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Hotel discriminated against Hispanics, created hostile work environment, lawsuit claims

This Oct. 1, 2009 photo shows hotel owner Larry Whitten standing in front of the sign for his hotel in Taos, N.M.

This Oct. 1, 2009 photo shows hotel owner Larry Whitten standing in front of the sign for his hotel in Taos, N.M.  (Melanie Dabovich, AP)

A hotel chain broke the law by subjecting minority employees in New Mexico, Texas and South Carolina to a hostile work environment and firing those who complained, a federal agency said.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Friday that it had filed suit against four Whitten Inn hotels and is seeking back pay, lost benefits and damages for workers. According to federal officials, employees endured racial slurs and derogatory comments. The agency said several workers were let go as retaliation for complaining.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.

"Discriminatory policies and conduct have no place in a state as culturally rich as New Mexico or in any employment setting," said EEOC attorney Christina Vigil, who is litigating the lawsuit.

Businessman Larry Whitten created a firestorm in 2009 when workers at his Taos hotel in northern New Mexico say they were forbidden to speak Spanish and told to change their Spanish first names.

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A receptionist at the Taos inn said Sunday that Whitten was no longer the owner.

Representatives at an Abilene, Texas, Whitten Inn declined to comment when reached by telephone.

The Virginian-born Whitten had been known for turning around more than 20 hotels in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina before moving with his wife to Taos from Abilene. He purchased the Paragon Inn for $2 million and turned it into the Whitten Inn.

He told The Associated Press at the time that he asked staff to speak English only in his presence because he didn't understand Spanish. He also said it was routine practice at his hotels to change employees' first names if they are working the front desk phones or deal directly with guests and they have hard to pronounce names. Some employees were fired because they were hostile to him and insubordinate, Whitten said.

Spanish language and culture have a long history in Taos, a liberal enclave at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

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