Lawyers for 7 workers get $40K grant

Saipan lawyer Bruce Berline, left, and New York City lawyer Aaron Halegua pose in this file photo after a recent hearing in federal court. (Ferdie de la Torre)

The Impact Fund has given a $40,000 grant to the two lawyers representing seven construction workers who are suing Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC and its contractor and a subcontractor.

Aaron Halegua said yesterday that the Impact Fund, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, California, provided him and his co-counsel, Bruce Berline, the fund last month.

The New York City-based Halegua said the Impact Fund awards grants to nonprofit legal services, private lawyers, and/or small law firms who seek to advance justice in the areas of civil and human rights, environmental justice, and/or poverty law.

Since its inception, the Impact Fund has awarded over $6.5 million, which has facilitated a wide range of impact litigation across the nation.

In a statement, Berline said they are grateful for and encouraged by the Impact Fund’s grant.

“Although the defendants may deny the allegations made by the plaintiffs, this shows that others believe in the merit of our case,” Berline said.

The grant, he said, will help ensure that they can take all the steps necessary to litigate the case, including deposing all relevant parties and hiring expert witnesses.

The plaintiffs—Tianming Wang, Dong Han, Yongjun Meng, Liangcai Sun, Youli Wang, Quingchun Xu, and Xiyang Du—are suing IPI, MCC, and MCC’s subcontractor Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI) LLC over the injuries they suffered during accidents at IPI’s casino/resort project worksite.

The plaintiffs, who are all Chinese nationals, are suing the defendants for alleged forced labor in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, forced labor in violation of the CNMI Anti-Trafficking Act, negligence, and liability for employees of subcontractor.

The workers alleged, among other things, that they were forced to work long hours for below minimum wage under extremely dangerous conditions at the casino-resort worksite.

In its response to the lawsuit, IPI, through counsel Phillip J. Tydingco, said any wage claims by the plaintiffs are barred because they voluntarily illegally entered the CNMI to work.

Tydingco said the plaintiffs knowingly and voluntarily worked illegally in the CNMI.

Tydingco said to the extent plaintiffs are deeded to be IPI employees or borrowed servants, then their claim for negligence is barred because IPI possessed Workers Compensation Insurance.

Tydingco added that the plaintiffs have not exhausted their administrative remedies before the Commonwealth Workers Compensation Commission.

The lawyer said the plaintiffs’ claims for forced labor in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and forced labor in violation of the CNMI Anti-Trafficking Act are barred based on consent.

MCC International, through counsel Robert T. Torres, said the lawsuit was filed in bad faith and is frivolous.

Torres said MCC acted in good faith and believes that that their actions were in compliance with the law.

Torres said MCC is not liable for the damages being sought by the plaintiffs because if any person or entity engaged in intentional or unlawful conduct as alleged in the lawsuit, such person or entity did so without MCC’s authorization and knowledge.

Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI) LLC, through counsel Tiberius D. Mocanu, in its answer stated that the plaintiffs were not their employees but of a subcontractor that used to work with IPI’s casino/resort project in Garapan.

Mocanu said it does not have sufficient information to admit or deny whether the subcontractor paid the seven plaintiffs their wages. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com
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