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San Antonio

San Antonio Resort Sued By EEOC Over 'English Only' Policy

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La Cantera is facing a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit Monday against La Cantera Resort and Spa on San Antonio's far Northwest side for discrimination and retaliation.  

The civil action said managers with La Cantera parent company Destination Hotels and Resorts and DH San Antonio Management were verbally abusive towards Hispanic employees.

The lawsuit said the claimants are seeking monetary damages. Javier Espinosa, who represents 23 of the 25 listed claimants, said they are pursuing the maximum penalty of $300,000 per claimant, lawyers fees, and punitive damages assessed by the judge.

Court documents said one manager called employees in the banquet department “Mexican Spics,” and at least two dozen Spanish speakers were barred from speaking Spanish, while employees of other nationalities were allowed to speak their native languages. When workers complained about perceived discriminatory behavior, the lawsuit said they were punished through demotions and terminations, with some replaced by non-hispanic workers.

According court documents, one Destination Hotels human resources director told workers, "This is America, so speak English. What's the problem?"

“Attitude reflects leadership,” Espinosa said. “When the leadership is putting out that kind of attitude, it’s emboldened everybody to pursue this discriminatory policy.”

Destination Hotels took over La Cantera in December 2013, and the lawsuit said the abusive behavior against employees — all of whom worked in the banquet department — began in September 2014.

“There was never a policy that prohibited associates from speaking Spanish or any other language,” said John Spomer, vice president and managing director, who said the company is aware of the allegations from 2014-2015 and disputes them. “Associates have been and are encouraged to converse with our customers and each other in language that is mutually understood.”

According to lawyers for the workers, many of the claimants worked at La Cantera for a decade or more and the behavior was a sea-change in the organization.

Workers started filing EEOC complaints in July 2015.

In the course of a two-year investigation, EEOC found that many employees had been subjected to additional scrutiny and discipline as a result of voicing concern over poor treatment.

According to the court documents, Tomas Galvan participated in an October 2014 meeting with human resources, discussing concerns about the “English-only” policy, as well as intimidation and a hostile workplace. He received three “unwarranted” disciplinary notices in two months and was forced to resign in January 2015.

EEOC lawyers said the actions violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and want damages paid to affected workers, as well as their jobs back and mandated training to prevent future violations at La Cantera.

“I’ve never in my 16 years of my practicing had the EEOC file it like this,” Espinosa said.

He said usually the EEOC conducts an investigation and then gives a group a “right to sue” letter that allows for a civil suit. In this case, EEOC took the lead and filed the suit itself, and will allow Espinosa’s clients to join.

On its website, EEOC lists nine cases where “national origin” was listed as a portion of a lawsuit that was filed or settled. Settlements ranged from $3.75 million in the case of Koch Foods to a $150,000 settlement from a New Jersey car dealership.

Espinosa said it will be next summer before a trial begins. He added, despite the four years that have elapsed, his clients remain motivated. For his clients, this is about sending a message.

“All of them have kids or grandkids,” Espinosa said. “ They say, ‘We don’t want this to ever happen to them. We don’t want the humiliation we faced to happen to them.’ ”

Spomer said, currently, 84 percent of their banquet department are racial and ethnic minorities, most of whom speak Spanish.

“We do not tolerate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in any form,” said Spomer, who said La Cantera was served with only one other EEOC lawsuit in its history and it didn’t pertain to national origin.

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive