A Filipino family of five who relocated to Rocky Ford, Colorado in 2011 and 2012 recently sued the husband’s sister and his brother-in-law in the US District Court for Colorado for back wages using three federal laws and two Colorado wage laws. The defendants, Leonida and Bill Sackett, were said to have financed and sponsored the family’s immigration move and then held their social security cards and other documentation from them until, they were told, their debt for the move was paid to the Sacketts.
Never told how they much owed
The family was never told by the Sacketts how much they owed or when the debt would be paid. They were also threatened with deportation if they didn’t comply with the labor demands and, for years lived in fear of being deported if they refused to work. Esmeraldo Villanueva Echon Jr, his wife, Maribel, and their three sons came to the United States from the native Philippines. In their lawsuit, they allege the Sacketts, who operate several businesses and manage a farm in Rocky Ford, Colorado, held them without pay in “debt bondage, requiring them to work on their crops and in their market, clean and maintain their rental properties, and perform various other jobs from 2011 to 2014. See Echon v. Sackett, No. 14-CV-03420-PAB-NYW, 2017 WL 4181417, at *1 (D. Colo. Sept. 20, 2017), report and recommendation adopted, No. 14-CV-03420-PAB-NYW, 2017 WL 5013116 (D. Colo. Nov. 1, 2017)
Unprecedented civil use of human trafficking law
Attorneys from Colorado Legal Services and the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Center represented the family.The mother and one of the older sons sued the couple under a federal law, enacted with both civil and criminal provisions, to prevent human trafficking. Esmeraldo and Justin Echon sued the defendants for being civilly liable to them under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), 18 U.S.C. § 1589. Colorado Legal Services’ attorneys who represented the Echons said it was the first trial in Colorado of a civil case of human trafficking under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
In addition to suing under the federal trafficking law and the Fair Labor Standards Act -- which they later voluntarily dismissed as part of their claims -- they also sued using the Colorado Minimum Wage of Workers, the Colorado Fair Wages Act, and for breach of contract under federal immigration law in which sponsors guarantee that they will ensure that sponsored individuals standard of living will not dip below at least 125 percent of the poverty rate. Finally, the plaintiffs’ allege that the Sackets were unjustly enriched under common law contract law. The case was heard by a jury who entered a sizeable damages judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs.
What the law does
The forced labor provision of TVPRA governs forced labor, and identifies as a criminal defendant one who:
[K]nowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person by any one of, or by any combination of, the following means—
(1) by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person;
(2) by means of serious harm or threats of serious harm to that person or another person;
(3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process; or
(4) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if that person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint.
The TVPRA contains a civil remedy provision that establishes a private cause of action against one who violates the statute: An individual who is a victim of a violation of this chapter may bring a civil action against the perpetrator (or whoever knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value from participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known has engaged in an act in violation of this chapter) in an appropriate district court of the United States and may recover damages and reasonable attorneys fees. Id. at 1595(a). See also Mojsilovic v. Oklahoma ex rel. Board of Regents for University of Oklahoma, 841 F.3d 1129, 1130 (10th Cir. 2016) (noting the TVPRA “provides a civil remedy for victims of forced labor”).
Esmeraldo and Justin Echon successfully argued that the Sacketts are liable under this claim for serious harm or threats of serious harm, abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process, or for a scheme, plan, or pattern that was intended to cause Plaintiffs to believe they would suffer serious harm if they did not perform the labor. See [#104 at 13–14]. See also 18 U.S.C. § 1589(a)(2)–(4). Echon v. Sackett, No. 14-CV-03420-PAB-NYW, 2017 WL 4181417, at *9–10 (D. Colo. Sept. 20, 2017), report and recommendation adopted, No. 14-CV-03420-PAB-NYW, 2017 WL 5013116 (D. Colo. Nov. 1, 2017)
Federal Court weighs in
The US District Court hired Judge Judy Wang, a district court magistrate, to hear the claims and write a report and recommendations on her findings. Judge Wang gathered testimony and reviewed the record, which was incomplete given that defendants represented themselves, pro se and refused to comply with numerous requests for evidence and depositions from the plaintiffs' attorneys. She recommended that the defendants’ Motion to Vacate be changed to a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and that it be denied. She also authored the report for the US District Court that helped the jury reach their decision on the claims and later the amount of damages that should be awarded.
In 2017, the plaintiffs filed a Motion for Summary Judgment that Judge Wang reviewed and issued another report about her findings. It was her recommendation that the Motion be granted in part and denied in part. The case then moved onto to the next phase of having a jury determine issues of fact for the claims not granted summary judgment.
In 2018, after a long and arduous three day trial in the United States District Court of Colorado, the three adult plaintiffs were awarded over $387,000 in compensatory pain and suffering, compensatory back wages and punitive damages. The Judge reduced the initial award by $55,700 as being duplicative damages. Despite the federal jury civil decision, it appears that criminal charges under TVPRA have not been pursued by authorities against the Sacketts.
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