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Live-in housekeepers and nannies who claim they are being underpaid � or not paid at all � are gaining some leeway in the courts, say attorneys and workers’ rights advocates. On June 11, a Maryland jury awarded $61,000 to a woman who claimed she worked for free for four years in a seven-bedroom home in Potomac, Maryland, cooking, cleaning and providing round-the-clock assistance to a disabled woman who lived there. Wondimante v. Assefa, et. al., No. 8:04-cv-03718 (D. Md.) In a high-profile nanny case involving Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder earlier this year, a jury awarded $44,880 to a nanny who claimed she was owed overtime for extra hours she spent caring for the Snyders’ three children. Mendonca v. Snyder Montgomery, No. 269099-V (Cty., Md. Cir. Ct.). And in Washington D.C., a woman is currently suing a Tanzanian diplomat and his wife, alleging the couple treated her like a slave in their home for more than four years, failed to pay her and physically abused her. Mazeng v. Mzengi, No. 1:2007cv00757 (D.C.). While domestic worker abuse has long been a problem in the U.S., lawyers note, what’s new is that victims are starting to seek recourse in the courts. And juries and judges are sympathizing. “The law is catching up with this and you just can’t do this,” said attorney Andrew Sandler, who handled the recent domestic worker case in Potomac, Md. “You can’t take advantage of people because of their immigration status or because they are unsophisticated foreigners. American judges and juries will not tolerate that.” Sandler, of Washington D.C.’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, was part of the pro-bono team that won $61,000 for an Ethiopian domestic worker who claimed she was exploited by a Maryland family. According to Sandler, the woman, who was brought to the United States from Ethiopia by the defendant family, worked for four years in the family’s home, cooking, cleaning and caring for an ill resident, but was never paid. Sandler said what made this case significant was a critical pretrial victory in which a federal judge established new law in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in ruling that workers are entitled to protection under wage and laws, regardless of their immigration status. “The key legal finding there was that for the first time, in the 4th Circuit, an undocumented worker can bring an action under wage and hour laws,” Sandler said. “It was very significant.” But the Ethiopian plaintiff didn’t win her wage and hour claim � the jury award was for unjust enrichment, noted David C. Simmons, a Washington, D.C., solo who represented the defendants in that case. Simmons, who successfully argued the woman was not a hired employee due money under the Fair Labor Standards Act, said the plaintiff was an informally adopted family member who did chores around the house like everyone else. He said his clients are working class people who treated the woman like family, noting the family portrait in the home’s entranceway includes the plaintiff. Simmons claimed that the plaintiff’s visa had expired and she was facing deportation, so she made up a claim of domestic slavery to try and obtain a special visa granted to human trafficking victims. “There are the cases where someone is tied up in chains. This is not that case. She was a sister to them,” Simmons said, “This struck me as a very abusive case.” California plaintiffs attorney Randy Renick, who has tried four domestic worker abuse cases in recent years � winning jury verdicts in two of them � said, “These are tough cases.” “They are very difficult cases to litigate for many reasons, one of them being cultural issues,” said Renick, of the Law Offices of Randy Renick in Pasadena, Calif. “But we have won them. And they are very important cases.”

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