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IPI opposes 7 workers’ petition for $11.58 million award

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IMPERIAL Pacific International LLC, through attorney Michael Dotts, is opposing the petition of seven construction workers who are seeking $11.58 million in damages.

Represented by attorneys Aaron Halegua and Bruce Berline, the plaintiffs are Tianming Wang, Dong Han, Yongjun Meng, Liangcai Sun, Youli Wang, Qingchun Xu, and Duxin Yan.

They are asking the District Court for the NMI to issue an order awarding them $3.86 million for compensatory damages and $7.72 million for punitive damages.

The plaintiffs sued IPI and its former contractor and subcontractor MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co. and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), alleging forced labor, negligence, and liability for employees of subcontractors.

The plaintiffs’ first amended complaint alleged human trafficking claims under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and the CNMI Anti-Trafficking Act, as well as claims under the CNMI law for the physical injuries the plaintiffs suffered at the construction project.

The plaintiffs are former employees of MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co. and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI).

In a 29-page opposition, Dotts stated that the plaintiffs failed to state plausible claims in their lawsuit.

He noted that “a growing trend among federal courts justifies denying entry of default in this instance and sua sponte [on the court's own motion or initiative] dismissing the complaint.”

Dotts said if the court finds the plaintiffs have pled plausible claims, their “damages award is substantially inflated and IPI has meritorious defenses gleaned from the production of thousands of documents recently produced.”

Dotts said IPI should be entitled to cross-examine witnesses and be able to obtain “more discovery to support mitigation of damages since it has shown meritorious defenses against [the] plaintiffs’ conclusory allegations.”

Dotts said IPI was not the employer of, nor had any authority over, the seven employees who filed the lawsuit.

“As provided for in the construction contracts signed between IPI and Gold Mantis and MCC International, IPI only had the authority to accept or reject the work performed by MCC and Gold Mantis. IPI was not involved with the site management nor with how the work was performed,” he said.

Dotts said it did not matter how many individuals MCC and Gold Mantis employed, or what hours the employees worked, because IPI had a contract that required the work be completed by a specific date and it was totally up to MCC and Gold Mantis how they met the schedule.

Regarding electronically stored information or ESI on cellular phones, Dotts said “IPI persuaded its employees to submit their company provided cellular phones and SIM cards for download and review. IPI paid about $7,000 in processing fees of data from one of those cellular devices, and additional money for software so that IPI could download itself company phones.”

He added, “Out of the respect for the privacy of its employees, IPI could not confiscate their cellular devices, as they generally also contained the employees’ personal information. Also, for the employees who had left IPI or had been terminated by IPI, it was very difficult and, in some cases, not possible for IPI to obtain their cellular devices.”

Dotts said IPI did not intend to come into contempt of the court orders.

He also mentioned the search and seizure on the IPI office by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in March 2017 and in November 2019, where  “hundreds of computers and data storage devices were confiscated by the FBI.”

These computers and data storage devices were returned to IPI, but up this day no criminal charges have been filed against IPI by the federal government, Dotts said, noting that the crimes of human trafficking and forced labor are severe crimes.

“IPI believes this establishes that there is no evidence on the computers that would support IPI knowing or that it should have known of the forced laborer or human trafficking allegedly done by MCC and Gold Mantis. If indeed there was evidence of criminal conduct on these ESI storage devices, the FBI would not have returned them and would have instead withheld them,” Dotts said.

Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona earlier found that IPI had failed to comply with court sanctions relating to previous discovery orders.

On June 12, 2020, Judge Manglona entered a default judgment against IPI for its “repeated failures to comply with discovery orders.”

She then directed the plaintiffs to submit a petition for damages and set a hearing for Aug. 7.

In the petition for damages, attorney Halegua stated that the plaintiffs were “defrauded into paying enormous fees for work in Saipan, indebting themselves to family, friends, or loan sharks, only to spend each day in fear of being beaten, fired, fined, or deported.”

He said they were “treated like machines not humans, working 13-hour days for less than minimum wage without a day off in up to five months.”

The lawyer added, “It was the most dangerous worksite that [the] plaintiffs had ever seen — [they were] tired workers performing evening shifts high-up on the casino scaffolding with no safety nets.”

Halegua said the plaintiffs were also humiliated by bosses who called them “heigong” (illegal workers) and ridiculed them for being “stupid” because they paid a recruitment fee for their jobs.

The impact of this conduct by IPI and its contractors on the plaintiffs’ lives has been ruinous, the lawyer said as he asked the court for a quick resolution of the plaintiffs’ petition for damages.

IPI was previously cited by the court for failing to pay $29,459 in attorneys’ fees and costs that were due on June 5, 2020.

The court also cited IPI for failing to fully comply with various discovery requirements related to such matters as producing bank records, employee separation dates, and paper discovery.

According to the findings of the court, IPI likewise failed to pay for and arrange for the transfer of electronically stored information from a vendor in Singapore to a vendor in the United States chosen by the plaintiffs.

 

 

 

 

 

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