By Sunantha Mendoza-Quibilan/Asianjournal.com
LOS ANGELES – The franchisees of a Comfort Inn and Suites in Oacoma, South Dakota accused of subjecting four Filipino immigrants to conditions of peonage, slavery, forced labor and human trafficking have denied the allegations in the federal civil suit against them.
The 21-page complaint filed last month by Sioux Falls attorney Brendan Johnson on behalf of employees Gina Agulto, Grace Pineda, Ronilo Pangan and Ruby Pangan of Worthington, Minn., seeks unspecified punitive, compensatory, general and special damages against Robert John Farrell and his Filipina wife Angelita Magat Farrell, and the Maryland-based Choice Hotels International Inc.
A written response filed this week by defense attorney Clint Sargent stated that the Farrells “deny the nature and extent of plaintiff’s damages and remit them to strict proof thereof.”
The Farrells assert that the plaintiffs have failed to mitigate their damages and that their claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress are excluded by South Dakota’s workers’ compensation act as well as by a state law that limits the rights and remedies of employees.
Meanwhile, Choice Hotels, in a separate response filed earlier this month, denied that it is liable for the injuries to the employees caused by the Farrells and requested that the court dismiss the portion of the complaint against the franchiser.
In November 2007, a federal jury convicted the Farrells on 18 criminal charges of conspiracy to commit peonage, four counts of peonage, document servitude, visa fraud and two counts of false statements.
Peonage is a condition of involuntary servitude imposed to extract repayment of an indebtedness.
In February, Robert Farrell was sentenced to 50 months in prison and Angelita Farrell was sentenced to 36 months in prison.
The Farrells are incarcerated but have appealed the verdicts and sentences.
The lawsuit alleges that the Farrells, after committing visa fraud to bring Philippine workers into the United States, abused the four Filipino workers by confiscating their visas and forcing them to work up to 18 hours a day without overtime pay. In addition, the victims were allegedly made to sign debt obligations and were subjected to mandatory unpaid late-night meetings where they would be admonished about their debts and work performance.