Daniella Landers, a partner in Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in Houston, is working pro bono with a group of guest workers from India who filed a civil rights lawsuit on May 21 against their former employer and others over working conditions at a plant in Orange and how they were recruited.
The plaintiffs allege in their complaint that they took on as much as $25,000 in debt for "mandatory recruitment, immigration processing, and travel fees" to come to the United States to work at a Signal International plant in Orange, where Signal "required them to live in a guarded, overcrowded, and isolated labor camp." They further allege they were threatened with loss of immigration status and deportation.
Landers, who heads Sutherland’s pro bono committee in Texas, is one of dozens of lawyers at firms and public interest groups working pro bono on suits filed by groups of guest workers making similar allegations against Signal International and others.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) started recruiting firms and public interest groups for the litigation after U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey of the Eastern District of Louisiana denied a class-certification motion in a 2008 suit the SPLC and others filed on behalf of about500 guest workers.
After Zainey denied the class certification in Kurian David, et al. v. Signal International LLC, et al., it "changed from a class of 550 people to a 12-plaintiff case," says Daniel Werner, a senior supervising attorney at the SPLC.
"We felt like we had a responsibility to find legal counsel for the class members who were no longer a part of our case," he says. "The process was sort of a long process of reaching out to pro bono counsel at various firms, then reaching out to their networks, having meetings."
Werner says he was "blown away" by the response, and the firms that have signed on to assist include Sutherland; Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton; Latham & Watkins; DLA Piper; Fredrikson & Byron; McDermott Will & Emery; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Also, he says, the Equal Justice Center in Austin has agreed to represent some of the guest workers.
It’s time-intensive work. Landers says the Sutherland team has spent hundreds of hours on the litigation since November 2012.
On May 21, a group of 33 guest workers represented by Landers and others at Sutherland filed Biju Mukrukkattu Joseph, et al. v. Signal International LLC, et al. in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Also on May 21, 17 guest workers represented by Kilpatrick Townsend filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Texas, and 33 guest workers represented by Latham & Watkins filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
Alan Howard, a partner in Crowell & Moring in New York City, is lead counsel for the plaintiffs in David. In addition to the SPLC, plaintiffs’ counsel in David includes lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.
Werner says all of the suits bring similar allegations against Signal and other defendants. He says more suits will be filed in Texas courts.
Bill Beardall, executive director of the Equal Justice Center, says he anticipates filing suit within the new few weeks in Texas on behalf of a group of the guest workers who worked in Orange. He says the Equal Justice Center is the only nonprofit in Texas that specializes in representing low-wage workers.
The defendants in David, largely the same as in Joseph, have denied the allegations.
The defendants in Joseph include "employer defendants" Signal International LLC of Mobile, Ala., Signal International Inc., Signal International Texas GP and Signal International Texas LP; "recruiter defendants" Global Resources Inc. of Mississippi and its president Michael Pol, and Dewan Consultants of India and United Arab Emirates, and its director Sachin Dewan; "legal facilitator defendants" Malvern C. Burnett of New Orleans and his firms Gulf Coast Immigration Law Center LLC and Law Offices of Malvern C. Burnett; and "labor broker defendants" Indo-Amerisoft of New Orleans and itschairman Kurella Rao, J&M Associates of Mississippi Inc. and its founder Billy R. Wilks and related company J&M Marine.
In a 72-page complaint in Joseph, 33 guest workers allege they answered recruiting advertisements for jobs in the United States and were informed by the recruiter defendants and/or legal facilitator defendants that they could "obtain legal permanent residence" in the form of a green card.
"Plaintiffs undertook considerable economic, social, familial and personal sacrifices, including payment of high fees, assumption of significant interest bearing debt, loss of real and personal property, lost work opportunities, lost or unpaid wages and additional legal fees," they allege in the complaint.
They allege in the complaint that in 2006, the legal facilitator defendants, on behalf of Signal, obtained 590 H-2B guest worker visas, which are temporary short-term visas, for Signal for the period Oct. 1, 2006, through July 31, 2007.
The plaintiffs allege the recruiter, legal facilitator and/or labor broker defendants failed to disclose facts about the H-2B visas, including the fact that the visa status is "fundamentally incompatible with simultaneously applying for a green card." They allege they have not received green cards.
The plaintiffs came to the United States in 2006 and 2007 and began working for Signal in Orange. They allege in the complaint that they were "shocked to discover that they were expected to live in isolated, overcrowded labor camps comprised of trailer-like bunkhouses." Among many things, they allege they were "constantly monitored" by security guards at the camp, Signal deducted about $1,050 a month from their pay for "substandard accommodations and meals," and Signal "personnel and management regularly threatened" them with deportation. The complaint uses "Signal" to refer to all four Signal entities.
The plaintiffs allege that all defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and they bring fraud and negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract causes of action against all defendants. They also allege the Signal, recruiter and legal facilitator defendants violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871; and allege the Signal defendants violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
They seek unspecified actual and punitive damages, treble damages under RICO and attorney fees, among other relief.
A woman who answered the phone at Signal International offices in Mobile on May 22 said a lawyer would return a message but did not. Erin Casey Hangartner, a partner in Middleberg, Riddle & Gianna in New Orleans, who represents Signal in David, did not return a telephone message.
A woman who answered the phone at a number obtained online for Global Resources in Gulfport, Miss., hung up on Texas Lawyer, and a telephone listing obtained online for Pol in Pascagoula was not answered. Pol represents himself and Global Resources pro se in David, and his number in the case file has been disconnected.
Dewan did not respond to an email sent to him at his company in India. Stephen Shapiro, a New Orleans solo who represents Dewan and his company in David, declines comment.
Burnett did not return a message left at his firm. Daniel Buras Jr., a partner in Buras Law Firm of Covington, La., who represents Burnett and his firms in David, declines comment.
A number for Indo-Amerisoft obtained online has been disconnected and a number for Rao was not available online or through directory assistance. Both are pro se in David.
A number obtained online for J&M Associates in Moss Point, Miss., has been disconnected, a number for J&M Marine was not in service, and an individual who answered a telephone number for Wilks hung up on Texas Lawyer. Their lawyer in David, James G. Curenton Jr., of James G. Curenton Jr. of Fairhope, Ala., did not return a telephone message.