Bridging The Cultural and Linguistic Divide: Representing Immigrants Require More than Lawyerly Skills

Pablo, a Filipino-American retiree, was persuaded by a crafty insurance agent to transfer his retirement money to a complicated annuity the agent was selling, and to transfer it again to a second insurance company. Pablo did not know that every time he transferred his money, this resulted in a surrender charge of 33%. Hence, a transfer of $150,000 from insurance company A to insurance company B resulted in $49,500 of surrender penalties. The company kept the $49,500 and the agent earned more commissions.

Meanwhile, Pablo just lost a chunk of his retirement savings with nothing to show for it. He was devastated. He came to us for legal advice. We filed a lawsuit on his behalf to recover his money plus damages for emotional distress. Pablo's deposition was taken. During questioning by the insurance company's lawyers, Pablo was asked how he understood “surrender charges”.

Pablo, a war survivor who grew up in Japanese-occupied Philippines, replied: “I do not know surrender charges. All I know about surrender is when the Japanese raised their hands and surrendered to the Americans!”

The insurance lawyers thought at first that Pablo was joking. But Pablo was serious. He truly did not know what ‘surrender charges' meant in the context of an insurance contract. While he had worked in the U.S. for a long time, his speech patterns and cultural referents continued to reflect his upbringing in the Philippines.

For Pablo to win his case, he needed to be understood by an American court or jury. Pablo needed, not only a lawyer's courtroom skills, but also a lawyer who understood his language. He had to be able to communicate with his attorney in a language he was comfortable in so that he could tell “the whole truth.” Also, because his psychological damages were at issue, he needed a lawyer who understood his emotional and cultural background.

Pablo's case is an example of the challenges involved in helping immigrants obtain justice. Situations where immigrants may need to go to court to seek relief include the following:

  1. 1. when injured by the negligence or business fraud of another;
  2. 2. not being paid the wages required by law;
  3. 3. when defrauded by a company that deceptively marketed its products;
  4. 4. when unreasonably denied benefits under an insurance policy.

Lack of fluency in a language can limit a client's full expression of the facts. An immigrant's willingness to explain may be hindered by ingrained cultural factors like a sense of shame. Is the client keeping his true feelings to himself for fear of being perceived as crazy based on his cultural standards? Or is the client unwilling or unable to explain because of injured feelings?

This was the situation when I was hired by a prominent retirement home to assist in defending the company's manager accused of sexual harassment. The other attorney in the case, who used the usual straightforward style of asking questions, was not familiar with the manager's cultural sensitivities and was having problems communicating with the manager. The manager felt that simply being accused of having forced himself on an unwilling woman was a badge of dishonor. Since he has been so dishonored, he would rather keep silent. The attorney decided he could not obtain the “whole truth” from the manager. There was a communication breakdown.

The involvement of an attorney who knew the manager's culture and language brought a different dynamic into the case. Because the actual underpinnings of the manager's behavior were considered and understood, the approach to asking questions was done in a way that allowed more candid answers from the manager. The manager opened up. As more information was obtained, the case was eventually resolved to the parties' satisfaction.

Communications that ensure understanding between clients and their attorneys can help achieve success for the immigrant client's case. The attorney's knowledge of the client's language and culture can go a long way in facilitating these communications.

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