September 20, 2015 Practice Points

Female Migrant Workers Win Over $17 Million

By Sathima Jones

On Thursday, September 10, 2015, the EEOC announced that a federal jury had awarded $17.4 million to five female migrant workers in a rape and sexual harassment case. In the complaint filed by the EEOC, it is alleged that the women, who were workers at Moreno Farms in Florida, were repeatedly sexually assaulted by three of their superiors. The three individuals included two sons of the farm's owner and one male supervisor. The $17.4 million jury award is one of the largest on record in a case of this type. It awards the women $2.4 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages. The magnitude of this award also highlights a rampant issue of sexual abuse among a highly vulnerable population in one of the worst reported cases of mass workplace rape in Florida history.

One of the victims, Sandra Lopez, fled her native Chiapas, Mexico, while she was two months pregnant. She made a living and built her life in the United States by following tomato and strawberry crops for close to a decade. She reported that in November of 2011, she was working the field when her boss summoned her into the packing house. Upon her entrance, one of the foreman dragged her into an abandoned trailer and raped her. The other participants in this lawsuit recounted similar stories of abuse at the hands of the Moreno brothers themselves or by one of their employees.

Thousands of female migrant workers are subjected to sexual assault at the workplace. According to Robert Weisberg of the Miami EEOC office, attacks such as these have become par for the course as a working condition in the fields. This is due to the particular vulnerability that exists among migrant worker population resulting from a severe power imbalance between the owners/superiors and the workers. Victims of sexual assault often face systemic barriers, such as lack of legal immigrant status, which serve as a deterrent to reporting instances of abuse. The women are haunted by a fear of deportation if they go to the police. In the particular case of Moreno Farms, the victims were brave enough to visit the local sheriff, but they were dismissed without any charges being filed. Another factor adding to their vulnerability is the dependence of farmworkers on employers for housing and transportation. This dependence creates additional opportunities for those who seek to take advantage of vulnerable workers. The perpetrators of sexual attacks on female migrant workers are often those in a position of power over the workers, such as foreman, supervisors, farm labor contractors, company owners, and anyone else who has the power to hire and fire workers and confer benefits.

To remedy the imbalance of power and non-reporting of assault crimes against illegal immigrants, the federal government offers the U visa. The U visa  provides protection from deportation for illegal immigrants who are the victims of certain crimes of physical and mental abuse, and are also cooperative to law enforcement. Unfortunately, the U visa has limited effectiveness due to limitations such as a 10,000 limit cap in the number of visas available per year. Another limitation is the lack of access to legal services for immigrants; illegal immigrants are not entitled to the free government legal aid, which they would need to find out about and file the forms to access the U visa.

Given the size of this verdict and prevalence of sexual attacks against migrant workers, it appears that the federal and state governments, in conjunction with law enforcement, ought to utilize this as an opportunity to reexamine policy concerning sexual attacks against migrant workers to improve reporting and response rates.

Keywords: minority trial lawyer, litigation, sexual assault, migrant workers, migrants, rape, U visa

Sathima Jones is a law clerk for the NJ Superior Court, Civil Division, in Newark, New Jersey.

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