Julie Carpenter of Jenner & Block. (Dupont Photographers)
After four years of grueling work without pay as a nanny in Bethesda, Md., Zipora Mazengo finally obtained a $1 million judgment against her former employer. The Tanzanian citizen spent five more years attempting to collect.
Her pro bono lawyers at Jenner & Block recognized that the challenge was immense, given that her former employer was Alan Mzengi, an ex-minister at the Embassy of Tanzania in Washington who had since returned to his home country. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats enjoy immunity from lawsuits.
Jenner attorneys took the case to Congress and the U.S. State Department. And in June, ahead of President Obama’s trip to Tanzania, they reached a confidential settlement. The deal was the first in which a government has paid to settle a human-trafficking case involving one of its diplomats.
“To get past the issues of diplomatic immunity and get a judgment and then collect on it is the holy grail of these cases,” said Julie Carpenter, co-leader of the pro bono committee at Jenner & Block and a partner in the Washington office.
The Mazengo civil case serves “an incredibly important precedent,” said Martina Vandenberg, president and founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. Vandenberg should know. She filed the suit with partner Lorelie Masters while at Jenner. She left the firm last year, but Jenner continues to lead the nation in handling trafficking cases against foreign diplomats, she said.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 118 criminal defendants in forced-labor and adult sex-trafficking cases, representing a 19 percent increase over 2010. Civil cases are more rare — Vandenberg’s organization estimates that 117 were filed during the past decade. Jenner has handled nearly half of the 22 suits involving diplomats and employees of international organizations, she said. Jenner also has collaborated with federal prosecutors in criminal actions to secure money for victims. In one case, the firm obtained $369,500 for a Filipino woman who claimed she’d been enslaved by her former employers. Federal prosecutors had charged Alfred Edwards Jr. and his wife Gloria Edwards with failing to pay the woman, who worked as their housekeeper for 10 years, and with other crimes. Both pleaded guilty to harboring an undocumented immigrant. The money is on its way, said an attorney for Alfred Edwards, Andrew Alpert, of Alpert Schreyer in Bowie, Md. But he disagreed that the couple was engaged in human trafficking.