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HomeNewsLocal newsLawsuit Claims Human Trafficking, Forced Labor in Hurricane Repair Program

Lawsuit Claims Human Trafficking, Forced Labor in Hurricane Repair Program

The Ron De Lugo Federal Building houses the V.I. District Court on St. Thomas. (Source photo by Bethaney Lee)

Eight men allege they were victims of human trafficking and forced labor after they were recruited to perform hurricane home repairs on St. Thomas in 2019 on the promise of earning $2,200 weekly, but were never paid, suffered inhumane working conditions, and threats of death or bodily harm when they complained, according to a verified complaint filed in V.I. Superior Court.

The men, who live in Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, allege in their complaint that they worked 31 days straight repairing hurricane damaged roofs on St. Thomas in 93-plus degree heat, without food or bathroom facilities and sometimes water, and were never paid for their work before they were abruptly fired and forcibly evicted from accommodations arranged by their employers.

The plaintiffs are Benjamin Osorio, Jeremy Santos Ramirez, Norberto Rivera Frese, Luis Enrique Camacho Mattos, and Rafael Ernesto Pastrana Lugo, all of Puerto Rico, Abiel Osorio Cotto, a citizen of Puerto Rico residing in Pennsylvania, and David Paul Gautreaux and David Lambert of Louisiana.

Defendants in the case are TJ Sutton Enterprises LLC, doing business as TJ Sutton, LLC; AECOM, Inc.; AECOM Caribe, LLP; Citadel Recovery Services, LLC; Bluewater Construction, Inc., doing business as Bluewater Staffing Company; Thomas J. Sutton; Celestino A. White Sr., doing business as Celestino White Consulting and Management Firm; and landlords Jane Doe and John Doe.

The unknown landlords have been identified since the complaint was filed as Ramsey’s Hotel and Scott Hotel Bellavista in Estate Thomas and Havensight, said St. Thomas attorney Peter J. Lynch of Flag Law VI, who is representing the plaintiffs.

The 22-count complaint alleges violations of federal law, common law, and the V.I. Code. It was filed in November in the V.I. Superior Court, but defendant TJ Sutton removed the case to the District Court of the Virgin Islands and with the other defendants has asked for extra time to respond, which the court has granted. They have until May 13 to answer.

According to the complaint, the eight men were hired by the Sutton defendants and Bluewater on Jan. 14, 2019, to provide construction services as part of the STEP recovery program, also known as the Emergency Home Repair Program Virgin Islands, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on promise of earning $2,200 weekly.

Instead, they were left penniless, homeless, and heavily traumatized by the ordeal, according to the complaint.

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority contracted with prime contractor AECOM for the STEP program, which in turn contracted with its own related entity, AECOM Caribe, which then contracted with Citadel to provide construction services in the recovery effort, the complaint says. To satisfy its obligations, Citadel contracted with the Sutton defendants for the work, which contracted with Bluewater for manpower, according to the complaint.

As part of their employment arrangement, the Sutton defendants arranged for the men’s living quarters to be provided by White, a former V.I. senator, the Ramsey’s Hotel and Scott Hotel Bellavista, which were housing workmen as part of the hurricane disaster recovery relief program, the complaint states.

The men got to work repairing hurricane-damaged roofs on St. Thomas, and not only were never paid, but also were subjected to a hostile and abusive work environment, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, threats of never being paid if they did not continue to work, and death threats by Thomas J. Sutton when they complained and refused to leave without payment, according to the complaint.

“Plaintiffs asked questions and made legitimate complaints that were not taken seriously by each Defendant, where no one was reprimanded, investigated, or disciplined for any alleged misconduct or unlawful workplace discrimination or pay violations caused by each Defendant and Thomas J. Sutton,” the complaint states.

Blue tarps covering damaged roofs dot the landscape of Estate Tutu on St. Thomas in March 2018 after 2017's pair of hurricanes battered the territory. (Bill Kossler photo)
Blue tarps covering damaged roofs dot the landscape of Estate Tutu on St. Thomas in March 2018 after 2017’s pair of hurricanes battered the territory. (Bill Kossler photo)

The men sought to continue to work in the hope of eventually getting paid, but instead were abruptly fired by the Sutton defendants and Citadel on March 2, and forcibly evicted by White, Ramsey’s Hotel and Scott Hotel Bellavista within 24 hours of their employment being terminated, the complaint states.

“Defendant Celestino White is a former senator in the United States Virgin Islands who knows or should know that it is unlawful to engage in self-help evictions without a forcible entry and detainer action,” according to the complaint, which alleges that the evictions were coordinated with the Sutton defendants and Citadel.

“Several of the Plaintiffs, whom Defendants had rendered destitute and homeless by their failure to pay and unlawful deprivation of housing, had to abandon some or all of their tools of the trade because they were left without the wherewithal to ship them home,” the complaint states.

The complaint alleges that the men were treated differently from other similarly qualified persons, perceivably based on their race, age, sex and national origin, and that they were taken advantage of because they were not from the U.S. Virgin Islands and had no significant support system of family and friends on St. Thomas.

“Based on the unlawful racial, age, and national origin discrimination, each Plaintiff has suffered considerable emotional distress such as intense crying, sweating, nightmares, intestinal stress, dizziness, night terrors, anger, feelings of learned helplessness, lost confidence, difficulty sleeping, stomach aches, headaches, humiliation, and embarrassment,” the complaint states.

“Based on the unlawful discrimination, each Plaintiff has seemed to be carrying a heavy weight,” it says.

In short, “AECOM, AECOM Caribe, Citadel, Bluewater and the Sutton Defendants knowingly benefited, financially or by receiving anything of value (i.e., federal funds) from participation in a venture of home repair and construction of hurricane damaged buildings in St. Thomas which they knew or should have known had engaged in acts of forced labor and labor human trafficking,” the complaint states. Additionally, White and the plaintiff hotels “harbored each Plaintiff in furtherance of forced labor,” it says.

Despite never paying the plaintiffs, TJ Sutton Enterprises LLC filed construction liens on nine homes they worked on, for work performed by them, according to the complaint, which also alleges the Sutton defendants engaged in bank fraud by procuring a loan to pay workers when the plaintiffs were never paid.

The complaint also states that Citadel had a “Subcontract Performance Bond” and “Subcontract Payment Bond” in place with Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America in the amount of $10 million, to ensure payment to all its subcontractors, including TJ Sutton Enterprises and its workers, including the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are seeking a range of damages for a litany of alleged wrongs, with amounts to be proven at trial, including for their emotional pain and suffering, housing discrimination, damage to their professional reputations, lost earnings, wages, and overtime pay, as well as back pay, front pay based on three years, reimbursement for travel and lost tools of the trade, future pecuniary damages and costs and fees, including attorney’s fees, among other compensation, according to the complaint.

Front pay damages represent a plaintiff’s lost salary and benefits, caused by an unlawful discharge or other adverse action, accruing from the time of trial through some point in the future, according to the complaint.

Additionally, the plaintiffs are seeking an order that Thomas J. Sutton divest himself of any interest in the enterprise of TJ Sutton Enterprises LLC, or in any real property located in the USVI; an order prohibiting Sutton and TJ Sutton Enterprises from engaging in any construction or building endeavors in the USVI for six years; and the dissolution of TJ Sutton Enterprises LLC in the USVI or the reorganization of the enterprise of TJ Sutton Enterprises LLC.

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