GALVESTON, Texas (CN) – Though it was five months late in securing U.S. legal representation, a Vietnamese company can still defend itself against human-trafficking claims, a federal judge ruled.
Fifty-five Vietnamese workers sued Hanoi-based International Investment Trade and Service Group (Interserco) and General Automotive Industry Corporation of Vietnam (Vinamotors) last year for violations of the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act, the 13th Amendment, the Alien Torts Claims Act and other laws.
Interserco and Vinamotors allegedly charged exorbitant fees with the promise of setting workers up with high-paying jobs in the U.S., but then forced the clients into indentured servitude and abandoned them eight months later.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt gave the companies 60 days to obtain U.S. counsel beginning in August 2011. Interserco had enlisted the help of Vietnamese firm Bizlink Lawyers & Consultants, but the defendants filed their answer to the complaint pro se.
Though Bizlink was not licensed to practice in the U.S., it failed to seek temporary admission.
The workers mailed their first requests for discovery to Interserco in November, but the company says the FedEx package went missing.
Judge Hoyt granted the workers’ motion to deem admissions in February 2012.
Then on March 16, 2012 – well past the 60-day deadline – Mayer Brown LLP stepped in as Interserco’s U.S. counsel.
U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa, who caught the case on reassignment in May, granted Interserco’s motion to withdraw deemed admissions Tuesday and rejected the workers’ motion for summary judgment.
“The motions under consideration place at odds two important principles of the civil justice system: the priority that disputes be resolved speedily, which requires adherence to deadlines, against the desire that the merits of a case decide its outcome,” Costa wrote.
The judge found “that the principle favoring resolution based on the merits prevails under the unusual circumstance of this case.”
Withdrawing the deemed admissions would not prejudice the workers, Costa concluded.
“Interserco explained that it diligently attempted to retain three U.S. law firms before retaining Mayer Brown, but was unsuccessful because the ‘process of securing corporate approval for retention of foreign counsel for a Vietnamese entity … requires multiple committee approvals which simply takes time to go through,” the order states.
“Indeed, Interserco did not have counsel authorized to appear in this court when the first requests for admissions were mailed and later deemed admitted,” Costa added. “The Vietnamese counsel that Interserco retained to assist with the answer was not licensed to practice in the United States and never obtained pro hac vice admission. Interserco’s current counsel had yet to be engaged in the case, and its only lawyers were from a foreign country with a different language and legal system. Furthermore, uncertainty exists concerning whether Interserco ever received the FedEx package containing the requests, as they were directed to a nonparty at the address of the Hanoi law office. In short, Interserco confronted highly unusual circumstances that explain, if not justify, its failure to timely respond to plaintiffs’ requests.”