Baxla v. Chaudhri et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION in re 13 Partial Motion to Dismiss. Signed by District Judge James C. Cacheris on 12/21/2016. (jlan)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
ASMA CHAUDHRI, et al.,
M E M O R A N D U M
O P I N I O N
This matter is before the Court on Defendants Asma
Chaudhri and Shahzad Chaudhri (collectively, “Defendants”)
motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.
the following reasons, the Court will deny Defendants’ motion.
Poonam Baxla (“Plaintiff” or “Baxla”) brings this
lawsuit against Defendants for claims arising under the Victims
of Trafficking and Violence Protection Reauthorization Act of
2008 (“TVPRA”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1581-1597; the Fair Labor Standards
Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219a; and Virginia law, including
claims based upon unjust enrichment and false imprisonment.
of Plaintiff’s claims result from her employment with Defendants
from 2005 until 2015.
The following facts are taken from
Plaintiff’s Complaint and, for the purposes of this motion, are
Ms. Baxla was born in India in or around 1978 or 1979.
(Compl., ¶ 20.)
In 1998, she married Sameer Baxla, with whom
she had three daughters.
The Baxla family lived in New
Delhi, where Ms. Baxla provided childcare and cooking services
and Mr. Baxla worked in construction.
(Id., ¶ 21.)
In 2004, Mr. Baxla
Following his death, Ms. Baxla
struggled to find work in order to support her daughters.
In or around January 2005, Ms. Baxla’s was introduced
to a woman named Nancy.
(Compl., ¶ 23.)
Nancy offered to find
a job for Ms. Baxla in the United States performing childcare
work, which Ms. Baxla accepted.
Nancy arranged for Ms.
Baxla’s ticket to travel to the United States, as well as her
travel documents, including a two-year visa.
(Id., ¶ 24.)
Nancy did not tell Ms. Baxla for whom she would be working, nor
did she mention that the job would involve housekeeping duties,
such as cleaning.
In 2005, Ms. Baxla flew to the United States.
The Defendants, two people she had never spoken to or
met previously, greeted Ms. Baxla at the airport and transported
her to their home in Falls Church, Virginia.
(Id., ¶¶ 25-26.)
Once Ms. Baxla arrived, she began working for Defendants,
providing housekeeping and childcare services.
Typically, Ms. Baxla worked from around five or six in
the morning until eleven or twelve at night, seven days per
(Compl., ¶¶ 28, 33.)
She cleaned the Defendants’ home,
prepared meals, and provided childcare for the Defendants’
Due to her busy schedule, Ms. Baxla alleges
that she was sometimes unable to find time to eat until she had
finished with her work for the day.
(Id., ¶ 29.)
From 2005 until 2011, Defendants paid Ms. Baxla $350
per month for her labor.
(Id., ¶ 31.)
increased her pay to $400 per month.
In 2011, Defendants
Ms. Baxla paid for
her own expenses, with the exception of food, sending whatever
money she had left back to her three children in India. 1
In 2006, Ms. Baxla returned to India briefly to care
for one of her daughters, who had fallen seriously ill.
(Compl., ¶ 34.)
After Defendants promised to help Ms. Baxla
renew her two-year visa, she returned to the United States to
work again in their home.
Throughout her employment with Defendants, Ms. Baxla
alleges that they isolated her from the outside world.
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants stopped paying her altogether in the
summer of 2015, leaving her with no means to support her children. (Compl.,
¶¶ 35, 38.)
She was instructed not to talk to anyone and warned
that her inability to speak English would raise suspicions and
possibly get her arrested or deported.
(Id., ¶ 35.)
rarely let her leave their home, especially unaccompanied.
(Id., ¶ 36.)
Ms. Baxla was also not permitted to have a phone
line or a mobile phone in her private room and was required to
purchase a calling card to speak to her family.
(Id., ¶ 39.)
In addition, Ms. Baxla had to rely upon Defendants to arrange
for her to transfer whatever money she had saved to her children
back in India.
(Id., ¶ 39.)
Over the years she lived with
Defendants, and especially after Ms. Baxla’s visa expired in
2007, Defendants’ warnings about the possibility of arrest or
deportation increased in frequency.
(Id., ¶¶ 38, 45.)
In and around 2014, Manju and John Ekka (the “Ekkas”)
learned of Ms. Baxla’s situation during a trip to India.
(Compl., ¶ 46.)
They reached out to her in an attempt to help
her leave Defendants’ home.
After Ms. Baxla agreed to
accept the Ekkas’ help, they contacted a government agency to
ensure that Ms. Baxla could escape the home safely.
Ms. Baxla fled Defendants’ home on August 24, 2015.
(Id., ¶ 50.)
Plaintiff filed the instant case on September 26,
The Complaint alleges seven different counts,
including: (1) forced labor, in violation of the TVPRA; (2)
trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary
servitude, or forced labor, in violation of the TVPRA; (3)
benefitting financially from peonage, slavery, and trafficking
in persons, in violation of the TVPRA; (4) conspiracy to violate
the TVPRA; (5) failure to pay the federal minimum wage, in
violation of the FLSA; (6) unjust enrichment; and (7) false
On November 2, 2016, Defendant filed this
partial motion to dismiss, asking this Court to dismiss Counts
II, IV, VI, and VII for failure to state a claim.
Plaintiff filed her opposition on November 14, 2016.
Defendants replied on November 21, 2016.
argument was held on December 15, 2016.
This motion is now ripe
“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the
sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve
contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the
applicability of defenses.”
Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin,
980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted).
Supreme Court has stated that in order “[t]o survive a motion to
dismiss, a [c]omplaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible
on its face.’”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).
“A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual
content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
“Determining whether a complaint states a plausible
claim for relief [is] . . . a context-specific task that
requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience
and common sense.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citations omitted).
While legal conclusions can provide the framework for a
complaint, all claims must be supported by factual allegations.
Based upon these allegations, the court must determine
whether the plaintiff’s pleadings plausibly give rise to an
entitlement to relief.
Legal conclusions couched as
factual allegations are not sufficient, Twombly, 550 U.S. at
555, nor are “unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions,
or arguments,” E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P’ship,
213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000).
The plaintiff, however, does
not have to show a likelihood of success; rather, the complaint
must merely allege - directly or indirectly - each element of a
“viable legal theory.”
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 562-63.
At the motion to dismiss stage, the court must
construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the
plaintiff, read the complaint as a whole, and take the facts
asserted therein as true.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
district court does not consider extrinsic materials when
evaluating a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6).
It may, however,
consider “documents incorporated into the complaint by
Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551
U.S. 308, 322 (2007); see also Blankenship v. Manchin, 471 F.3d
523, 526 n.1 (4th Cir. 2006).
In addition, the court may
consider documents attached to the defendant’s motion to dismiss
if those documents are central to the plaintiff’s claim or are
“sufficiently referred to in the complaint,” so long as the
plaintiff does not challenge their authenticity.
Fed. Ins. Co., 164 F. App’x 395, 396–97 (4th Cir. 2006).
As a point of clarification, Defendants have not moved
to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for: (1) forced labor under the
federal human trafficking laws; (2) restitution under the
federal human trafficking laws; (3) conspiracy with each other
to violate the federal human trafficking laws; or (4) failure to
pay the federal minimum wage in violation of the FLSA.
Defendants’ Partial Motion to Dismiss only seeks dismissal of
Counts II (trafficking), IV (conspiracy to commit trafficking
with a person known as “Nancy”), VI (unjust enrichment), and VII
(false imprisonment), alleging that Plaintiff has failed to
state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
The Court will
now address the sufficiency of Plaintiff’s Complaint with
respect to each of the contested counts in turn.
Count II: Human Trafficking in Violation of the
Plaintiff’s second claim in the Complaint is based
upon liability for human trafficking under the TVPRA.
for trafficking is imposed separately from liability for forced
labor or servitude.
See Lagasan v. Al-Ghasel, 92 F. Supp. 3d
445, 454 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (citing Shukla v. Sharma, 2012 WL
481796, at *14 (E.D.N.Y Feb. 14, 2012)).
Section 1590 outlines
the liability for human trafficking as follows: “Whoever
knowingly recruits, harbors, transports or obtains by any means,
any person for labor or services in violation of this chapter
shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20
years, or both.”
18 U.S.C. § 1590(a).
Plaintiff’s Complaint alleges that Nancy recruited Ms.
Baxla by “offering to arrange a job in the United States” for
her to perform childcare work.
(Compl., ¶ 23.)
After Ms. Baxla
accepted Nancy’s offer, Nancy arranged for Ms. Baxla’s ticket to
travel to the United States and travel documents, including a
(Id., ¶ 24.)
Plaintiff traveled to the United
States in 2005, where she met Defendants at the airport.
Ms. Baxla had not met or spoken with the Defendants
(Id., ¶ 5.)
Defendants then transported her from
the airport to their home in Virginia, where she lived, other
than for two brief periods, from 2005 until 2015.
(Id., ¶ 6.)
During that time, Ms. Baxla worked for Defendants, providing
childcare and housekeeping services, for $350 per month. 2
Defendants argue that Plaintiff has made no factual
allegations that they played any active role in recruiting or
transporting Ms. Baxla to the United States.
(Def. Mot. at 5.)
In support of this assertion, Defendants claim that Plaintiff
has not established that a relationship existed between
Defendants and Nancy, the person who did recruit Plaintiff and
help arrange her travel to this country.
In their reply
brief, Defendants also argue that, even if the Court infers that
a relationship did exist, Plaintiff has not established that the
Defendants knew that Nancy had misled Plaintiff regarding her
job duties or pay.
(Def. Rep. at 3.)
At its essence, then,
Defendants’ argument is that Plaintiff has failed to plead
enough facts to establish a violation of the TVPRA for either
recruiting or transporting Plaintiff to the United States.
In its reply brief, Defendant also raises an
additional argument that Plaintiff cannot sustain a claim based
solely upon factual allegations that Defendants “harbored” her
in the United States.
(Def. Rep. at 4.)
Defendants cite no
binding case law to support this proposition, however.
they point to Plaintiff’s “voluntary” decision to return to
Plaintiff’s wages were eventually increased to $400 per month.
their home after a brief absence in 2006 as proof that she was
not trafficked here.
(Id. at 5.)
Drawing all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff’s
favor, as required under a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court finds
that Plaintiff has stated a claim under Section 1590(a).
Plaintiff’s factual allegations, combined with the reasonable
inference that Nancy recruited Ms. Baxla to the United States in
coordination with Defendants, plausibly give rise to a claim for
Plaintiff has also pled sufficient facts that
Defendants harbored Plaintiff in their home for approximately
Moreover, the Court notes that liability can attach
under Section 1590 to anyone who “knowingly . . . obtained by
any means” a person whose labor violates federal antitrafficking laws.
18 U.S.C. § 1590(a) (emphasis added).
Defendants’ conduct plausibly gives rise to a claim for relief
under this catchall provision of the statute as well.
Accordingly, the Court will deny Defendants’ motion to dismiss
Count IV: Conspiracy to Violate the TVPRA
Plaintiff’s fourth claim in the Complaint is based
upon Defendants conspiring with Nancy to violate the TVPRA.
Federal trafficking laws provide a cause of action against
“[w]hoever conspires with another to [commit enumerated
18 U.S.C. § 1594(b).
“To support a conspiracy claim, the complaint must
contain ‘enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest that
an agreement was made.’”
Lagayan v. Odeh, 2016 WL 4148189, at
*6 (D.D.C. Aug. 2, 2016) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
“An allegation of mere parallel conduct is not enough[,] . . .
[n]or are mere conclusory allegations.”
550 at 557).
Id. (citing Twombly,
Furthermore, in Virginia, “an allegation of
conspiracy, whether criminal or civil, must at least allege an
unlawful act or unlawful purpose” to survive demurrer.
Chevrolet, Inc. v. General Motors Corp., 230 Va. 396, 402
In the instant case, Plaintiff’s Complaint alleges
sufficient facts from which the Court can plausibly infer that
an agreement existed between Defendants and Nancy.
pleaded that Nancy recruited her to work in the United States by
offering to arrange a job providing childcare services.
(Compl., ¶ 23.)
Nancy also arranged for Ms. Baxla’s ticket to
travel here, as well as her travel documents, including a twoyear visa.
(Id., ¶ 24.)
Having never spoken before, Defendants
met Ms. Baxla at the airport and took her to their home to work
as a domestic laborer.
(Id., ¶¶ 9, 26.)
The only reasonable
inference to draw from these facts is that there was at least
some communication between Nancy and Defendants regarding the
transportation of Plaintiff to the United States for the purpose
of providing labor.
As a result, the Complaint alleges
sufficient facts to infer that Defendants reached an agreement.
In addition, Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to establish
that an unlawful act occurred as the result of this agreement,
as Plaintiff worked long hours, seven days per week, for very
little pay over the course of ten years.
The Court will
therefore deny Defendants’ motion to dismiss Count IV.
Count VI: Unjust Enrichment
Plaintiff’s sixth claim involves the equitable remedy
of unjust enrichment under Virginia law.
Unjust enrichment is a
quasi-contract theory that stands for the proposition that “a
person should not be allowed to retain a benefit imposed upon
him without paying for the services rendered.”
David’s Towing & Recovery, Inc., 62 F. Supp. 3d 467, 477 (E.D.
Va. 2014) (internal citations omitted).
In Virginia, a claim
for unjust enrichment requires the plaintiff to allege that: (1)
she conferred a benefit on Defendants; (2) Defendants knew of
the benefit and reasonably should have expected to pay for it;
and (3) Defendants accepted or retained the benefit without
paying for its value.
Id. (citing Schmidt v. Household Fin.
Corp., II, 276 Va. 108, 116 (2008)).
The Fourth Circuit has
previously held that state law claims based upon unjust
enrichment will be “preempted by the FLSA where those claims
merely duplicate FLSA claims.”
Anderson v. Sara Lee Corp.,
508 F.3d 181, 194 (4th Cir. 2007).
Defendants concede in their reply brief that they are
not contesting that the FLSA applies to the conduct at issue
(Def. Rep. at 7.)
Although “the FLSA provides an
exclusive statutory remedial scheme” that would normally prevent
FLSA claims and unjust enrichment claims from proceeding
together, the Court recognizes that unresolved legal and factual
disputes regarding Plaintiff’s FLSA claim remain.
Fairfield Resorts, Inc., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86225, at *22-23
(E.D. Va. Sept. 11, 2006).
Moreover, Plaintiff suggested at
oral argument that she is seeking slightly different remedies
for each claim.
Accordingly, at this early stage of the
proceedings – without the benefit of discovery to determine if
these two claims are, in fact, coterminous – the Court will deny
Defendants’ motion to dismiss Count VI.
Count VII: False Imprisonment
Plaintiff’s final claim involves false imprisonment
under Virginia state law.
Virginia defines false imprisonment
as “the restraint of one’s liberty without sufficient cause.”
Zaklit v. Global Linguist Solutions, LLC, 53 F. Supp. 3d 835,
846 (E.D. Va. Sept. 16, 2014) (citing Zayre of Va. Inc. v.
Gowdy, 207 Va. 47, 50 (1966)).
More specifically, “[i]f a
person is under a reasonable apprehension that force will be
used unless he willingly submits, and he does submit to the
extent that he is denied freedom of action, this, in legal
contemplation, constitutes false imprisonment.”
Zayre, 207 Va.
Importantly, the threat of force does not need to come
from the defendant(s) directly, but can involve the threat of
involving other individuals who might use force, such as
immigration officials or police officers.
See, e.g., Lagasan,
92 F. Supp. 3d at 456-57 (granting claim for false imprisonment
because plaintiff’s traffickers confined her to their residences
and denied her access to anyone who could help her); Cundiff v.
CVS Caremark Corp., 86 Va. Cir. 155 (2013) (denying a motion to
dismiss a false imprisonment claim when employer threatened to
call the police and hire an attorney).
Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff’s false
imprisonment claim should be dismissed because they never
threatened to use force directly against her is in direct
conflict with the case law.
Moreover, Defendants’ assertion
that Plaintiff’s decision to voluntarily return to their home
twice should defeat any claim for false imprisonment is likewise
Plaintiff has alleged that she decided to return
to Defendants’ home in 2006 after they promised to renew her
(Compl., ¶ 34.)
However, Defendants failed to do so,
letting Plaintiff’s visa expire in 2007.
(Id., ¶¶ 35-36, 37.)
Once Plaintiff’s visa expired, she alleges that Defendants
increasingly warned her that she might be reported to law
enforcement authorities and possibly deported or arrested.
(Id., ¶ 38.)
Furthermore, in 2014, Mr. Chaudhri accused Ms.
Baxla of mistreating the family dog, threatened to initiate
deportation proceedings against her, and kicked her out of the
(Id., ¶ 40.)
Defendants again reassured her that, if
she returned, they would increase her pay and renew her visa.
Neither promise ever materialized.
(See id., ¶¶ 6, 42.)
Based on the facts as alleged, Ms. Baxla exhibited
reasonable apprehension that force would be used against her if
she did not return to Defendants’ home.
Thus, her decision to
return twice can hardly be characterized as voluntary.
The Complaint also alleges that Defendants forbade Ms.
Baxla from leaving their home unaccompanied, never gave her a
key to the house, and instructed her to speak to no one,
“especially other Indian people.”
(Compl., ¶ 7.)
also warned Plaintiff that others would be suspicious of her
inability to speak English and implied that such suspicions
could lead to deportation or jail.
Plaintiff alleges that she had no access to a phone in her
private room and had to rely upon Defendants to transfer money
back to her children in India.
(Id., ¶ 39.)
Taken together, Plaintiff’s Complaint contains
sufficient factual allegations to state a plausible claim for
relief under Virginia law.
Accordingly, the Court will deny
Defendants’ motion to dismiss Count VII.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court will deny
Defendants’ partial motion to dismiss.
An appropriate order will follow.
December 21, 2016
James C. Cacheris
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
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