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PJC Files Brief to Ensure Equal Access to Justice for LEP Persons

On May 29, 2009, the Public Justice Center, acting as co-counsel in the representation of Ms. Rungrudee Nonceeya, filed an opening brief in the Maryland Court of Appeals in Nonceeya v. Lone Star Steakhouse, No. 18, Sept. Term 2009.  Ms. Nonceeya, who had emigrated to the United States from Thailand in 2002, had worked at the Lone Star restaurant in Gaithersburg for a couple of years when she was abruptly terminated in 2005.  Acting without a lawyer, Ms. Nonceeya filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County alleging that various managers and staff at Lone Star had discriminated against her in the terms and conditions of her employment because of her national origin.  Ms. Nonceeya requested an English-Thai interpreter for all court proceedings, and the court granted her request pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-819 thereby recognizing Ms. Nonceeya as a party with limited English proficiency (LEP).  Lone Star requested a deposition of Ms. Nonceeya but failed to provide for an English-Thai interpreter at the deposition.  The deposition, proceeding only in English, lasted three days and produced numerous non-responsive and ambiguous answers by Ms. Nonceeya to Lone Star's leading questions because of the language barrier.  After the deposition, Lone Star filed a motion for summary judgment exploiting the ambiguities in Ms. Nonceeya's responses to argue that Ms. Nonceeya was not a victim of discrimination.  The circuit court granted Lone Star's motion and entered judgment for Lone Star on Ms. Nonceeya's complaint.
Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow, Matthew Hill, drafted Ms. Nonceeya's brief to the Court of Appeals.  The brief emphasized that Rule 16-819 must be liberally construed as the primary means by which Maryland courts provide constitutional due process and open access to courts for LEP individuals.  Read in conjuction with other Maryland law, the rule clearly required an English-Thai interpreter at the disputed deposition.  Further, contrary to Lone Star's contention, Ms. Nonceeya did not waive her right to an interpreter.  In Maryland, any such waiver must be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.  In numerous other jurisdictions that have examined this issue, a waiver of the right to an interpreter is only effective when the right is explained to the LEP individual through an interpreter, with judicial approval of the waiver.  This procedure ensures that an LEP person's lack of English language skills is not unfairly manipulated by the opposing party and provides some baseline assurance that an LEP party understands that he or she has the right to an interpreter paid for by the court.  Because no effective waiver was given here, Ms. Nonceeya's deposition testimony should be nullified and the case remanded to continue with an English-Thai interpreter at all proceedings.
The Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, joined by the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau and Casa de Maryland, filed an amicus brief supporting Ms. Nonceeya and highlighting the importance of providing oral language services to ensure equal access to justice for LEP persons in Maryland.

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