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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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‘Enslaved’ Russian Bride Can Sue for Forced Labor

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A Russian woman and her daughter can sue a Clearlake man who they claim lured them with the promise of starting a family only to force them into slave labor, a federal judge ruled.

Joe Cunningham met Natalya Shuvalova while she was living in Russia through an online dating service and "promised to provide a loving home to her and her daughter Liza," the ruling states. The couple dated online for two years and spent two vacations together.

Cunningham proposed in October 2005, which the ruling points out as the same date the relationship allegedly began. Shuralova and her daughter arrived in the United States in February 2008, Shuralova married Cunningham that May.

Shuralova and her daughter claim that Cunningham and his son, Dan, began physically and verbally threatening them within weeks of their arrival.

The Shuralovas claimed they had "to move around earth, large rocks and stones, [and] remove brush and debris" on Cunningham's rural property, the ruling states, quoting from the Shuralovas' complaint.

In addition to forced "sexual services" and 8- to 10-hour workdays, seven days a week, Cunningham also allegedly threw furniture and dishes at the Shuralovas, asked Liza to help him get rid of her mother and kept the Shuralovas as prisoners in his house, the ruling states.

"Joe forced Liza to massage his naked body several times a week," while Dan "routinely grabbed, forcibly kissed and fondled her," the ruling states.

"[Dan] would come into Liza's bedroom and remain without her consent while she was dressing and would enter the bathroom while she was showering."

After the Shuralovas escaped the Cunninghams' property and moved to a shelter, they sued for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the California Labor Code.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed all of Shuralova's claims, except forced labor under the trafficking act.

Cunningham cannot be held liable under federal and labor laws since he was Shuralova's husband, not her employer, the ruling states.

Even so, the Shuralovas can rely on the labor laws to argue the value of their labor if they prevail on the charge under the trafficking act, Seeborg added.

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