U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

4th Cir.: Trafficked Domestic Worker's Lawsuit Not Time-Barred

When Cristina Cruz left the Philippines to come to the United States, she thought she was getting a great opportunity. A friend told her that she could work for Nilda Maypa, a World Bank employee. So Cruz got the job and came to the United States. Her employment contract seemed solid: $6.50 an hour, 35 to 40 hours a week, plus medical insurance.

What she got was entirely different. Maypa paid her $250 a month -- that's a little over $8 a day -- required her to work 17 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, cook, clean, take care of the kids, clean the pool, mow the lawn ... and on and on.

Sounds Fraudulent

And yes, it's pretty clear Maypa knew what she was doing. She took Cruz's passport after she arrived and also required Cruz to sign fake timesheets and endorse phony checks that Cruz never received.

Cruz finally escaped in 2008 and filed a lawsuit in 2013 for fraud, breach of contract, labor violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Maypa argued that the case should be dismissed as time-barred; at the time of the allegations, the statute of limitations was four years. (Of course, it's hard to initiate a lawsuit when you're being forced to remain in a home with no way to escape.) Nevertheless, the district court agreed with Maypa, dismissing all the claims.

Is New Statute of Limitations Retroactive?

Cruz's claims would be time barred were it not for a 2008 amendment to the TVPA establishing a 10-year statute of limitations. The only question is whether the new statute of limitations is retroactive. Though the legislation doesn't expressly say it is, there are a few factors a court can use to determine if it can be retroactively applied. The dispositive question is whether the plaintiffs claims were time-barred when the cause of action arose. If yes, then too bad. But if not, then maybe.

This case is the latter, the Fourth Circuit held. Cruz arrived in the United States in 2004, four years before the statute of limitations was extended, meaning her claim was still live when the amendment passed.

Equitable Tolling

The court also applied equitable tolling to Cruz's trafficking and FLSA claims, pausing the statute of limitations because she was prevented from filing a lawsuit (as Cruz was being held in isolation and threatened with imprisonment and deportation if she tried to escape).

Unfortunately, equitable tolling didn't really work for Cruz's state law contract claims. Even tolling those until Cruz escaped, she filed her lawsuit five years after that, but the limitations period for breach of contract is only four years.

Even so, Cruz's case against Maypa will proceed, so she can potentially get something from her four years as, more or less, a slave.

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