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US Court of Appeals Upholds Employment Contract Despite Language Barrier

After being terminated by Sun Constructors (Sun) in 2006, Juan Morales filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. Sun claimed that Morales was bound by an arbitration clause in the employment agreement signed upon his employment. Morales claimed that since the agreement was in English, he did not understand its terms when he signed it, thus he could not be bound by it since he does not speak or understand English. The District Court agreed with Morales. Sun appealed.

1068786_major_const.jpgAccording to the opinion written by Judge Michael A. Chagares of the US Court of Appeals Third Circuit, when Morales was hired in 2004 he passed a written exam in English and attended a 2 ½ hour orientation which explained the employment agreement. Sun provided a bilingual employee to translate for Morales during the orientation. The bilingual employee testified that he did not specifically explain the arbitration clause to Morales.

Judge Chagares ruled in favor of Sun, and remanded the case back to District Court with instructions to enter a stay pending arbitration. In his opinion, Judge Chagares cited an 1875 US Supreme Court decision, Upton v. Tribilcock that said: “It will not do for a man to enter into a contract, and, when called upon to respond to its obligations, to say that he did not read it when he signed it, or did not know what it contained.”

Judge Chagares continued “Morales, in essence, requests that this Court create an exception to the objective theory of contract formation where a party is ignorant of the language in which a contract is written. We decline to do so. In the absence of fraud, the fact that an offeree cannot read, write, speak, or understand the English language is immaterial to whether an English-language agreement the offeree executes is enforceable.”