honored to have represented these deserving plaintiffs and to be associated with the LAS–ELC and the other organizations that fought for justice for these workers. And justice has prevailed.”
The complaint in Rivera, filed in 1999, alleged that Nibco, a multinational corporation based in Elkhart, Indiana, unlawfully discriminated against Latina and Southeast Asian workers in its Fresno irrigation manufacturing plant when it laid them off from jobs they had successfully performed for years because they had failed to score 100% on an improvised written test of their English language skills. After Nibco rebuffed settlement efforts, the LAS–ELC and other civil rights organizations filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that Nibco had discriminated against the workers on the basis of their national origin and limited English proficiency, violating both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
The Rivera litigation began the first of its two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001, after Nibco attempted to compel the plaintiffs to disclose their immigration status during their depositions. The plaintiffs sought a protective order barring Nibco from asking such questions, arguing that such information was not only irrelevant to the case, but could have an intimidating effect that would discourage the plaintiffs, and other immigrant workers like them, from exercising their workplace rights. The District Court granted the protective order, and twice rejected Nibco’s efforts to overturn it. Nibco then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit unanimously upheld the protective order. In a 2004 decision that has been widely cited and reaffirmed by numerous federal courts, the three-judge panel reasoned that “[g]ranting employers the right to inquire into workers’ immigration status in cases like this would allow them to raise implicitly the threat of deportation and criminal prosecution every time a worker, documented or undocumented, reports illegal practices or files a Title VII action. Indeed, [ ] countless acts of illegal and reprehensible conduct would go unreported.” Nibco subsequently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. The Court denied review in 2005.
The Rivera case went to trial in October 2008. During jury selection, Nibco removed, or “struck,” three Latina/o prospective jurors from the jury pool. Although the plaintiffs objected to those three strikes as being improperly based on the jurors’ ethnicity, the court denied those objections. After the jury returned a defense verdict, the plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that Nibco’s strikes unconstitutionally deprived those prospective jurors of the opportunity to serve because of their ethnicity. In 2010, the Ninth Circuit agreed, finding that Nibco had intentionally removed at least one of the Latina/o jurors for discriminatory purposes, and granted the plaintiffs a new trial. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court again denied review. The settlement followed shortly thereafter.
“Because of the plaintiffs’ immense courage and perseverance, immigrant workers today have stronger protections. Employers across the country too often attempt to use immigration status to undermine the labor and civil rights of all workers. Today’s settlement sends a strong message to those employers that they will ultimately be held accountable. Corporate greed should never trump civil rights,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and co-counsel on the case.
In addition to Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, the Law Offices of William J. Smith, and the National Immigration Law Center, the Rivera plaintiffs were also represented by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus, and Minami Tamaki LLP.