$5.9M awarded to 7 ex-IPI workers


U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona has entered a $5.91-million default judgment in favor of seven Chinese construction workers who were subjected to forced labor while working on the casino-resort project of Imperial Pacific International (CNMI), LLC on Saipan.

The court’s judgment awarded $2.95 million in compensatory damages to the seven plaintiffs and an additional $2.95 million in punitive damages. The court then subtracted the amounts recovered from earlier settlements between the plaintiffs and subcontractors on the project, MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co. and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI) LLC. That amounted to $3.86 million in compensatory damages and $7.72 million in punitive damages.

The workers—Tianming Wang, Dong Han, Yongjun Meng, Liangcai Sun, Youli Wang, Qingchun Xu, and Duxin Yan—sued IPI, Gold Mantis, and MCC over various violations, including human trafficking. 

In an order Monday, the court described IPI’s mistreatment of the workers as “appalling” and noted that “IPI was the driving force” behind the “egregious conditions” faced by the plaintiffs, all “while benefiting from” that exploitation.

Specifically, the plaintiffs paid high recruitment fees to go from China to Saipan based on false promises of high wages and good conditions. After arriving, the plaintiffs regularly worked over 12 hours per day, without rest, and sometimes performed 24-hour shifts. They were paid below the minimum wage, or sometimes nothing at all, and housed in unsanitary, overcrowded dormitories. The defendants arranged for the plaintiffs to enter Saipan as “tourists” instead of under a lawful temporary work visa, took away their passports, instructed them to hide when government officials came to inspect the worksite or dormitories, and refused to take them to the hospital when they suffered injuries. A supervisor allegedly threatened to kill the workers if they complained or disobeyed him. The casino also denied a federal safety inspector access to the worksite, despite reports of a high number of injuries. 

Compensatory damages were awarded to the plaintiffs for the emotional distress suffered while being subjected to forced labor as well as any lost income and pain and suffering caused by the physical injuries they sustained. The court found that emotional distress compensation of $425 per day for the time that the plaintiffs were subjected to forced labor was reasonable given “the egregious conditions plaintiffs were forced to work under.”

The court awarded $300,000 in pain and suffering damages to six of the workers, whose injuries included a scalded hand, crushed finger, and partially-severed finger, and $400,000 to plaintiff Tianming Wang, whose leg was engulfed by flames and who has been unable to work since the 2017 injury.

In awarding punitive damages of $2.95 million, the court found that “defendants’ conduct in this matter as a whole is appalling and IPI played no small part while benefiting from the endeavor.”  

Plaintiffs are represented by Aaron Halegua of Aaron Halegua, PLLC, an attorney based in New York City, and Bruce Berline of the Law Office of Bruce Berline, an attorney based on Saipan. Plaintiffs’ counsel was also assisted by Times Wang of North River Law PLLC.

In response to the default judgment, Halegua stated, “We are pleased to see that the court recognizes the egregiousness of IPI’s conduct and the severity of the suffering that it caused our clients. This is an important decision because eradicating forced labor requires that perpetrators of such abuses face serious consequences.”

Berline joined in Halegua’s statements and added, “This decision marks a large step forward. IPI has known about the plaintiffs’ injuries for years, but has not paid them a penny. Instead, IPI has persistently denied responsibility for the treatment and injuries sustained by these workers who labored tirelessly to build its extravagant casino. We hope that this judgement will force IPI to realize that its past conduct is reprehensible to both the court and the Saipan community, and serve as a catalyst for change.”

Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, congratulated the legal team on this victory. The organization has published a report analyzing all civil cases filed in U.S. federal courts under the federal trafficking statute. She noted that this is the first case of its kind on Saipan. She said, “This judgment demonstrates the redemptive power when trafficking survivors take justice into their own hands. All workers who have suffered forced labor and exploitation should have the opportunity to obtain justice in U.S. federal courts.”

The original complaint against Gold Mantis was filed in December 2018. An amended complaint was filed in March 2019, which joined MCC and IPI as defendants and added a claim for forced labor under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

The lawsuit is Wang, et al. v. Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), LLC, et al., No. 18 Civ. 0030, in the U.S. District Court for the District of the Northern Mariana Islands.

IPI is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based company, Imperial Pacific International Holdings Limited.

The other two defendants in the case were MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co., a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), LLC, the subsidiary of a company traded on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

Plaintiffs have also requested that the court hold the chairperson of Imperial Pacific International Holdings Limited, Lijie Cui, in contempt for failing to comply with a court order to preserve the data on her mobile phone. The court previously held her in contempt for providing evasive and untruthful testimony at a deposition. 

In August 2020, the court unsealed a 71-count criminal indictment charging executives of IPI and MCC with a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act conspiracy, harboring illegal aliens, unlawful employment of aliens, and international promotional money laundering. (PR, with Saipan Tribune archives)

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