A Duty to Deter Human Trafficking

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A Duty to Deter Human Trafficking

By Elaine Pofeldt | Sep 21, 2018

In early 2018, “Jane Doe” filed a case under Texas state law against several multi-national hotel chains, among other defendants. “Jane” said she was forced into sex trafficking just before her 16th birthday—directed by her traffickers to either rent a room without giving her ID or use a room her traffickers rented, then paid for sex by a number of Johns.

She argued that hotel management turned a blind eye to clear signs of trafficking, such as steady foot traffic to her room by male customers who were not hotel guests. The suit accused the defendants of profiting from illegal exploitation of a minor and sought over US$1 million in damages, plus attorney’s fees.

With states such as Texas and Pennsylvania enforcing state laws based on the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000—and more states considering such legislation—hospitality firms, casinos and restaurants must increasingly consider whether they are doing enough to prevent and fight trafficking on their premises. Anti-trafficking legislation in Florida that seemed like it would pass earlier this year and push hospitality firms into putting anti-trafficking procedures into place was killed on a technicality.

The Texas case isn’t the only one.

“On the hotel hospitality side, over the last couple of years, we’ve started to see more civil suits brought by victims,” says Amy Groff, partner in the Harrisburg, Pa., office of the international law firm K&L Gates and a member of the firm’s pro bono anti-trafficking work group.

Such suits can damage a brand, notes Groff, whose firm is helping more clients put policies and procedures into place to prevent both sex trafficking and labor trafficking in their supply chain when it comes to positions such as maids and maintenance workers that may be filled by outside services.

“You do need to be vigilant on those contractors,” she says.

Hotels and other third parties could be implicated if they should have known about human trafficking on their premises or did know and ignored it, under the TVPA, according to William M. Sullivan Jr., a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, co-leader of the firm’s Corporate Investigations and White Collar Defense team and co-author of an article on the Texas case titled “Human Trafficking Raises Corporate Liability Concerns for the Hospitality Industry,” published in the journal Lexology.

By providing damages and attorney’s fees to victims, the TVPA aims “to motivate and incentivize the individuals in the best position to understand that trafficking is going on and expose them to civil liability,” Sullivan explains. “The hospitality industry has to take notice.”

This mindset reflects how liabilities are increasingly being interpreted across industries.

“If you know there’s a problem and don’t have a policy in effect to stop it, then it’s a negligent act,” says attorney Steve Fogerty, partner at Connecticut-based law firm Halloran Sage.

So how can hotels and other third parties in the meeting industry make sure they are doing the right thing? The first step, experts say, is a compliance program, which Sullivan expects more insurance companies to require for clients.

Some hotels and meeting venues are training their teams to spot the signs of trafficking and teach them appropriate procedures if they suspect someone is being victimized. This could include training the front desk team to spot the ways that traffickers may be likely to check in—for instance, a man rents a room with a young girl who does not appear to be his daughter and pays cash for it without showing an ID, Sullivan says. The cleaning staff might also be trained to look out for indicators, such as an underage girl being visited by a number of men who don’t seem to be family members in her room. Another overlooked area for training, Sullivan says, is the bar, where the bartender could be trained to look out for behavior that suggests a young woman may be trafficked, such as a stream of interested men coming up to her over a period of time and discussing other meeting places.

Companies should train their frontline teams to report concerns about potential trafficking to management so that they can be reported to authorities, Sullivan advises.

“If someone is being victimized, any person, let alone management of a company, has an obligation to understand what is happening and potentially provide assistance,” he says. “That is what we are suggesting to our corporate clients.”

While more big corporate brands are taking active steps to prevent trafficking, there is still plenty of work to be done, attorneys say. Matthew Stoddard, an attorney at The Stoddard Firm in Atlanta, which seeks to represent clients who are victims of human trafficking, finds that in the situations he has investigated, onsite hotel or motel managers often know about a problem such as prostitution, even if they are not aware that it is actually human trafficking because the women are being coerced.

“The people that own it seem like they don’t want to know,” he says. “The folks that work at the hotel have been told in no uncertain terms, ‘We don’t want to know about it. You’re there to deal with it.’”

Generally, he’s seen such problems at extended-stay hotels that rent rooms inexpensively by the week or month. Sometimes, a hotel may be a franchise, run independently from the parent company, he notes.

Hotel brands that want to know what is really happening at their branded properties can “put a crime grid” on a hotel, Stoddard advises.

“You can go to the police, make an open records request and say, ‘Send me a list of every crime that is alleged to have occurred at my hotel in the last three years,’” he says. Requesters have the opportunity to purchase copies of the police reports.

If there is a problem, Stoddard recommends hiring off-duty police officers to protect the property.

“As soon as you have a crime problem, you have a duty to deter it,” he says.

But even when operators aren’t doing all they should, bringing cases can be challenging. Stoddard has opted out of taking cases that he believed were not likely to hold up before a jury because of the complex nuances.

“Every time I have a claimant you would think it would apply to, it is not the story you think of with human trafficking,” he says. “It is someone who had a very troubled childhood and voluntarily started prostituting themselves. Over a period of time, it turned violent. I think you’d have a hard time convincing 12 people that the hotel manager that knew there was prostitution going on was wholly responsible for this woman’s horrific life.”



Elaine Pofeldt
Elaine Pofeldt

Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance journalist in the New York City area who contributes to publications from CNBC to Forbes and is the author of the upcoming book The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business.