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Human trafficking claim against Bethesda couple proceeds toward trial

An impoverished Indian woman brought to the United States to be a Bethesda couple’s housekeeper and nanny can proceed toward trial on her claim that her seeming benefactors essentially kept her enslaved for the next 15 years, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus denied Kenneth and Vivian Cherian’s motion to dismiss Shoshanti Barjo’s claim that from 1997 to 2012 they violated federal law by forcing her to work long hours for low pay, isolated her from the outside world, berated her regularly and withheld her passport.

If successful at trial, however, Barjo’s damages recovery would be limited to the injuries suffered since Dec. 19, 2003, when the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s civil provisions went into effect, said Titus, who sits in Greenbelt.

According to Barjo’s complaint, she had served without incident as a housekeeper to the Cherians and their four children for several years in Pune, India, when Vivian took a job at the World Bank in Washington in 1997. Barjo accepted the Cherians’ offer to come to the United States and continue serving the family under a contract that would provide her $210 per week and additional compensation when she worked more than 40 hours.

The Cherians submitted the written agreement to the U.S. State Department to get Barjo a work visa.

The couple, however, did not honor the accord’s terms once in the United States, the lawsuit alleges.

The Cherians, who held Barjo’s passport, made her work 110-hour weeks, cooking, cleaning the house, bathing the children and walking them to school.

Once, Vivian showed Barjo a bogus deposit slip saying money was being deposited into an account for her. But Barjo was paid meagerly, when at all, according to the complaint.

Barjo was given a place to live in the basement, where she was provided not a bed but a sheet on the floor and later a sofa, the lawsuit states. Requests for better conditions were met by Vivian telling her, “You used to sleep on the floor in India, why do you need anything more?” the complaint adds.

The Cherians also exercised control over Barjo by letting her visa expire and threatening her with deportation if she failed to comply with their work requests, which eventually included housekeeping work at Aberdeen House, an assisted-living facility Kenneth Cherian opened in 2002 in Rockville, according to the lawsuit.

At Aberdeen, Barjo worked 13 hours per day every day. The work included caring for the group’s residents, including bathing them as necessary; shoveling snow; mowing the lawn; raking leaves; cleaning the facility; washing dishes; and doing laundry, Barjo alleges.

For this, she was paid “a pittance,” while other employees were reasonably compensated, according to the lawsuit, which names Aberdeen House and the Cherians as defendants

Barjo claims she “escaped” the Cherians on Feb. 12, 2012, and filed suit this past June under the federal TVRA. She seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees.

Opportunities to leave

The Cherians have categorically denied Barjo’s allegations of mistreatment.

In their motion for dismissal, the couple stated Barjo – whom they call “Shanti” – had ample opportunities to leave while they were at work but she chose to stay.

“(A)lmost every afternoon after school was out at the Ashburton Elementary School just behind our home, where our daughter attended classes, Shanti played with her in the playground at the school, swinging on the swings, climbing the monkey bars, slid(ing) down the slide, play(ing) badminton or … ball with others,” Kenneth Cherian stated in an affidavit submitted with the motion.

“Other children and their parents were also present on many occasions, and Shanti was never shy, often approaching strangers to chat with them,” he added. “Shanti therefore had easy access to third parties to whom she could have reported any claim of wrongdoing; she never did so, however.”

The motion for dismissal also stated that Aberdeen House cannot be sued because Barjo had signed a release upon leaving its employ in 2012.

In denying the motion, Titus stated the Cherians had not shown Barjo failed to make sufficient allegations that, if true, would show a violation of the federal law. Rather, the couple put forth “alternative facts” that could be a defense to the allegations but must be made either in a later motion for summary judgment or at trial where they will be subject to discovery and cross-examination by Barjo’s counsel, Titus said.

Likewise, the release from liability that Barjo allegedly signed regarding Aberdeen House has not yet been subject to review by Barjo’s counsel, the judge added in his memorandum opinion explaining his denial.

Attorney John R. Garza, who represents the Cherians and Aberdeen House, said Wednesday that he is “not surprised” that Titus will allow discovery in the case, adding he expects his clients will ultimately prevail when the facts are presented.

“Ms. Barjo had opportunities to leave anytime she wanted,” said Garza, of Garza, Regan & Associates P.C. in Rockville. “She was never held against her will.”

Barjo’s attorney Kali Bracey declined to comment on the case.

Bracey is with Jenner & Block LLP in Washington. The law firm is representing Barjo at no cost based on a referral from Martina E. Vandenberg, a former Jenner & Block partner who founded the Washington-based Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.

The case is Shoshanti Barjo v. Vivian Cherian et al., 8:18-cv-01587-RWT.

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