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Suit: Security guards were fired for accents

Two former security guards are seeking $100,000 and their jobs back from the company they say fired them because they spoke English with an accent.

Serge N. Wandja and Nabie Cham filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt against their former employer, the security firm MVM Inc., of Ashford, Va. Wandja and Cham worked for MVM at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. In January 2009, they were fired for failing an English proficiency exam despite having worked for the firm for several years.

MVM officials declined to comment on the case Wednesday.

The lawsuit alleges that MVM singled out workers of African descent because of their accented English, subjected them to demotions and gave them less desirable postings at the NIH. In court documents, the workers say their supervisor would ignore African-born workers and not allow them to go into their boss’s office.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, discrimination based on an accent is a form of national-origin discrimination. “An employer may not base an employment decision on an employee’s foreign accent, unless the accent seriously interferes with the employee’s job performance,” the EEOC’s website says.

Wandja and Cham said in the lawsuit that, despite having had no complaints about their language proficiency, the company administered an English test to employees over the phone. The African-born workers were the only ones to fail, they claim, and were told they failed because they could not use “complex structures.”

Three other MVM workers who were let go at the same time as Wandja and Cham filed a similar lawsuit in December in U.S. District Court. Those employees, an Ethiopian, a Cameroonian and a Nigerian, also claim they were fired for failing the English proficiency test.

Kevin Plessner, co-counsel for Wandja and Cham, said his clients were singled out because of their accented English. “Accent discrimination is further evidence of discrimination based on national discrimination,” said Plessner, a solo practitioner.

Deborah Thompson Eisenberg, who teaches employment law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said accent discrimination as a form of national origin discrimination is a cause of action that is not often used.

“It’s more common to see the broader categories of race or sex, but these issues of national origin do come up,” Eisenberg said. She spoke as an observer and has no involvement in the case.

According to the complaint, Wandja came to the U.S. from Cameroon in 2005 and started working for MVM that December. He received his master’s degree in law from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 2010. Wandja said in court documents that English is his first language and he was educated in it during his school years.

Cham, a native of Sierra Leone, immigrated to the U.S. in 1992. Cham started with MVM in 2003 and said he had never been disciplined or told that he had difficulty with his English.

Eisenberg said MVM will have to defend the test and its ties to the guards’ job responsibilities.

“It will come down to whether language was a legitimate job requirement,” Eisenberg said. “Did the employer discriminate based on national origin, or is the language requirement materially required for the job.”

Because Wandja and Cham are bringing their claim under 42 U.S.C. §1981A, which covers intentional employment discrimination, they do not need a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, she said.