Kristie A. Martinez, Associated Press, SanLuisObispo.com, July 1, 2004
When Yang Ye visited Wondries Toyota in 2000, he was looking forward to buying a car.
Although his English ability was limited, he knew the salespeople at the Alhambra dealership would speak his native Mandarin.
Yang said he and a Mandarin-speaking saleswoman negotiated the price of a 1997 Toyota Corolla and verbally agreed to a 12 percent loan. But the contract Yang ended up signing was written in English, and instead of paying $11,000 for the car at a 12 percent interest rate, he was charged more than $14,000 at nearly 17 percent.
Two years later, Ye and 11 other Chinese customers sued Wondries for taking advantage of their limited English skills, and the case was settled in April for an undisclosed amount.
The suit also spawned a new law that takes effect Thursday designed to protect immigrant consumers from being tricked into signing agreements they don’t understand.
The Consumer Protection for New Californians bill will require certain businesses to have contracts available in four major Asian languages, expanding a 28-year-old state law that protects people who negotiate deals in Spanish.
“I hope the new law will be really beneficial to . . . the customers,” said Zhengrong Li, one of the 12 plaintiffs in the Wondries suit. “I think it will benefit the minority people in California, especially the people from Asia.”
A similar bill stalled this year in an Assembly committee. It would have required certain businesses that advertise in foreign languages to include the terms and conditions of their offers in those languages.
The bill that goes into effect Thursday requires businesses that orally negotiate in Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog or Chinese to give their clients contracts written in those languages. It affects businesses such as car dealers, apartment owners, bankers and legal service providers.
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, said these businesses were targeted because they often involve complex deals and lots of money.
Although the law also applies to layaway contracts and certain types of loan documents, it won’t involve agreements for credit cards, mortgages, cell phones, cable TV or gym memberships.
The bill is being well received among California’s Asian Americans.
“Those who take advantage of the people who don’t speak English, they get money out of their pocket without doing (anything),” said Vietnamese immigrant Thuy Tran, 47, of Los Angeles. “I think it’s a good idea for those who cannot speak English so they know what’s going on.”
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the new law, including the California Motor Car Dealers Association, which opposed the bill because it didn’t think the four Asian groups were large enough to justify the resulting expense to dealers, according to spokesman Brian Maas.
“The cost of translating those contracts and any subsequent agreements between the parties . . . was substantial, and we felt it wasn’t going to be implemented effectively,” Maas said.
Chu disagrees, citing the demographic makeup of her suburban San Gabriel Valley district, which is 39 percent Asian.
She adds that more than 12 million people in California speak a language besides English at , according to census data, and that 83 percent of this group speaks Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog or Spanish.
She predicts similar laws will be passed in other states with large immigrant populations.
Chu acknowledged the law means some additional costs to retailers for translation services but suggested the expense makes good business sense.
“If they are a car dealer that is investing in salespersons who speak a particular language, they are getting a great deal of their business from a particular community,” she said. “And if that is the case, they actually stand more to profit than to lose” in complying with the law.
Richard Romero, general manager of two car dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley, supports the bill, saying it’s part of doing business in a multicultural area like Los Angeles.
“Everyone should be able to have clear and concise information, especially financial information,” said Romero, who manages Toyota of Glendora and Glendora Hyundai. “It provides them with a clear understanding of what they’re signing for in the language that’s easiest for them to understand.”
Romero was ready with translated contracts, but not all businesses are. Chu said those that aren’t risk having their agreements voided.
Dan Faller, president of the Apartment Owners Association of Southern California, said the organization probably won’t have translated lease agreements ready for its 12,000 members until next year.
In the meantime, Faller said many illegal deals will likely take place, so he’s advising owners to require prospective Asian tenants to bring interpreters with them when leases are discussed. The new law does not require translated contracts if the customer brings an interpreter.
But Faller said the real solution to the issue is for Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos to learn English.
“If someone decides to come to the U.S., they should learn to become an American citizen,” he said. “If you rented an apartment in China, would the agreement be in English?”
Terrence Casey, who owns numerous apartments in L.A.’s Koreatown, says until he receives the translated documents from the owners association, he is telling his managers to negotiate with prospective Asian tenants only in English.
But he says that will make it even harder for non-English speaking Asians to find apartments because they won’t be able to negotiate in their native languages.
So will Asian versions of contracts contain as much fine print and jargon as typical English contracts, which even most English speakers have trouble understanding?
Most likely, says Chu.
Yet she notes that even if wording remains difficult to comprehend on translated documents, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese “would still understand very basic terms like interest rate, monthly lease and the name of the car.”