Legal Aid recently obtained an important victory under the DC Language Access Act of 2004 for one of its clients. The Act requires that District government agencies “provide oral language services to a person with limited or no-English proficiency who seeks to access or participate in the services, programs, or activities offered” by the agencies. Under the Act and its implementing regulations, agencies are instructed when to use in-person interpretation and when to use telephone interpretation service. In all instances, some form of interpretation must be provided to ensure that a person with limited or no-English proficiency may benefit from the agency’s programs at a level equal to English proficient individuals.
In late 2009, Ms. Lopez was living in a rented apartment riddled with Housing Code violations that her landlord refused to fix. Ms. Lopez wanted the city to conduct an inspection of her apartment, a service offered to all tenants in the District by the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). On several occasions, DCRA sent a monolingual English-speaking inspector to Ms. Lopez's home. Although Ms. Lopez is a monolingual Spanish-speaker, the inspector did not use his cell phone to call a telephone interpretation service, as he should have done pursuant to DCRA’s stated policy. Rather, the inspector entered Ms. Lopez's home and conducted the inspection without ever speaking to her in Spanish. Later, Ms. Lopez called DCRA to request a copy of her Inspection Report, but the DCRA employee with whom she spoke stated, "No, we don't speak Spanish," and hung up. Only after Ms. Lopez reached out to representatives from the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs was she able to obtain a copy of her Inspection Report, and even then, it was entirely in English.
Several months later, with the help of Legal Aid, Ms. Lopez filed a language access complaint in the Office of Human Rights against the DCRA in 2010. After filing her language access complaint, but before the Office of Human Rights had been able to complete its investigation, Ms. Lopez found herself in need of another inspection by DCRA because of new problems in her rented apartment. Ms. Lopez had trouble requesting the inspection in Spanish. Ms. Lopez and her Legal Aid attorney called DCRA together to ensure that Ms. Lopez could access the services that she needed. Ms. Lopez’s Legal Aid attorney asked the DCRA employee on the phone to use DCRA’s contracted telephone interpretation service to communicate with Ms. Lopez. The DCRA employee did not know how to use the service and asked the Legal Aid attorney for the number. Ms. Lopez amended her language access complaint to include the details of this phone call as well.
Last month, the Office of Human Rights found that DCRA violated the Language Access Act by not providing Ms. Lopez interpretation services in her native language (Spanish) during a series of housing inspections of her apartment between late 2009 and early 2010, and in various communications with DCRA in or around 2010.
However, the Office of Human Rights found that DCRA did not violate the Language Access Act by failing to translate the Inspection Report into Spanish because the intended recipient of the Inspection Report is the landlord/property owner and not the tenant. The Language Access Act would require DCRA to translate the Inspection Report into Spanish if Ms. Lopez were the intended recipient of the report.
Legal Aid urges DCRA to amend its regulations so that both landlords and tenants are the intended recipients of Inspection Reports detailing Housing Code violations. This important policy change will affect all tenants in the District of Columbia, regardless of the languages that they speak. Tenants must have information regarding violations of the Housing Code in their rental units in order to assert their rights. As explained in Robinson v. Diamond Housing Corp., 463 F.2d 853, 862 (D.C. Cir. 1972), “the City Council has made plain that the [Housing] code is to be enforced in large part through the actions of private tenants.” This cannot occur if tenants are unable to gather information about the documented problems in their homes. Furthermore, just last year, DC Superior Court created a new, expedited, and pro-se friendly forum for tenants to sue their landlords to force required repairs under the Housing Code to their units. The District’s efforts to enforce the Housing Code are stifled by DCRA’s refusal to address Inspection Reports to tenants. Without an Inspection Report from the city, a tenant may be unaware as to whether or not the conditions in the tenant’s unit rise to the level of a violation of the Housing Code. Without such knowledge, tenants are less likely to serve their vital role as private enforcers of the DC Housing Code.
Legal Aid congratulates Ms. Lopez for asserting her rights and for the steps that she has taken to improve language access in the District. Legal Aid will continue to monitor DCRA’s interactions with tenants to ensure that the agency complies with the Language Access Act and with the corrective actions that the Office of Human Rights has committed to issuing as a result of Ms. Lopez’s language access complaint.
Victoria de Acceso Lingüístico para Cliente de La Sociedad de Asistencia Legal.
Translation by Raquel Aguirre.