Two Atlanta law firms, Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, have filed human trafficking suits in federal court in Texas for 50 Indian guest workers whom they allege were treated like modern-day slaves by Signal International LLC, a marine fabricator based in Mobile, Ala.
Signal recruited the men to work as pipe fitters and welders at its shipyards in Orange, Texas, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita scattered its local labor force, according to the complaints.
The suits are the first to be filed in a massive pro bono effort spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center and joined by several law firms last year. The SPLC initially filed a class action, David v. Signal International LLC, in March 2008 for 590 Indian guest workers employed by Signal. After federal Judge Jay Zainey of the Eastern District of Louisiana denied class certification for the David suit in January 2012 the public interest firm sought the private bar’s help to file suits for the individual plaintiffs.
The Kilpatrick and Sutherland suits claim that Signal and its agents — a recruiter in India and a recruiter, labor brokers and an immigration lawyer on the Gulf Coast — charged the men exorbitant fees for the jobs, as much as $11,000 to $25,000 per worker, under false promises that they could obtain green cards by working for Signal, which then held them as virtual prisoners in squalid "man camps."
Signal instead employed the men on temporary guest worker H2-B visas that allowed them to work only for the shipbuilder.
Also named in the suits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, are the recruiter in India, Sachin Dewan, and Gulf Coast recruiter-labor broker Michael Pol, labor broker Billy Wilks, immigration lawyer Malvern Burnett and their respective firms.
Latham & Watkins filed suit earlier this month for another 33 guest workers who worked at Signal’s shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. Several other firms are representing another 100 men but have not yet filed suits, including DLA Piper; Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom; McDermott Will & Emery; Fredrikson & Byron and the Equal Justice Center.
Signal’s lawyer, Erin Casey Hangartner of the New Orleans office of Middleberg, Riddle & Gianna, did not return a call and an email for comment.
In a January 4, 2012, press release in response to the denial of class certification, Signal’s CEO, Richard Marler, said that "It has been a long road for Signal and we are incredibly pleased with this decision. We look forward to the next phase of this lawsuit where Signal fully expects to again be vindicated."
Daniel Werner, who heads the SPLC’s Atlanta-based Immigrant Justice Project, is continuing the former class action, David v. Signal International, as an individual suit for the 12 named plaintiffs. Several other firms have pitched in on that suit — Crowell & Moring, the ACLU, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Louisiana Justice Institute.
In a separate case, the EEOC filed a federal lawsuit against Signal in April 2011 alleging labor trafficking and a hostile work environment. The SPLC and other firms handling the David case are co-counsel in EEOC v. Signal International LLC.
Werner said that case is stalled on procedural issues and discovery has not yet begun.
John Fleming, Sutherland’s pro bono partner, said one of his partners, Keith Barnett, heard about the case from a Crowell & Moring lawyer who had a securities suit pending with him.
"These are individuals who had to pay a lot of money to folks in India which Signal knew about, were promised green cards and absolutely imprisoned — they were trapped," Fleming said. "We thought it was compelling and these folks needed representation and we volunteered to do it."
He explained that many of the men borrowed money to pay recruitment, travel and visa fees to get the Signal jobs — fees which, according to the complaints, represented two to three years’ salary for a welder in India.
"The conditions were deplorable. Signal and the recruiters had no intention of giving them a green card," Fleming said.
The Indian guest workers were housed with up to 24 men to a trailer in gated "man camps" policed by private security guards, according to the complaints. Signal paid the men between $14 and $18 per hour and deducted $35 per day from their wages for room and board, whether they lived in the camps or not.
One man, Sabulal Vijayan, who protested the conditions, tried to commit suicide in March 2007 because of his fear of reprisals and worry over the debt, according to the David suit.
"He was told he was being sent back to India and he couldn’t repay the crippling debt," said Werner.
Since guest workers are bound to their employer by the terms of the visa, Werner said, if mistreatment occurs, their options are to "put up with it, disappear into the ranks of the undocumented or go home with tremendous debt they’ll never be able to repay with the wage in their home country."
Kilpatrick joined the case after Fleming called William Boice, a trial lawyer at the firm.
"This was a case that was bigger than any of us had the ability to handle alone," Boice said. "It looked like the type of wrong that needed someone to pay attention to it."
Sutherland is representing 33 men in one suit and Kilpatrick is representing another 17 in its suit who worked at Signal’s shipyard in Orange, Texas.
The Indian guest workers had left Signal’s employ by 2008 and are still in the United States legally, the SPLC’s Werner said, but their immigration status is protected under a court order in the David case for fear of retaliation.
Werner said about 210 men from the initial class are being represented individually, thanks to the participation of both private and public interest firms. "We were floored by the response of the pro bono community," he said.
Individually interviewing each client and preparing the suits has been a big effort. Fleming said 10 Sutherland lawyers and two paralegals are working on the case and Boice said 12 lawyers and three paralegals at his firm are involved, plus translators.
Boice said they had to find interpreters conversant in the Indian dialects of Malayan and Telugu, since the men do not speak much English.
The suits assert violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, plus fraud and negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for the recruitment fees they’ve paid, lost wages, and punitive damages for the alleged trafficking and civil rights violations, plus attorney fees.
"In a larger sense, we’d like to see conduct like this stopped. The best way to do this is to shine the light of day on it and seek to compensate the people who’ve been harmed by it," said Boice at Kilpatrick.
"Usually as a defense firm, when you defeat a class action, you’re done," said Fleming at Sutherland. But instead Signal and the other defendants must litigate all the individual suits.
"We hope this sends a message to other employers who think this may be a source of cheap labor here — to let them know that it could be pretty expensive," Fleming said.
The Sutherland trafficking suit is Joseph et al v. Signal et al. and Kilpatrick’s suit is Samuel et al v. Signal et al.