The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Brown and Brown Chevrolet in Mesa, saying the car dealership denied a promotion to an employee from Nigeria because of his accent.
The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix against AutoNation USA Corp., the owner of Brown and Brown Chevrolet, alleges discrimination based on national origin.
"Employers cannot lawfully deny a position to an otherwise qualified employee simply because of an accent as long as he or she can communicate in English adequately to the demands of the job," said Chester Bailey, director of the EEOC’s Phoenix district office.
The charge was denied by Marc Cannon, vice president of corporate communications for AutoNation.
"We have an outstanding reputation in the marketplace, we are a great place to work and we will vigorously defend ourselves," he said.
He declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
The suit centers on Omagbitse Jagha, a Nigerian immigrant who joined the dealership in January 2001 as a sales associate. According to the EEOC, Jagha performed his duties satisfactorily as a sales associate and communicated fluently in English.
In September 2002, he was approached about becoming finance manager, a well-paying position in the company. But then he was told he would not get the new job unless he received speech therapy, said Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC.
Jagha left Brown and Brown in December 2002 and now works for an auto dealership in Fontana, Calif., she said.
EEOC attorneys said they attempted to negotiate a settlement with Brown and Brown but were unable to reach an agreement, resulting in the lawsuit filed Friday. "In this case, Mr. Jagha speaks English fluently, so there was no excuse for blocking his promotion," Bailey said.
The suit filed against Brown and Brown seeks back pay for Jagha along with compensatory and punitive damages, which are capped by law at $300,000, O’Neill said.
National-origin cases account for about 10 percent of total EEOC cases. Within that category, accentdiscrimination lawsuits are unusual but not unprecedented in the Phoenix office, O’Neill said.