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HomeNewsLocal newsLawsuit Alleging Forced Labor in Hurricane Repair Program Declared a Complex Case

Lawsuit Alleging Forced Labor in Hurricane Repair Program Declared a Complex Case

Blue tarps dot the rooftops of St. Thomas homes in this aerial photo from October 2017, the month after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

A long-running human trafficking lawsuit seeking damages for workers recruited from Puerto Rico and Louisiana to repair roofs after the 2017 hurricanes — who allegedly were never paid and instead left penniless and homeless on St. Thomas — has been moved to the Complex Litigation Division of V.I. Superior Court.

Judge Alphonso G. Andrews Jr., who heads the division, issued the ruling after hearing from attorneys for both sides on Friday, rejecting arguments by the defendants that the case isn’t really complex but just procedurally so because it involves nine plaintiffs and eight defendants.

Andrews found that the case meets the requirements for complex designation, given the number of parties involved, and because it arose from a natural disaster, though attorneys for the defendants downplayed that aspect as immaterial at Friday’s hearing, characterizing it as a simple contract matter that should be sent to arbitration.

The plaintiffs filed suit in V.I. Superior Court in November 2020, alleging they were victims of human trafficking and forced labor after they were recruited to perform hurricane home repairs on St. Thomas in 2019 on the promise of earning $2,200 weekly but were never paid, suffered inhumane working conditions, and threats of death or bodily harm when they complained.

The men allege that they, at one point, worked 37 days straight repairing roofs on St. Thomas in 93-plus degree heat, without food, bathroom facilities and sometimes water, and were abruptly fired and forcibly evicted from accommodations arranged by their employers when they demanded to be paid.

Once the workers were ejected from their housing, the defendants “simply brought in new workers to repeat the cycle,” the suit alleges.

One of the plaintiffs, David Charles Lambert of Louisiana, has since died and is now represented by his surviving children, Braylin Lambert and Blaine Lambert. The other plaintiffs are Benjamin Osorio, Jeremy Santos Ramirez, Norberto Rivera Frese, Luis Enrique Camacho Mattos, and Rafael Ernesto Pastrana Lugo, all of Puerto Rico, Abiel Osorio Cotto of Puerto Rico, now living in Pennsylvania, and David Paul Gautreaux of Louisiana.

Defendants in the case are Gerald Toliver, doing business as Blue Water Staffing Company; Thomas Sutton; TJ Sutton Enterprises, LLC; Citadel Recovery Services, LLC; AECOM Caribe, LLP; Bellavista Properties, Inc., doing business as Scott Hotel Bellavista; Leonard Ramsey, doing business as Ramsey Hotel; and Celestino White Sr., doing business as Celestino White Management and Consulting Firm. All have denied wrongdoing.

According to the complaint, the men were hired by the Sutton defendants, Citadel and Toliver, on Jan. 14, 2019, to provide construction services as part of the STEP recovery program — also known as the Emergency Home Repair Program Virgin Islands, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — on promise of earning $2,200 weekly.

Instead, they claim they were left penniless, homeless, and heavily traumatized by the ordeal.

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority contracted with AECOM Caribe for the STEP program, which in turn contracted with Citadel to provide construction services in the recovery effort, the complaint says. To satisfy its obligations, Citadel contracted with the Sutton defendants for the work, which contracted with Bluewater for manpower, according to the complaint.

It alleges that as part of their employment, the men lived in quarters provided by White, a former V.I. senator, the Ramsey Hotel and Scott Hotel Bellavista, who it says were in on the scheme.

The case itself has a rather complex history, having first been filed in Superior Court in November 2020, then removed to District Court in February 2021, where it was ordered into arbitration that remains pending before the American Arbitration Association. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Peter Lynch of Flag Law V.I., subsequently filed a pared-down complaint in Superior Court in March 2022, which was the subject of Friday’s hearing.

The suit alleges three counts of labor human trafficking in violation of Virgin Islands Code Title 14 and is seeking the repayment of monies owed, treble damages, emotional distress damages, punitive damages, attorney fees, and the value of work or services performed “in quantum meruit,” which means “the amount one deserves.”

While the defendants filed a joint motion to compel the case to arbitration with the District Court case, Superior Court Judge Sigrid M. Tejo in August referred the matter to Judge Andrews sua sponte — meaning of her own volition, without prompting from either side in the case.

In doing so, Tejo noted that there are currently two master cases that address Hurricane Maria-related litigation that contain similar allegations to the Cotto et al case. “Treating other natural disaster-related litigation as complex may be appropriate here too,” she wrote. “Furthermore, the Complex Litigation Division has other resources, such as a staff master, that can assist in readying cases for trial, which may help reduce cost and delay.”

On Friday, after a nearly two-hour hearing in Superior Court on St. Croix, Andrews ruled that the case meets the requirements for complex designation but agreed to a stay in proceedings until after a mediation hearing scheduled for Feb. 13.

Lynch has argued that the case does not belong in arbitration because it is a labor human trafficking matter and not a contract dispute, as the plaintiffs allege, because his clients never had a contract to begin with, despite asking for one when they were hired and during the weeks after their arrival on St. Thomas. They should not now be held to the arbitration provisions of a contract they never saw or signed, he has said.

When they complained about the lack of pay on March 2, 2019, the workers were threatened with bodily harm and eviction if they refused to continue working, according to the lawsuit.

When they refused to work any longer, the men from Puerto Rico were thrown out of their accommodations without judicial process, leaving them homeless on St. Thomas, the complaint alleges. The workers from Louisiana were fired without pay and forced to leave their housing but were provided with airline tickets back home, it says.

Forced arbitration is the subject of new bipartisan legislation introduced last week by U.S. Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

“Human trafficking survivors deserve justice, not forced arbitration,” Hawley said in a post on his website. “This legislation puts power in the hands of survivors and gives them the power to hold human traffickers accountable.”

“Forcing victims of modern-day slavery into a rigged arbitration system deprives them of one of the most powerful tools they have to hold their traffickers accountable: access to justice,” Blumenthal is quoted in the post. “This narrowly crafted and bipartisan legislation will make human traffickers pay for their crimes.”

Under current law, the legislators said, traffickers shield themselves from accountability through coercive loopholes in employment contracts that effectively force victims to relinquish their legal remedies available under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

At Friday’s hearing, Bellavista attorney Clive Rivers sought to have the complaint against his client dismissed, claiming the hotel simply evicted guests for non-payment and subsequently got “swept into” the lawsuit.

Lynch countered that they are alleged to have harbored individuals in furtherance of labor human trafficking and profited from the scheme.

Andrews stayed the request to dismiss, pending the outcome of the Feb. 13 mediation hearing.

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