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Media Alerts - Winfred Muchira v. Halah al-Rawaf, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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April 10, 2017
  Winfred Muchira v. Halah al-Rawaf, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Human Trafficking Claim Not Enough to Get Out of "Bad" Job

Areas of Law: Employment law

Issue Presented: Whether the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to establish the defendants knowingly obtained her labor and services in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Brief Summary: The Kenyan appellant Winfred Muchira, a contracted live-in housekeeper for a family of Saudi Arabian nationals residing in Virginia, brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia alleging that the appellees, members of that family, forced her to provide labor in violation of the TVPA. Following discovery, the district court granted summary judgment on those claims to the appellees. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment, finding that the appellant failed to present evidence sufficient to survive the motion.

Extended Summary: Winfred Muchira, a Kenyan national and the appellant, was a contracted live-in housekeeper for the appellees, all members of a Saudi Arabian family. She began working for the family in Saudi Arabia in December 2010. In July 2012 she moved with several family members to Vienna, Virginia, where some of the children would be attending school. As part of the move to the United States, the appellant agreed to a new employment contract with the family that outlined her responsibilities and those of the family. With the family's assistance, Muchira obtained a six-month visa to work for the family in the U.S. Once here, the appellant lived with the family first in her own apartment and then in her own bedroom in their Vienna house.

At the end of their initial visa period, the family extended their stay by another six months, with the understanding that they would then return to Saudi Arabia. The appellant signed a new employment contract reflecting the same, except that she would return to Kenya for a time before resuming her work with the family in Saudi Arabia. However, about two months before the appellant's scheduled departure to Kenya, she began a correspondence with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center via a hotline telephone number. She did not allege physical abuse or any other type of mistreatment, but complained about her salary and requested help in finding a way to stay in the United States with a different job. With the Hotline operator's assistance, she left the family's home in March 2013 without telling them and began cooperating with the government as they investigated the family for visa fraud.

After that criminal investigation concluded with no charges, the appellant brought a lawsuit against the appellees, alleging six claims of involuntary servitude and illegal trafficking under the TVPA, among other claims. Following discovery and a motion for summary judgment brought by the appellees, the district court granted summary judgment on all of the trafficking and involuntary servitude claims.

The appellant appealed her case to the Fourth Circuit, challenging the grant of summary judgment on her claim that she was a victim of forced labor in violation of the TVPA. Under the forced labor provision of that act, the appellant alleged that the appellees knowingly obtained her labor and services "by means of serious harm" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589(a)(2) and "by means of the abuse of threatened abuse of law or legal process" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589(a)(3). After reviewing the case de novo, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the appellant's evidence was insufficient to meet the statutory requirements and therefore affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

Serious harm, under the TVPA, is "any harm...that is sufficiently serious, under all the surrounding circumstances, to compel a reasonable person of the same background and in the same circumstances to perform or to continue performing labor or services in order to avoid incurring that harm." 18 U.S.C. § 1589(c)(2). The only harm that the appellant alleged was psychological harm due to the cultural "house rules" that the Saudi appellees allegedly forced her to follow. The Fourth Circuit found that this argument failed for two distinct reasons: (1) there was no evidence that the appellees either knowingly or intentionally caused that harm, a requirement under this statute; and (2) the appellant was not an especially vulnerable victim that this statute is intended to protect. As the Fourth Circuit found, the appellant is an adult who consented to the employment contract with full knowledge and past experience of housekeeping with this specific family. In further support of that point, the Fourth Circuit cited other evidence in the record, including her living conditions with the family and the unfettered access they gave her to a cell phone and the internet.

The second contention brought by the appellant, abuse of the legal process, required her to show that the appellees' threatened use of the law against her was intended "to exert pressure on another person to cause that person to take some action or refrain from taking some action." 18 U.S.C. § 1589(c)(1). The appellant alleged that the family forced her to lie to the United States Embassy in order to receive her visa and then withheld her passport from her throughout her time in the United States. The Fourth Circuit again found that these arguments failed, as there was no evidence in the record that the family intended either circumstance to force the appellant to continue working for them. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit also cited evidence of Muchira's consent and acquiescence to these circumstances that made it so she could not meet the statutory requirements necessary for her claims to have merit.

To read full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Traxler, and Hendricks (sitting by designation from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina)

Argument Date: 10/27/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/03/2017

Docket Number: No. 15-2198

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Patrick J.L. Dillon, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Gregory H. Lantier, WILMER CUTLER PICKERING HALE AND DORR LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Neil Harris Koslowe, POTOMAC LAW GROUP, PLLC, Washington, D.C., for Appellees. ON BRIEF: James L. Quarles III, Robert Arcamona, Thomas G. Sprankling, WILMER CUTLER PICKERING HALE 2 AND DORR LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Galia Messika, Luisa Caro, POTOMAC LAW GROUP, PLLC, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Traxler

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/10/2017 01:21 PM     4th Circuit  

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