$15.2 million pay-out for immigrant workers on US E-2 visas

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11 bakery workers from the Philippines, who had complained that they had to endure illegal working conditions in the US on their E-2 Treaty Investor visas, have won $15.2 million in damages and fees following a human trafficking case filed before the Superior Court of California. The lawsuit, filed in March 2015 by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) and Latham & Watkins LLP, resulted in a default judgment against the owners of L'Amande French Bakery. The defendants L'Amande French Bakery did not bother to defend themselves.

The case presented to the Superior Court of California provided details of how the 11 Filipino workers were lured to the US under false pretences on E-2 visas, by their employers and subsequently subjected to what the case file describes as 'exploitative working conditions.'

L'Amande French Bakery were accused of labor exploitation, discrimination, unfair immigration-related practices, trafficking, damages for breaches in California's whistleblower and retaliation laws, etc.

The E-2 visa offers immigrants with highly specialized skills or at supervisory or management level temporary work visas if they are employed by someone of the same nationality who has invested a significant amount of capital in a US-based business that has been registered as a E-2 Treaty Investor business. There is no minimum investment amount, but the lower the investment the more difficult it is for the overseas investor to qualify for E-2 Treaty Investor status which allows them to bring in employees of the same nationality as the owner of the US business.

L'Amande French Bakery owners from Philippines on E-2 Visas

Analiza [Ana] Moitinho de Almeida, apparently the daughter of a wealthy and powerful government official in the Philippines, and her husband Goncalo, were identified as the owners of L'Amande. As well as in Los Angeles, the bakery is understood to have outlets in Beverly Hills and Torrance.

The lawsuit against the Almeidas mentions that they had threatened their workers with "debt, deportation, and financial ruin" in the Philippines, in a bid to keep them in their employment. At the same time they were continuing to pay to US workers the required level of wages under California law.

Following the arrival of the Filipino workers in the US, who were under the impression they would be hired as supervisors, it's claimed that the Almeidas threatened to impose on them with an $11,000 debt unless they agreed to work illegally for a minimum of three years.

The outcome of a California Labor Commissioner's Office investigation found extremely serious breaches of legislation relating to wages and hours of work; breaches included pay of less than $3 per hour and 14-hour shifts for more than three consecutive months.

The Almeidas apparently retaliated against workers refusing to lie about their working conditions. It seems that more than 50% of workers who had cooperated with the California Labor Commissioner's investigation were fired.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Advancing Justice-LA explained how the Almeidas quickly began to liquidate their assets, which included the fraudulent sale of their million-dollar property in Rolling Hills Estates, California. The residence was sold to prevent the proceeds of the sale going to the workers.

However, the workers subsequently amended their Court Claim to prevent fraudulent transfers being made. Assets transfer could potentially mean that there would be no assets to sell to pay workers damages awarded by the Court. The defendants fled overseas and in August 2015, instructed their lawyers to 'take no further action in defending the lawsuit.'

Judge's ruling on E-2 Treaty Investor Case

On May 2, 2016, the judge presiding over the case - Judge Fernando M. Olguin of the United States District Court for the Central District of California – determined that the workers' lawsuit was valid and granted all 12 claims from which the workers sought judgment and awarded the full amount of damages the workers asked for.

The judge also took action to void the fraudulent transfers of the Almeidas and placed them under an embargo to stop them from moving any further assets. It's understood that Advancing Justice-LA and Latham & Watkins are now taking steps to enforce Judge Olguin's ruling.

Skadden Fellow and Registered Legal Services Attorney at Advancing Justice-LA, Christopher Lapinig, said: "It is always an inspiration whenever individuals like the L'Amande workers gather the courage to stand up for their rights."

"Unfortunately, time and time again, we see exploitative employers – often with the help of friends and family – resort to fraud and other unlawful activity to escape accountability for their labor abuses. With this judgment, we hope to make clear to such employers that they can no longer act with impunity," Lapinig added.

Advancing Justice-LA stated that it had already secured 'special immigration status' for the workers as victims of human trafficking, allowing them to work, rebuild their lives and reunite with their families.