A New Jersey appeals court is furthering a trend requiring official state documents to be translated into the recipient’s native language.
The panel ruled Wednesday that determinations of unemployment compensation overpayments sent to seasonal workers who have returned to Puerto Rico must be translated in full into Spanish to comply with due process requirements.
At present, only the appeal timeline is translated, with instructions exhorting recipients to find someone who speaks both Spanish and English to translate the rest.
“How can a litigant decide whether to appeal if he does not know what was decided?” Appellate Division Judge Ellen Koblitz wrote in Alicea v. Board of Review, A-4163-11, a published decision.
She added: “It would have been simple enough to translate the determination entirely into Spanish.
“Each determination may have then become two pages instead of one, but what a small price to pay to ensure comprehension by the affected party,” she continued.
This new requirement is particularly important, Koblitz said in a footnote, because a part of the form, again written only in English, warns the recipient of potential criminal consequences.
Zachary Wall, the lawyer for the seasonal roofer at issue, says the ruling is an extension of requirements that other state-issued documents be translated or interpreted into different languages.
Those documents range from warnings drivers receive of the consequences of refusing to take a breath test to instructions on how to register a child for school.
“They’re taking it a step further and saying it’s a violation of due process to send someone a factual notification involving possible criminal penalties and not have it in their native language,” says Wall, of Alan Schorr & Associates in Cherry Hill.
Wall says he is unsure how far the ruling may apply in cases involving other state agencies, but “at the very least, it could be used as support for an individual’s situation.”
The requirement that certain documents from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development be translated into Spanish for the benefit of seasonal workers from Puerto Rico goes back to Rivera v. Board of Review, 127 N.J. 578 (1992), and the 1986 Farmworkers Bilingual Rights Amendment, N.J.S.A. 43:21-11.1(b).
They require that notices of available unemployment benefits be translated because migrant farmworkers generally are poorly educated and less likely to understand English.
It makes no difference that the person in Alicea was a roofer and not a farmworker, Koblitz said.
“[B]oth occupations are composed of seasonal workers who are often poorly-educated and poorly paid,” she said. “We have repeatedly acknowledged the important role that proper translation into the language of the litigant plays in our legal system.”
Translating only part of the document “is contrary to a requirement of fairness,” Koblitz said.”
In the case at hand, Genaro Alicea of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, received four notices from the department in 2009 alleging he had fraudulently obtained $17,802 in unemployment benefits.
Only one paragraph — outlining the appeals procedure — was translated into Spanish. Another sentence, in Spanish, said: “If you do not speak English, please ask someone to translate this form immediately.”
Alicea eventually found someone to translate the entire document and another to help him with his appeal, but it was twice rejected by the department’s Board of Review because it was filed after the 10-day deadline.
Appellate Division Judges Jane Grall and Marie Simonelli joined in Koblitz’s ruling, which does not set a deadline for the department to comply.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which represented the department, declined to comment. Department spokesman Brian Murray says officials were still reviewing the ruling and would not comment.