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Barjo v. Cherian

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 22, 2018

SHOSHANTI BARJO, Plaintiff,
v.
VIVIAN R. CHERIAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROGER W. TITUS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On June 1, 2018, Plaintiff, Shoshanti Barjo (“Barjo”), filed this action against Defendants, Vivian Cherian and Kenneth Cherian (“Mr. and Mrs. Cherian” or “the Cherians”), and Aberdeen House, Inc. ECF No. 1. Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint in its entirety on August 1, 2018, and Barjo filed an Opposition on August 29, 2018. ECF Nos. 7, 17. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss will be denied.

         I. Factual Background[1]

         Barjo, born and raised in rural poverty in India, began part-time work as a domestic worker in India for the Cherians in 1994 at the age of 18. Compl. ¶¶ 11, 14. Up to this point, Barjo had received almost no education and had limited English language skills. Id. ¶¶ 13, 21. In 1995, Barjo moved into the Cherians' home to begin working full-time, sharing work with the Cherians' other domestic workers. Id. ¶ 16. Two years later, Mrs. Cherian was offered a job in Washington, D.C. Id. ¶ 17. After the Cherians promised to pay Barjo $210 per week for an average of forty hours of work per week, and no more than 60 hours per week under any circumstance, Barjo agreed to move with the Cherians to Washington, D.C. Id. ¶¶ 17-20. Barjo signed an employment contract. Id. ¶ 20. However, it was written in English so she relied on Mrs. Cherian's representation of the terms when signing it with her fingerprint. Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Mrs. Cherian then arranged for Barjo to get an Indian passport and a G-5 Visa from the U.S. Department of State, and Barjo moved to the United States with the Cherians in 1997. Id. ¶¶ 22-24.

         From her arrival in the United States until 2002, Barjo worked in the Cherians' home where she was treated much differently than she was as a domestic worker for them in India. Id. ¶¶ 28, 50. Barjo was forced to work between 100 and 110 hours per week. Id. ¶ 29. She was not given a bed or blanket, was forced to sleep on the floor, then later on a sofa, and was denied heating for where she slept. Id. ¶ 34. Barjo was not allowed access to a coat to walk the kids to school, subsequently getting sick because of that; her food and drink intake were closely monitored, limited, and ridiculed; and when she requested improved living conditions, she was told, “You used to sleep on the floor in India, why do you need anything more?” Id. ¶¶ 35-36. Mrs. Cherian screamed at Barjo daily, making her feel like a slave and reducing her to tears for transgressions such as waking up thirty minutes late. Id. ¶ 33.

         The Cherians did not pay Barjo for her work, lying to her about a bank account opened in her name where her pay would be deposited. Id. ¶ 38. When Barjo asked for her money so she could buy winter clothes, Mrs. Cherian refused and became enraged, instilling fear in Barjo that prevented her from asking for pay again. Id. ¶¶ 39-41. Occasionally, Barjo's family in India received payments from the Cherians, but these payments did not equal what Barjo was due in wages under the terms of the contract. Id. ¶ 42.

         Barjo was told to be “good” because the Cherians brought her to the United States and secured her immigration documentation, and she was threatened with possible deportation if she were “bad.” Id. ¶ 31. Upon arriving in the United States, the Cherians retained possession of Barjo's passport for many years. Id. ¶ 5. Barjo first believed this to be custom, but when she later asked for the passport the Cherians refused to give it to her and instead kept it in a locked briefcase, which Barjo perceived as a tactic to prevent her from leaving. Id. ¶¶ 25, 46-48, 56. The Cherians then let Barjo's visa lapse, thereby subjecting her to possible deportation. Id. ¶ 47. The Cherians reminded Barjo that she could be deported, which then made her afraid to ask for her passport or salary and subjected her to feeling trapped at the Cherians with no other recourse. Id. ¶¶ 47-48.

         The Cherians kept Barjo isolated from others, including from her own family in India with whom she was only allowed to speak rarely and always with Mrs. Cherian listening in on the conversation. Id. ¶¶ 43-45. When she was allowed to interact with others, it was always with those who were related or indebted to the Cherians, so Barjo could never seek help from anyone to help her with her documents. Id. ¶ 45. Then, in 2002, Mr. Cherian opened a retirement home, Aberdeen House, and Barjo was moved from the Cherian's home to Aberdeen House, where she worked until 2004. Id. ¶¶ 49-50.

         The work at Aberdeen House required similar hours and was physically demanding. Id. ¶¶ 50-51. Barjo had to shovel snow, mow lawns, and pick up and move residents. Id. ¶ 51. The humiliation and degradation continued, this time at the hands of Mr. Cherian's mother who supervised Barjo at the facility. Id. ¶ 52-54. Barjo continued to demand pay and Mr. Cherian continued to refuse. Id. ¶ 55. After two years of physically demanding work, Barjo developed severe leg pain-of which she still suffers today-so the Cherians moved her back to their home where she resumed domestic work until 2006. Id. ¶¶ 57-59. In 2007, after deeming her well enough to work, the Cherians forced Barjo to return to work at the Aberdeen House. Id. ¶ 60. Eventually Barjo managed to secure her passport from the Cherians and left the control of Aberdeen House and the Cherians on February 12, 2012. Id. ¶ 63.

         II. Procedural Background

         Barjo filed a Complaint [ECF No. 1] against the Cherians and Aberdeen House on June 1, 2018, alleging six violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”), 18 U.S.C. § 1595: 1) forced labor violation of the TVPA, against the Cherians; 2) trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor in violation of the TVPA, against the Cherians; 3) forced labor violation of the TVPA, against Aberdeen House; 4) trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor in violation of the TVPA, against Aberdeen House; 5) unlawful conduct with respect to documents in violation of the TVPA, against the Cherians; and 6) conspiracy to violate the TVPA, against the Cherians and Aberdeen House. Defendants then filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint in its entirety on August 1, 2018. ECF No. 7. Defendants attached three affidavits and two exhibits to their Motion, basing their arguments largely on their view of the facts as presented with their Motion. ECF Nos. 7-1, 7-2, 7-3, 7-4, 18-1. Barjo filed her Opposition on August 29, 2018. ECF No. 17.

         III. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) serves “to test the sufficiency of a complaint.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). In order to be sufficient to survive dismissal, a complaint must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         On a motion to dismiss, courts must consider all “well-pleaded allegations of the complaint as true, ” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994), and “must construe factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” See Harrison v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 176 F.3d 776, 783 (4th Cir. 1999). However, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will ...


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