WASHINGTON (CN) – A woman who admitted that she did not pay wages to her African housekeeper must face a civil suit for involuntary servitude, a federal judge ruled.
Anne Margareth Bakilana, an economist with the World Bank, pleaded guilty in 2010 to lying when questioned about the servant, Sophia Kiwanuka. The plea required Bakilana to pay Kiwanuka more than $41,600 in restitution, based on a Labor Department calculation that Kiwanuka worked 24 hours a day for eight months. Bakilana’s probation term ended early this past July.
While federal prosecutors in Virginia were holding Bakilana’s feet to the fire, Kiwanuka filed a civil complaint against Bakilana and her husband, Raymond Rwehumbiza, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Kiwanuka said Bakilana and Rwehumbiza come from wealthy families in Tanzania and brought her to the United States to help maintain their home and care for their two sons.
After luring Kiwanuka with promises of a better life – including reasonable working conditions, educational opportunities and decent pay – the couple “confiscated her passport, held her in isolation and used threats of deportation to manipulate her into working long hours as a domestic servant and nanny to their children,” according to the court’s summary of Kiwanuka’s complaint. At one point, Bakilana allegedly lifted Kiwanuka by the shirt collar and screamed at her.
On Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth refused to dismiss most of the claims.
Bakilana claimed her restitution payments to Kiwanuka precludes a complaint for civil damages, but the court rejected this argument, finding only that “the prior criminal restitution may provide a partial setoff against” an award Kiwanuka could receive if her case succeeds on the merits.
“Ms. Kiwanuka has never negotiated or agreed to a release of claims against the defendants,” Lamberth wrote. “Because Ms. Kiwanuka was not a party to Ms. Bakilana’s criminal plea agreement or the restitution order, she cannot be bound by it. Moreover, the plea agreement does not contain any language addressing potential civil lawsuits.”
Bakilana had used the same argument to try and withdraw her plea agreement after Kiwanuka filed suit in August 2010, but U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema quickly rejected the pro-se maneuver.
In the civil case, Lamberth also rejected claims that allegations of “occasionally yell[ing]” do not qualify as threats or coercion to establish involuntary servitude.
“This argument is without merit,” the 21-page decision states.
“Defendants have overlooked the numerous allegations in plaintiff’s complaint that defendants abused the legal process by threatening her with deportation should she fail to perform the work demanded of her,” Lamberth wrote. “As alleged in the complaint, the FBI obtained recordings of Ms. Bakilana making just such a threat during its investigation into the defendants’ trafficking of Ms. Kiwanuka. As alleged in the complaint, Ms. Bakilana is recorded as saying, ‘They will take you right now to board a night plane for your return. Okay? I can make a phone call to the FBI, they will bring you your passport on Monday. Monday night you will board a plane because your visa would have been cancelled.'”
The court also found that the statute of limitation does not bar the lawsuit and that the venue is proper since Bakilana works in D.C. and Rwehumbiza, the husband, attends school at George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C. The allegations are rooted in Virginia, but neither defendant is a U.S. citizen, and aliens may be sued in any district, according to the decision.
Since Rwehumbiza is not alleged to have physically injured Kiwanuka, Lamberth dismissed a claim of emotional distress against him.