Yes – a recent federal court case demonstrates that a candidate’s bilingual language abilities can serve as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory rationale for a hiring decision.

In George v. Hennepin County, a 51 year-old plaintiff applied for a job as a dental hygienist, but the clinic already had a younger candidate in mind. Civil No. 14-2694 (D. Minn. Oct. 8, 2015). The younger candidate was already working for the clinic in a grant-funded position and had demonstrated the ability to work well with the clinic’s Spanish-speaking clients. Although the younger candidate applied for the job opening, too, she did not initially note that she was bilingual in her application. The clinic later allowed the younger candidate to amend her application after notifying her that it considered her Spanish abilities sufficient for her to qualify as bilingual. The clinic then hired the younger candidate.

After not receiving a job offer, the plaintiff – who was not bilingual, but had some limited Spanish language ability – filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination. Among other things, the plaintiff argued that the clinic discriminated against her because it did not contact her to determine the extent of her Spanish language abilities, like it did for the younger candidate.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument. The court reasoned that the record amply supported the clinic’s need for a bilingual dental hygienist. The court further explained that the clinic adequately explained why it contacted the younger candidate for a better explanation of her Spanish language skills based on the clinic’s prior experience with the younger candidate – not because of age discrimination. Because the court found that there was no genuine issue of fact regarding whether the clinic’s rationale for hiring the younger candidate was a pretext for discrimination, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims on summary judgment.

Takeaway: In some circumstances, a job candidate’s bilingual language abilities may serve as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory rationale for an employer’s hiring decision.