In an Involuntary Servitude Case, Northern District Dismisses FLSA and California Labor Code Claims

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The Northern District dismissed plaintiffs’ FLSA and California Labor Code claims in an involuntary servitude case.  Shuvalova v. Cunningham, No. C 10-02159 RS, 2010 WL 5387770 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 22, 2010).  The case involved the “unusual scenario of one spouse bringing claims against the other for alleged violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).” Id. *1.  Natalya Shuvalova and her daughter Elizabeth Shuvalova claimed that defendant and his adult son fraudulently lured them from Russia to the United States, induced Natalya to marry one defendant, and then forced plaintiffs into involuntary servitude at defendant’s rural property in Clearlake, California.  Id. Plaintiffs claimed that for seven months, they were forced by defendants’ alleged verbal and physical threats to perform heavy, outdoor labor on the property. Id. Plaintiffs raised eighteen claims for violations of the TVPRA, federal and state labor law, and state contract and tort law.  Id. Defendants moved to dismiss the entire complaint under Rule 12(b)(6).  Id.


The court presented the allegations of the complaint as follows:

Natalya and Joe met through a computer dating service in October 2005. At the time, Natalya lived in Russia and Joe lived then and now in Clearlake, California. They began a two-year relationship involving frequent emails and phone calls, as well as two vacations together each lasting two weeks. In October 2005, [FN1] Joe proposed to Natalya and promised to provide a loving home to her and her daughter Liza. Natalya and Liza arrived in the United States in February 2008 and began living with Joe at the Clearlake property. Joe’s thirty-five-year-old son, Dan, also lived at the house on the weekends. Natalya and Joe married on May 3, 2008. . . .

According to the complaint, Joe began physically and verbally threatening both Natalya and Liza within weeks of their arrival. Joe threatened Natalya with serious physical harm including death. He asked Liza to help him “[get] rid of her mother.” Joe threw furniture, plates, and cups at plaintiffs. He kept guns and large knives around the house, often grabbed them during his bouts of rage, and threatened plaintiffs with physical violence if they disobeyed him or told anyone about their situation. He enforced his threats by grabbing and violently shaking Natalya.

Plaintiffs were forced by Joe, with Dan’s help, to engage in heavy, manual labor on the rural property. Natalya was locked out of the house and made “to move around earth, large rocks and stones, [and] remove brush and debris.” Natalya was forced to labor for eight to ten hours a day or more, usually seven days per week. She was not allowed to rest or drink water. Joe also forced Liza to engage in the same work for hours each day.

Joe isolated plaintiffs from outside contact. He prevented them from leaving the house for most of the seven months they lived with him. Usually Natalya could only leave with Joe to attend church and Liza could not leave the house at all until July 2008. Liza was not allowed to attend school until mid-September 2008. Additionally, defendants prevented plaintiffs from having Internet or phone access.

Joe forced Liza to massage his naked body several times a week. He routinely talked to Liza explicitly about sex, even though she told him it made her uncomfortable. Joe also prevented Liza from receiving treatment for an ear infection until it developed into an emergency. Instead, he physically restrained her in order to force a homemade treatment into her ear. Dan also forced Liza to engage in unwanted physical contact and made sexual references about her body. He routinely grabbed, forcibly kissed, and fondled her. He would come into Liza’s bedroom and remain without her consent while she was dressing and would enter the bathroom while she was showering. In September 2007, after seven months, plaintiffs were able to escape Joe’s property and move to a shelter in Sonoma County.

Id. **1-2.

FLSA Claim

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated the FLSA: in particular they claim they were denied minimum wage as required by 29 U.S.C. s 206(a), which establishes the minimum wage to be paid by “[e]very employer” to each of his “employees” engaged in commerce.  Id. *4.  The complaint raised two distinct issues: (1) whether the FLSA provides a measure of damages for TVPRA violations; and (2) whether plaintiffs can maintain a FLSA claim independent of their causes of action under that statute. Id.

On the first issue, the court held that plaintiffs may rely on the FLSA as a measure of damages for the alleged TVPRA violations.  Id.

[S]ection 1593 of the TVPRA expressly provides that victims shall be compensated, at a minimum, for the value of their services and labor “as guaranteed under the minimum wage and overtime guarantees of the Fair Labor Standards Act.” 18 U.S.C. s 1593(b)(3). Accordingly, courts have relied on the FLSA’s provisions to calculate restitution for TVPRA violations. Seee.g.United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 254-57 (2d Cir. 2010) (reviewing district court’s calculation of award after criminal conviction under the TVPRA). In a recent decision, relied on by plaintiffs, the court entered default judgment against the defendant on numerous claims including those for TVPRA, FLSA, and California Labor Code violations. Pena Canal v. de la Rosa Dann, No. 09-03366 CW, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97856 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 2, 2010). The court’s award of compensatory damages included the value of the plaintiff’s wages, including applicable penalties available under the California Labor Code. Id. at *10. While the court entered default judgment on both the TVPRA and labor code claims, it declined the plaintiff’s separate request for an equal amount as restitution, stating that it would constitute a double award. Id. In similar fashion, plaintiffs in this case may rely on the FLSA as a measure of damages for the alleged TVPRA violations.

Id. *4.

On the second issue, the court held that “to the extent plaintiffs seek to maintain an FLSA claim independent of their forced labor allegations, they fail to state a claim.” Id. *5.

Plaintiffs contend that Joe was an “employer” because he fraudulently lured them into living at the Clearlake property. Although Joe and Natalya married, plaintiffs argue in their Opposition that she and her daughter were “not in a true familial relationship with Joe,” because of this fraud. Thus, plaintiffs apparently seek application of the FLSA based on whether labor was “truly” performed for the family or not. Plaintiffs advance no authority, however, for the proposition that fraud is a sufficient basis for finding an employer-employee relationship among household members under the FLSA. . . .

In the end, plaintiffs’ putative FLSA claim appears grounded on allegations of forced labor. For example, plaintiffs argue that they fall under the definition of domestic service employee, because they labored, not for any “family” benefit, but involuntarily as a result of threats by Joe and Dan. Where their claim is based on allegations of forced labor, they may state it directly under the TVPRA. To the extent claim seven alleges violation of the FLSA based on the contention that plaintiffs were fraudulently induced into a family relationship, the claim is dismissed without leave to amend.

Id. *5.

California Labor Code

Plaintiffs alleged multiple claims arising under the California Labor Code including: failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, failure to pay wages on time, failure to provide days of rest, and knowingly false representations made to induce plaintiffs to move to California for employment.  Id. *5.

The court dismissed the California Labor Code claims without leave to amend:

As before, the problem is that plaintiffs fail to advance a theory for finding an employer-employee relationship between household members on the grounds that Natalya was induced to enter the marriage fraudulently. In short, the California Labor Code may provide a basis for calculating the value of plaintiffs’ labor under their TVPRA claims. As independent claims, however, claims eight through eleven must be dismissed without leave to amend.



The court held that “Plaintiffs may rely on the FLSA and the California Labor Code in arguing the value of their labor, if they prevail on their TVPRA claims, but their FLSA and California Labor Code claims may not proceed as stand-alone causes of action premised on fraudulent inducement to marry, so defendants’ motion to dismiss claims for relief seven through eleven is granted without leave to amend.”  Id. *8.

Judges and Attorneys

District Judge Richard Seeborg.



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