Working for Justice

My Employer Threatened Or Manipulated Me Into Working. Was This Labor Abuse Or Mistreatment That I Experienced Illegal?

Posted July 2nd, 2021 by Austin Webbert in Civil Litigation.

Everyone deserves the right to choose a job where they are treated squarely and paid fairly for their hard work. Unfortunately, some abusive employers—whether businesses or individual bosses—violate this basic human right with exploitative working conditions. By abusing or mistreating workers, however, these employers may also be breaking the law; and therefore, be liable financially to workers for damages.

A recent federal court ruling in Dale Carmen v. Health Carousel, LLC,[1] highlights at least two situations in which employer conduct may prove illegal, enabling workers to recover compensation for the harms they endure.

First, some employment contracts attempt to impose serious financial penalties against a worker for leaving the employer. These consequences may be so harsh that they effectively deny a worker the choice to freely leave the job.[2]

Second, some employers may manipulate a worker with bait-and-switch tricks that also essentially trap a worker into doing a job against their wishes.[3]

In both scenarios, the employer may break an important federal law: the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. This statute protects workers from various forms of labor exploitation and abuse. Significantly, it prohibits anyone from “knowingly . . . obtain[ing] the labor or services of a person by . . . threats of serious harm . . . or by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process.”[4]

“Serious harm” can be “any harm, whether physical or nonphysical, including psychological, financial, or reputational harm” that is serious enough to make a reasonable person do work to avoid the harm given the circumstances.[5] “[A]buse of law” means “the use or threatened use of a law or legal process . . . in any manner or for any purpose for which the law was not designed, in order to exert pressure on another person.”[6]

In other words, nobody can try to make a worker feel “reasonabl[y]”[7] compelled—given their background and the surrounding circumstances—to perform work.[8] And anyone who violates this law can be held liable for compensatory damages.[9] This includes restitution (typically compensation at the prevailing or at least minimum wage rates) and emotional distress damages (potentially between $400–800 per day).[10] Punitive damages can also be assessed, often as an additional amount equal to the compensatory damages.[11]

In the Health Carousel court case, for example, the plaintiff stated that the defendant company had recruited foreign nurses like her to the U.S., staffing them at various healthcare facilities.[12] She contended that the defendant, Health Carousel, paid its nurses with money from the facilities (after pocketing a cut), while also assisting the nurses with their immigrant visas and covering various expenses for them.[13]

But Health Carousel also allegedly required its nurses to sign contracts committing them to work 36 months’ worth of non-overtime hours exclusively for the company, a non-compete, and financial penalties of $10,000–35,000 to escape the employment relationship once Health Carousel filed for a nurse’s visa.[14] In addition, the plaintiff asserted that Health Carousel misled its nurses about important aspects of the contractual arrangement and hindered them from completing the 36-month commitment period—including by making nurses work overtime but not crediting that time towards the commitment.[15]

A federal judge recognized that these alleged bait-and-switch practices and the financial penalties against nurses could well prove to violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.[16] In doing so, the court reviewed earlier court decisions where judges had reached similar conclusions. Those situations included cases where:

  • an employer leased trucks to it drivers, but required them to immediately pay the balance on those leases—even over $100,000—if they violated an employment agreement requiring the drivers to work only for the defendant;[17]
  • an employer threatened to enforce a $15,000 penalty—representing six months of gross wages for an employee—if the employee left the job;[18]
  • an employer attempted to enforce a $25,000 contractual penalty, which had already been found unenforceable by a court;[19]
  • an employer threatened an immigrant nanny and housekeeper with a $8,000 bill for room and board when she sought to return to her home country after over a year of being exploited without pay in the U.S.;[20] and
  • foreign teachers paid a $5,000 non-refundable fee for a defendant to bring them to work in the U.S., but the defendant later surprised them by demanding an additional (before undisclosed) $10,000 fee—or else the teachers would lose the original payment and the opportunity to work in the U.S.[21]

Again, two key threads run through these cases:

(1) employers seeking to impose stiff financial penalties on workers for leaving a job, or

(2) abusive bait-and-switch or other manipulative tricks by employers seeking to entrap workers in a job.

If you think anyone has coerced you to work a job against your wishes, you may have viable claims. Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP has experienced workers’ rights lawyers in New York, Washington, DC, Baltimore, San Francisco, San Diego, and Tennessee, who can assess the circumstances of your case.

Footnotes

[1] No. 1:20-CV-313, 2021 WL 2476882 (S.D. Ohio June 17, 2021).
[2] Id. at *7.
[3] Id. at *7–8.
[4]  18 U.S.C. § 1589(a).
[5]  § 1589(c)(2).
[6]  § 1589(c)(1).
[7]  § 1589(c)(2).
[8]  See id.; § 1589(c).
[9]  See § 1595(a).
[10] See, e.g., Ross v. Jenkins, 325 F. Supp. 3d 1141, 1171–74 (D. Kan. 2018) (granting restitution to plaintiff at the prevailing wage rate for work performed and emotional distress damages equal to $800 per day that plaintiff was subjected to the distress).
[11] Id. at 1175–76 (awarding plaintiff punitive damages in an amount equal to the compensatory damages and noting an “increasing trend” of courts doing so).
[12]  Health Carousel, 2021 WL 2476882, at *1.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at *1–2.
[15] Id. at *4, *8.
[16]  Id. at *9.
[17] Id. at *7 (citing Carter v. Paschall Truck Lines, Inc., 324 F. Supp. 3d 900, 903–04, 915–16 (W.D. Ky. 2018)).
[18] Id. at *7 (citing Javier v. Beck, No. 13-cv-2926, 2014 WL 3058456, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 3, 2014)).
[19] Id. at *7 (citing Paguirigan v. Prompt Nursing Employment Agency, LLC, 286 F. Supp. 3d 430, 438–39 (E.D.N.Y. 2017)).
[20] Id. at *7 (citing United States v. Dann, 652 F.3d 1160, 1163, 1165, 1171 (9th Cir. 2011)).
[21] Id. at *8 (citing Nunag-Tanedo v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, 790 F. Supp. 2d 1134, 1138, 1144–45 (C.D. Cal. 2011)).

Austin Webbert is an Associate in the Baltimore office of Sanford Heisler Sharp, a national law firm with offices in Washington DC, New York, California, Tennessee, and Maryland. He received his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 2017.
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