Filipino teachers in U.S. win $4.5 million

A federal jury awarded $4.5 million to Filipino teachers who paid large fees to obtain U.S. jobs through a placement agency.

Jurors on Monday found that Los Angeles-based Universal Placement International Inc. and its owner, Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro, failed to properly disclose the fees for almost 350 teachers who were recruited for $40,000-a-year jobs in Louisiana, mostly in East Baton Rouge Parish.

The teachers arrived in the U.S. between 2007 and 2009 under a federal program that grants worker permits to foreigners with special skills. Caddo, Jefferson and the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans were among the other Louisiana school districts where the teachers worked.

“The amount of money is not really what they want,” said Ian Seruelo, a liaison with the Labor Party in the Philipines, who attended much of the two week trial. “It’s a vindication of their struggle, of what they’ve been through.”

In 2010, the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued on behalf of some teachers who complained that before ever leaving the Philippines they had to borrow money to pay thousands of dollars charged by the company, as much as $16,000 in some cases — five times the average annual household income in the country.

The class-action suit claimed that more unexpected fees and expensive legal entanglements followed once the teachers arrived in the United States. For example, contracts were required in which the teachers agreed to pay a percentage of their monthly income to Universal along with fees for arranging housing.

Passports and visas were confiscated to ensure the fees would be paid, the lawsuit said.

The suit claimed the threat of huge debt and loss of their visas amounted to forced labor under a federal law against human trafficking passed by Congress in 2000.

A judge earlier dismissed the East Baton Rouge Parish school system as a defendant in the case; it had been sued for alleged negligence and failure to protect the teachers.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said he couldn’t comment since he hasn’t seen the ruling, but said the school system was dismissed from the case for many reasons, “chiefly because we did nothing wrong.”

Jim Knoepp, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the judge ruled that the teachers had waited too long, more than a year, to make their claims against the school system under state law. Knoepp said that states with less strict limitations, such as Maryland, have had courts find school districts liable in similar cases.

In their verdict, jurors rejected the human trafficking arguments against Universal Placement International but found the recruiting agency had negligently misrepresented the fees and violated California laws governing employment agencies and unfair business acts, attorneys for both sides said.

“The jury sent a clear message that exploitative and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated,” Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.

Don A. Hernandez, a lawyer who represented the company, said there was no intentional wrongdoing by his client regarding disclosure of fees. He called the lawsuit a “witch hunt.”

“These teachers voluntarily took on whatever debt they did to pay the fees to come to the United States. They were not forced, the jury found,” he said.

Hernandez said he would seek to have the award figure reduced because the Louisiana Workforce Commission earlier awarded return of $1.8 million, which he said involved the same fees.

In November, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the company’s efforts to avoid refunding those placement fees.

Seruelo said at least a dozen Filipino teachers came to Los Angeles to testify during the trial. He said that Universal Placement International and an affiliated company run by a brother of Navarro’s have been the subject of legal and administrative proceedings in the Philippines.

Knoepp said the next step is to try to collect the $4.5 million judgment, which he said will involve seeking money from both the company via an insurance policy the company had and from Navarro personally.

Knoepp said that Universal Placement is one of many companies that recruit teachers to the United States from foreign countries in a suspicious manner.

Advocate staff writer Charles Lussier contributed to this story.