A federal jury has ordered a Los Angeles recruiting firm and its owner to pay $4.5 million to 350 teachers who said they were lured from the Philippines for teaching jobs in Louisiana but ended up being exploited.
The verdict, handed down Monday at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, followed a two-week trial in which lawyers for the teachers argued that Koreatown-based Universal Placement International Inc. and its president, Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro, charged excessive fees that saddled the teachers with debt.
“The jury sent a clear message that exploitive and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated,” Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the teachers, said in a statement. “This decision puts unscrupulous recruitment agencies on notice that human beings -- regardless of citizenship status -- cannot be forced into contracts that require them to pay illegal fees.”
The teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 as part of a Department of Labor program that permits foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years. Most teachers paid the placement service about $16,000 -- several times the average household income in the Philippines -- to obtain their jobs.
Nearly all the teachers had to borrow money to pay the recruiting fees, the Southern Poverty Law Center said. The recruiters referred the teachers to private lenders who charged as much as 5% interest per month. The recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until the teachers paid, lawyers for the teachers said.
Jurors rejected claims that the teachers were victims of human trafficking, which Navarro’s attorney said was a significant victory.
“The jury said the teachers were not trafficked and they voluntarily and knowingly incurred debt,” said Don A. Hernandez, who represented Navarro and her firm. “Afterward, the jury said they would have had no quibble with what she did if she just disclosed the fees. What was alleged was my client was a criminal involved in human trafficking and the jury rejected that.”
Hernandez said he intends to ask a judge to significantly reduce the verdict.
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