H-1B Victims Win Symbolic but Hollow Victory in U.S. District Court

By David North, December 23, 2012

A group of Filipino teachers here on H-1B visas won a court battle in California earlier last week against the Filipina-owned contracting company that had exploited them over the years.

The press headlines were misleading, however, trumpeting "Filipino Teachers in US win $4.5 million".

Misleading because my strong guess is that the teachers – and their legal team – will not collect much of anything from either of the defendants: Lourdes Navarro or her placement firm, Universal Placement International Inc.

I do not have access to Ms. Navarro's financial records, but I do know that she was previously convicted of defrauding California's Medi-Cal program of $1 million, has just funded an expensive legal defense in the teachers' case (as well as, presumably, in the other), and her firm's website is now dark.

The teachers should have won, having been badly exploited by UPI, a greedy middleman firm with ties both in the Philippines and in the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana, where the teachers worked, as outlined in an earlier posting of mine.

Although the jury decision in U.S. district court may be heartening to the teachers, may be noticed by other exploitative (or would-be exploitative) recruiting firms, and may put UPI out of business, it could have been a much more significant victory, but two things went wrong.

First, the lawsuit was filed against Ms. Navarro and the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, a jurisdiction with about a quarter of a million population. While I do not know the full story, school boards that use H-1B workers, such as this one, exclude unemployed American school teachers from the jobs given to the H-1Bs, and enjoy the generally lower salary scales that result from the presence of the foreign workers. Further, the School Board should have known about the abuse of their teachers by UPI, and should have immediately broken off relations with that outfit.

Unfortunately, and perhaps for inescapable reasons, the federal judge last summer ruled that the School Board was not to be subject to the suit.

That was doubly unfortunate because the school board would have been able, unlike Ms. Navarro, to pay part of the $4.5 million, and because the judge's ruling allowed the Board's lawyer to tell the Associated Press that the School Board had been dismissed from the case for many reasons "chiefly because we did nothing wrong."

Unfortunately, the AP did not follow-up on the school board's record in this case, and none of the news stories mentioned the non-hiring of unemployed U.S. teachers.

Further, the U.S. Labor Department's minuscule listing of H-1B debarred employers does not include the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board as an employer that no longer can use the H-1B program. The only school system currently on the list is that of Prince George's County, Md., whose many abuses of the program have been chronicled in, among other places, this posting.

The second disappointment in this case was a product of a jury decision, not that of the judge.

The lawyers for the teachers had sought to make Ms. Navarro and her company liable under the federal Trafficking Victims Protective Act, but the jury did not agree. Instead the jury found that UPI and Ms. Navarro had "negligently misrepresented the fees and violated California laws governing employment agencies and unfair business acts", according to the AP story.

A precedent that an exploiter of nonimmigrant workers could be in violation of the anti-trafficking laws would have been useful.

As noted in the earlier posting, the teachers had multiple allies, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO), Covington & Burling (one of Washington's leading law firms), and the U.S.-based arm of the Labor Party of the Philippines(Partido ng Manggawa).

Although the decision could have been more sweeping, any decision that makes the H-1B program more expensive for its users, and more controversial, is a step in the right direction, and may discourage other employers (and middlemen) from using it.