(CN) - A Pennsylvania county must face claims that it fired a Puerto Rican career adviser for complaining about a county agency's "English-only" policy, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel in Reading, Pa., allowed Betzaida Abdul-Latif to proceed with her federal lawsuit against Lancaster County and two supervisors.
Abdul-Latif was a case manager and career adviser for a welfare program -- known as the Employment, Advancement and Retention Network (EARN) -- which operates under the county's career services agency.
EARN's handbook asks participants to "speak English only while conducting your job search."
Abdul-Latif claimed that her supervisor, Catherine Long, told her and other native Spanish-speaking employees to speak only English with each other and with clients.
She said she complained that the policy discriminated against Spanish-speaking EARN participants, many of whom had difficulty speaking English. When clients raised the same objection, she allegedly gave them the phone number to the county's Human Relations Commission and told them to file a complaint.
On June 24, 2010, the county learned that three complaints had been filed against the career services agency.
Abdul-Latif was fired about a month later, on July 20. She claims she was fired for being Hispanic and for opposing the county's English-only policy.
The county insists it fired her for using her work email to sell perfume and send other personal emails, in violation of county policy.
Other county employees had been disciplined for violating the same email policy, according to the ruling.
Earlier that year, someone sent an email depicting a black bear named "Bearack Obearma" sitting on a picnic bench and waiting "for the government to step in and provide for [his] care and sustenance."
Another email mocked Puerto Rican and white skin color differences, and a third contained a crass joke about a dog deemed eligible for welfare because he's "mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and has no frigging clue who his daddy is."
Abdul-Latif's supervisor, Long, was suspended for a day for sending the welfare dog email.
But Abdul-Latif argues that the email policy was merely a pretext, as she was the only employee fired for violating it. She says the agency's executive director, Joseph Shiffer, began scouring her email just 12 days after learning that she had complained to Long about the English-only policy.
She sued Long, Shiffer and the county for work discrimination, and violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Judge Stengel refused to dismiss the discrimination claim, saying Abdul-Latif "has shown that several of her similarly situated co-workers violated the same email policy and received less severe discipline."
A reasonable jury, he added, "could find the welfare dog email more offensive than plaintiff's conduct."
He also noted that the timing of her firing was "unusually suggestive" of a causal link, as it occurred less than two weeks after Shiffer found out about her complaints.
"Were a jury to believe that defendants' non-discriminatory explanation is pretext, then they can also conclude that Mr. Shiffer used this interval to fabricate the false reason for her termination," Stengel wrote.
Although he allowed most claims to proceed, Stengel tossed Abdul-Latif's claims for municipal liability and public accommodations.