Labor and Employment Law

$3.3M Judgment Entered Against Couple Accused of Enslaving, Raping Housekeeper

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - (Mealey's) A U.S. Department of State information technology manager and her husband tricked an Ethiopian woman into accompanying them as their domestic servant to Japan, where they held her virtually as a prisoner in their home and forced her to work for them for less than $1 per hour and where the husband repeatedly raped the woman with his wife's consent, a Virginia federal judge found Sep. 4 in awarding the woman $3.3 million in damages on a default judgment against the couple (Jane Doe v. Linda Howard and Russell Howard, No. 1:11-cv-1105, E.D. Va.; 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125414).

Live-In Housekeeper

The Ethiopian woman, identified only as Jane Doe, filed a lawsuit in 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against State Department Manager Linda Howard and her husband, Russell Howard, alleging involuntary servitude, forced labor and human trafficking in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), conspiracy and unjust enrichment.  The complaint also accuses Russell Howard of obstructing enforcement.

Doe says she was hired by the Howards in 2008 as a live-in housekeeper at the couple's home in Yemen, where Linda Howard worked at the U.S. embassy.  Doe says she agreed to move with the couple to Japan after Linda Howard was transferred to the embassy there and that she was promised wages of $300 per month, time off each week, health insurance and a safe place to live and work.

Once in Japan, Doe says, Russell Howard repeatedly raped her, forced her to perform oral sex and sexually assaulted her.  Doe says Linda Howard was complicit in her husband's sexual abuse, telling Doe that she should gratify her husband and make him happy.  Doe, who speaks little English and no Japanese, says the Howards also used nonphysical force, such as isolation and threats of deportation, to coerce her into servitude.

After five months in Japan, Doe says, she fled the Howards' home in the middle of the night.  She says that after she reported the abuse, the State Department removed Linda Howard from her overseas post and launched an investigation into the Howards.  She says that while the investigation was going on, Russell Howard flew to Ethiopia in June 2011 to find her.  She says he contacted the Ethiopian police to have false charges filed against her.

Default Judgment

After Russell Howard, who is from Australia, failed to respond to Doe's complaint, and Linda Howard's answer to the complaint was stricken pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2)(A), Doe moved for default judgment, which Magistrate Judge Thomas Rawles Jones Jr. granted in an Aug. 7 report and recommendation.

The magistrate judge found that Doe's well-pleaded allegations establish liability against the Howards on all counts.  Magistrate Judge Jones said that default judgment against Russell Howard was appropriate because he did not respond to the complaint and that judgment against Linda Howard was appropriate based on the four factors established in Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (269 F.3d 305, 348 [4th Cir. 2001]):  bad faith, amount of prejudice, need for deterrence and effectiveness of less drastic sanctions.

Linda Howard acted in bad faith by telling the court that she was unaware of any upcoming overseas job-related travel and then two weeks later retiring and leaving the country, the magistrate judge said.  She also refused to appear for a deposition as ordered by the court and refused to communicate with Doe's attorneys to facilitate discovery as ordered by the court, Magistrate Judge Jones said.

"Plaintiff has been prejudiced severely by her inability to take a deposition of Mrs. Howard and to receive information necessary to permit her to prosecute her case," the magistrate judge found.  "There is a great need to deter defendants from determining that the proper response to litigation is to leave the country and refuse to participate in the resolution of a dispute.  Finally, in light of Mrs. Howard's flight from the country, it is clear that less drastic sanctions would not be effective."

'Particularly Depraved'

After a hearing, Judge Liam O'Grady adopted the magistrate judge's findings and recommendation and awarded Doe $3,306,468 in compensatory and punitive damages under the TVPA.  The amount includes $1,250,000 in compensatory emotional distress damages for forced sexual servitude; $44,500 ($500 a day) in emotional distress damages for forced labor and trafficking; $11,968 for wage restitution and unjust enrichment damages; and $2 million in punitive damages for the Howards' "intentional egregious and outrageous conduct, and the fact that Mrs. Doe continues to live in a constant state of terror."

"Here, the crime, involving sexual assaults, forced labor, and trafficking is particularly depraved," Judge O'Grady said.  "The harm was physical, it involved the intentional disregard for the health and safety of Mrs. Doe, it was repeated - involving approximately fourteen instances of forced sexual acts, and the harm was planned with forethought and intentionally inflicted on Mrs. Doe."

"In addition to the horrible circumstances relating to the sexual assaults, forced labor, and trafficking, Mr. Howard also traveled more than 8,000 miles from Virginia to Ethiopia in an attempt to locate Mrs. Doe, even knowing that the State Department's investigation into the trafficking matter was ongoing," the judge said.  "These attempts at contact exacerbated Mrs. Doe's trauma and her ongoing fear."

Doe is represented by Daniel Edward Chudd, Julie Moore Carpenter and Sarah Ann Maguire of Jenner & Block in Washington, D.C.

Linda Howard of Arlington is pro se.

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