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After class cert denied, top law firms collaborate to bring pro bono suits on behalf of allegedly trafficked Indian guestworkers

Acting pro bono, several of the country’s most prestigious law firms have brought multiple human trafficking lawsuits against Signal International, LLC and its network of recruiters and labor brokers, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced on May 21, 2013, characterizing the development as “an unprecedented collaborative effort.” According to the lawsuits, the defendants trafficked over 500 Indian guestworkers to the United States after Hurricane Katrina and forced them to work for Signal under barbaric conditions.

Trafficking scheme. The complaints assert that Signal and its agents defrauded each of the guestworkers out of tens of thousands of dollars in exorbitant “recruitment fees”; falsely promised them assistance in applying for and obtaining permanent residence in the United States; trafficked them to Signal’s Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas, facilities; forced them to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps that endangered their health and psychological well-being; assigned them the most dangerous and difficult jobs due to their race, ethnicity, religion, and national origin; and threatened them with financial ruin and adverse immigration action if they balked. Guestworkers sold family property and heirlooms and incurred crippling debt to pay as much as $25,000 to Signal and its agents, based on a promise that Signal could not—and did not intend—to fulfill, according to the complaints.

“The allegations underscore the critical need to overhaul our foreign worker programs, which currently invite this kind of exploitation, as part of any comprehensive immigration reform,” the SPLC said.

Class certification denied. The coordinated lawsuits stem from David v Signal International LLC, a case that was filed in 2008 on behalf of 12 named plaintiffs and a class of Indian guestworkers. After the court denied class certification, the SPLC contacted over half-a-dozen high-powered law firms that “enthusiastically” agreed to represent the members of the putative class for free.

Law firms filed suits in three different federal court jurisdictions, alleging breach of contract and claims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and Section 1981, among others (the complaints do not all allege the same claims):

An additional 100 trafficked guestworkers will be represented by DLA Piper; Fredrikson & Byron PA; McDermott Will & Emery; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP; and the Equal Justice Center.

The David action also continues on behalf of the 12 named plaintiffs, who are represented by Crowell & Moring LLP, SPLC, the ACLU, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.

“The Indian workers who came to this country through Signal’s recruitment effort were skilled laborers seeking opportunity,” explained SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Daniel Werner. “Instead, they were forced into a type of modern day indentured servitude. Without the help of these high-caliber law firms coming together in a very unified way, these guestworkers would be unable to have their day in court.”

In 2011, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a separate suit against Signal in Mississippi—since transferred to Louisiana—alleging that the company intentionally discriminated against the same class of Indian guestworkers.