PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - An attorney urged the 9th Circuit to toss claims from Filipino teachers who blamed him for their entanglement in an unfair recruiting scheme.
In a federal class action alleging forced labor, human trafficking and extortion, five Filipino teachers claimed that they had been "systematically defrauded and exploited" by a recruitment firm. They said they had paid more than $15,000 in fees to work in Louisiana public schools, but were instead saddled with debt and kept quiet with threats of legal action and deportation.
One barb of the complaint takes aim at Robert Silverman of Silverman & Associates, an attorney the teachers accuse of facilitating their entry into the United States.
No stranger to controversy, Silverman once controlled the weight-loss firm 1-800-Get-Thin. He resigned last year, however, in the wake of five patient deaths, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In the case brought by the Filipino teachers, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt barred Silverman from striking the claims against him under California's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law in October 2011.
Certain claims of the case went to trial in December 2012 where a jury nixed the human trafficking claims but found that the recruiting firm had violated a state law associated with the operation of an employment agency. The jury also held the firm liable for negligent misrepresentation and unfair competition.
Silverman meanwhile appealed his failed immunity maneuver to the 9th Circuit.
At a hearing of the federal appeals court Tuesday morning, Judge Paul Watford cited notice of entry of appearance forms and other evidence suggesting that Silverman had represented both the school district and the plaintiffs.
Watford said he was also "troubled" by correspondence establishing an attorney-client relationship between Silverman and individual teachers.
Silverman explained the forms as a "security" measure, and remained inscrutable amid grilling from the three-judge panel, challenging the sufficiency of evidence in the case.
The panel questioned why Silverman had filed an anti-SLAPP motion in the first place, and how he had standing to plead a free-speech violation.
"You're not even expressing your own views," Judge Marsha Berzon said. "You're a shill essentially. You're there on behalf of your clients. The views expressed may not even be your views."
An attorney for the teachers, Samuel Brooke with the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala., echoed the panel's doubts.
Since California case law consistently found that the state's anti-SLAPP law does not apply to legal malpractice claims, the court should affirm, Brookes said.
He also argued that there was more than enough evidence, including declarations, notice of appearance forms and visa applications, to show that Silverman was representing his clients
Each teacher paid their recruiters a $500 anti-fraud fee, which went to Silverman, he added.
Berzon chimed in when Watford questioned why that was Silverman's fault.
"It could be that they [the recruiters] took the $2,000 and put it in their pocket," Berzon said.
U.S. District Judge James Carr, sitting on the panel by designation from Toledo, Ohio, then asked: "Is there any other lawyer anywhere in the record to whom these monies might have gone?"
Brooke replied: "There certainly is not."
The "only reasonable inference" was that the legal fees went to Silverman, he added.
Speaking to the panel directly, Silverman said he had nothing to do with the recruitment process.
"Factually, I, as an attorney, was not even in the picture to be consulted with or to be discussed with at the time they were being offered a one-year job placement," Silverman said.
"For factual reasons and legal reasons it fails," he added. "And this is why an anti-SLAPP is important because they can't prove their case. They will not prove their case, and they will not meet a summary judgment standard."
Silverman's other legal entanglements include a September 2011 complaint that accuses Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik of recording their telephone conversations without his consent, in violation of California wiretap law. 1 800 Get Thin LLC sued the same columnist earlier that year for writing "fraudulent and misleading" columns about it.
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