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HomeNewsLocal newsSettlement Reached in Human Trafficking Lawsuit Tied to Hurricane Repairs

Settlement Reached in Human Trafficking Lawsuit Tied to Hurricane Repairs

A lawsuit brought by eight men who claimed human trafficking violations after they were recruited to repair roofs on St. Thomas following hurricanes Irma and Maria but were never paid and abruptly fired when they demanded compensation, has been settled after years of litigation.

Details of the settlement were not made public in court documents stating that mediation talks on Feb. 13 brought the complaint to a successful conclusion. According to previous filings, however, the plaintiffs were demanding the repayment of monies owed, treble damages, emotional distress damages, punitive damages, attorney fees, and the value of work or services performed “in quantum meruit,” which means “the amount one deserves.”

“Plaintiffs confirm that a settlement of all claims was reached between the parties at the mediation on February 13, 2024,” according to a notice filed Thursday by their attorney Peter Lynch of Flag Law V.I.

The men first filed suit in V.I. Superior Court in November 2020, alleging they were victims of human trafficking and forced labor. The case was removed to District Court in February 2021, where it was ordered into arbitration before the American Arbitration Association and had remained largely stalled since August, according to Lynch.

Lynch subsequently filed a pared-down complaint in Superior Court in March 2022, alleging three counts of labor human trafficking in violation of Virgin Islands Code Title 14, which was the subject of a hearing in January to determine if it was a complex case.

At that hearing Judge Alphonso G. Andrews Jr., head of the complex litigation division, found that the case met the requirements, given the number of parties involved and because it arose from a natural disaster, though attorneys for the defendants downplayed that aspect as immaterial, characterizing it as a simple contract matter that should be sent to arbitration.

Andrews agreed to stay the case until after the mediation talks and set a Feb. 29 deadline for both parties to file a joint motion on the status of those talks, which Lynch did unilaterally on Thursday.

“Plaintiffs sent an email to all Defendants asking them to join in such a notice to this Court; however, Plaintiffs have not received any responses from Defendants as of the time of this filing. Plaintiffs therefore are unilaterally filing this notice to report that the parties’ claims have been settled in order to ensure compliance with the Court’s Order,” Lynch wrote.

Defendants included Gerald Toliver, doing business as Blue Water Staffing Company; Thomas Sutton; TJ Sutton Enterprises, LLC; Citadel Recovery Services, LLC; AECOM Caribe, LLP; Bellavista Properties, Inc., doing business as Scott Hotel Bellavista; Leonard Ramsey, doing business as Ramsey Hotel; and Celestino White Sr., doing business as Celestino White Management and Consulting Firm. All denied wrongdoing.

According to the complaint, the men were hired by the Sutton defendants, Citadel and Toliver on Jan. 14, 2019, to provide construction services as part of the STEP recovery program — also known as the Emergency Home Repair Program Virgin Islands, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — on promise of earning $2,200 weekly.

Instead, they claim they were left penniless, homeless, and heavily traumatized by the ordeal.

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority contracted with AECOM Caribe for the STEP program, which in turn contracted with Citadel to provide construction services in the recovery effort, the suit said. To satisfy its obligations, Citadel contracted with the Sutton defendants for the work, which contracted with Bluewater for manpower, according to the complaint.

When they complained about the lack of pay on March 2, 2019, the workers were threatened with bodily harm and eviction if they refused to continue working, according to the lawsuit. When they refused to work any longer, the men from Puerto Rico were thrown out of their accommodations without judicial process, leaving them homeless on St. Thomas, it alleged. The workers from Louisiana were fired without pay and forced to leave their housing but were provided with airline tickets back home, it said.

One of the plaintiffs, David Charles Lambert of Louisiana, has since died and is now represented by his surviving children, Braylin Lambert and Blaine Lambert. The other plaintiffs are Benjamin Osorio, Jeremy Santos Ramirez, Norberto Rivera Frese, Luis Enrique Camacho Mattos, and Rafael Ernesto Pastrana Lugo, all of Puerto Rico, Abiel Osorio Cotto of Puerto Rico, now living in Pennsylvania, and David Paul Gautreaux of Louisiana.

While the defendants filed a joint motion to compel the case to arbitration with the District Court case, Superior Court Judge Sigrid M. Tejo in August referred the matter to Judge Andrews sua sponte — meaning of her own volition, without prompting from either side.

Lynch had argued that the case did not belong in arbitration because it was a labor human trafficking matter and not a contract dispute, as the plaintiffs alleged, because his clients never had a contract to begin with, despite asking for one when they were hired and during the weeks after their arrival on St. Thomas. They should not have been held to the arbitration provisions of a contract they never saw or signed, he said.

In the notice filed Thursday, Lynch asked that the court “continue to stay this matter while the appropriate stipulations of dismissal are prepared by the parties.”

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