PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Filipino teachers who accused a Los Angeles employment recruiter of human trafficking asked an appeals court on Wednesday to uphold a federal jury's $4.4 million award.
A class of 347 Filipino teachers claimed that they were "systematically defrauded and exploited" by the recruitment firms and their agents after paying up to $16,000 each to work in Louisiana public schools.
The teachers, who came to the United States to work on specialty occupation visas, said recruiters misled them to collect millions of dollars in fees.
After saddling the teachers with debt, the recruiters attempted to muzzle the teachers with threats of legal action and deportation, the lawsuit claimed.
Louisiana school districts chose Koreatown-based Universal International Placement and its president Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro to recruit the teachers even though she had done jail time for defrauding the California Medi-Cal system of more than $1 million, and entered a guilty plea to money laundering in New Jersey, according to the Aug. 5, 2010 complaint.
The teachers later dismissed their racketeering and fraud allegations.
After a six-day trial in December 2012, the recruiters prevailed on the human trafficking claims but the jury found that they had violated a state law governing the operation of an employment agency.
The jury also held the recruiters liable for negligent misrepresentation and unfair competition. It awarded $4.4 million in damages, according to court records.
Universal Placement International and Navarro appealed the judgment.
In an opening brief, Navarro's attorney Katharine Miller told the Ninth Circuit that the teachers were earning seven to 12 times more in the U.S. than in the Philippines, and that the human trafficking claim should never had been certified because it turned the jury against Navarro and Universal, denying them of a fair trial.
"Had governing law been applied properly, the trafficking claim would not have been certified and the inflammatory evidence not relevant to the state law claims would not have been admissible or admitted," Miller wrote in the brief.
During a morning hearing at the Richard H. Chambers courthouse in Pasadena, Calif., Miller argued that Navarro should not have been held personally liable. She also argued that adverse judgments against the recruiter in litigation in Louisiana, the Philippines and the school districts opened the door to double recovery.
"They are in this court, in this judgment, out there collecting. And specifically they have received an order and have foreclosed on the appellant's house," Miller said.
A three-judge panel insisted that the district court would guard against double recovery.
"It strikes me that this is just simply a post-resolution of this purely administrative matter that the trial court's going to have to sort out on a class member by class member basis. Housekeeping as we would call it," U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said.
Miller said the cumulative effect of all the lower court's errors "scream out that there was a miscarriage of justice." But the teachers' attorney, Henry Liu, said there was no merit to the recruiters' efforts to overturn the judgment.
"The evidence in the record shows that Ms. Navarro personally collected fees from class members and directed those fees into her own personal bank account," Liu said, adding that under an employment statute in California's Civil Code she can be held "directly and personally liable."
He said Navarro was the recruitment firm's "sole decision maker" and president.
"She herself made decisions about what representations would be made to class members. She delivered contracts and organized the process," Liu said.
The attorney clarified that there had been "no double recovery" in the case and not a "single penny" had been recovered in the other actions.
The appeals court took the case under submission. Judge William Fletcher and Judge Ronald Gould joined Christensen on the panel.
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