Elat v. Ngoubene

Citation993 F.Supp.2d 497
Decision Date21 January 2014
Docket NumberCivil Case No. PWG–11–2931.
PartiesCorine ELAT, Plaintiff, v. Caroline Raissa Emandop NGOUBENE, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland


Daniel George Starck, Erik Thomas Koons, Kimberly Ann Murphy, Martha S. Thomsen, William Connor Lavery, Baker Botts LLP, Washington, DC, Jonathan R. Mureen, Russell William Fusco, Van H. Beckwith, Baker Botts LLP, Dallas, TX, for Plaintiff.

Hina Z. Hussain, Joseph M. Creed, Timothy Francis Maloney, Joseph Greenwald and Laake PA, Greenbelt, MD, for Defendants.


PAUL W. GRIMM, District Judge.

This Memorandum Opinion addresses the Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support that Defendants Caroline Raïssa Emandop Ngoubene, Roxane Marie–Françoise Ngoubene, and Dany Estelle Ngoubene filed (Summ. J. Mot.” and “Mem.”), ECF No. 158; Plaintiff Corine Elat's Opposition (“Opp'n to Summ. J.”), ECF No. 155, which I construe to incorporate a Motion to Amend, as discussed in Part III below; and Defendants' Reply (“Summ. J. Reply”), ECF No. 160. It also addresses Defendants' Motion in Limine to Exclude Plaintiff's Expert Witness(“Mot. in Limine”), ECF No. 159; Plaintiff's Opposition (“Opp'n to Mot. in Limine”), ECF No. 156; and Defendants' Reply (“Mot. in Limine Reply”), ECF No. 161.1 Having reviewed the filings, I find that a hearing is unnecessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion in Limine is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; Plaintiff's Motion to Amend is DENIED; and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


In January 2006, while Plaintiff was in her early twenties and living in her homeland of Cameroon, Plaintiff's aunt and uncle, Marie–Thérèse and François Ngoubene, invited her to the United States to live with them and their children, including three of their daughters, who are Defendants in this case. 3 Elat Dep. 20:10–20, 150:3–154:1, Feb. 8, 2013 (“Elat Dep.”), Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. Ex. H.4 Although Plaintiff's allegations are far broader than the evidentiary support she provides, the essence of her supported allegations regarding the beginning of her alleged servitude is that she met with her uncle, François Ngoubene, after her mother spoke with her aunt, Marie–Thérèse Ngoubene, and he had her sign documents with the understanding that she might have the opportunity to live and work in the United States. Plaintiff alleges that she did not know that she signed a contract to work as a domestic servant for the Ngoubenes. Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16–18, ECF No. 44. In support, Plaintiff offers her own deposition testimony, which is unrebutted, as neither Marie–Thérèse or François Ngoubene was deposed.

Plaintiff's testimony portrays a culture in Cameroon in which children are subservient to and do not question adult authority figures, even after reaching adulthood themselves. She testified that “the grown-ups” would talk amongst themselves to make decisions pertaining to their children. Elat Dep. 154:6–155:9. For example, Plaintiff met Bertin Minosa, who is now her husband, when she was about seventeen or eighteen years old, see id. at 128:1–3, and at some point thereafter, became pregnant with his child and moved in with him, id. at 136:14–137:2. After the baby was born, Plaintiff and Mr. Minosa continued their relationship, but Plaintiff moved back in with her mother “just because [their] parents suggest[ed] things and [they] agreed on it.” Id. at 141:21–143:18. Additionally, before coming to the United States, Plaintiff had planned to work at whatever job [her] mom would help [her] find.” Id. at 147:21–148:1.

In her deposition testimony, Plaintiff described a day in which her mother told her to meet with her uncle, François Ngoubene, she went to her uncle's house in Cameroon, and they hurriedly went for a ride in his car. Elat Dep. 58:19–60:16; 150:3–152:6. During the ride, Mr. Ngoubene mentioned that he was not sure whether Plaintiff or an aunt of hers, Nicole, would be going to the United States with him. Id. at 152:16–154:1. They stopped at a “copy stand,” but she did not “really know what he wanted to do at the copy stand” and did not “know what he told [the men at the stand] exactly”; Plaintiff signed some “folded-up papers” that were written in English, a language she did not speak then; and they went to the Cameroonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Plaintiff “was just standing there” and “didn't know why [she] was there.” Id. at 152:5–15; 156:3–161:9. Throughout the visit, Plaintiff never asked what was happening. Id. at 151:13–161:9. Nor did she ask her uncle what the documents were that she signed, “because [she] trusted him.” Id. at 168:15–18. Plaintiff testified that, a couple of days later, her aunt told her she would have a job, but she did not “ask anything about the job.” Id. at 169:14–170:9.

Plaintiff attached to her Second Amended Complaint the document that she signed the day that she met with her uncle, François Ngoubene, in Cameroon. Contract, Second Am. Compl. Ex. A, ECF No. 44–1. The document, titled “Contract of Employment,” is between François Ngoubene as “Employer” and Corine Elat as “Employee.” Contract 1. The Contract states that Plaintiff “is hired to perform as a domestic worker” and “shall be remunerated on the basis of $9.38 an hour per 40 hours a week,” with “no deduction for food and lodging.” Id. art. 2 & 3. The Contract is dated January 16, 2006.5Id. at 2.

Plaintiff obtained an identification card to leave Cameroon. Elat Dep. 161:15–20. Although she was aware that her card listed her occupation as “housekeeper,” she believed “there was confusion or mistake on that card.” Id. at 163:15–165:19. She did not try to correct the identification card “because it was a struggle to get the card” in the first place. Id. at 166:2–5.

Plaintiff began living with the Ngoubenes in College Park, Maryland in April 2006. Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. 3; Defs.' Mem. 14. She returned to Cameroon with the Ngoubene family in the summer of 2007 for two months, and then brought her daughter, J., with her when she returned to the Ngoubene home in the United States. Elat Dep. 37:14–17, 104:21–105:7; 107:9–21; 115:13–116:8. At the Ngoubene home, Plaintiff worked long days “doing household chores.” Id. at 241:6–242:4. Specifically, she prepared breakfast and cooked meals for the family, id. at 208:13–211:18, 224:5–6, 225:9–10; washed dishes, id. at 213:17–19, 214:2–13; “did the guests' laundry,” id. at 246:20; cleaned the house and shopped for groceries, id. at 241:6–242:4; washed cars, id. at 245:13–20; and braided Defendants' hair, Elat Dep. 497:17–499:4, May 10, 2013 (“Elat Dep. II”), Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. Ex. L. However, the remaining Defendants were not the ones who made her do housework, id. at 207:19–208:8, and although Plaintiff testified that she “was asked to” braid hair, Elat Dep. II 498:2–3, she did not identify who asked her.

Plaintiff claims that her access to food while working for the Ngoubenes was limited, Elat Dep. 229:22–231:3, and that, despite the contract language stating that she was to be paid an hourly rate of $9.38, she received no payment, other than small monetary gifts and $2,500 in 2008, which Plaintiff did not know why she received, id. at 190:9–191:11, 196:1. Indeed, Defendants provided no evidence of payment to Plaintiff other than occasional gratuitous payments. See id. Marie–Thérèse Ngoubene told Plaintiff not to leave the home unaccompanied, and although it was not the Ngoubene daughters' rule and they did not enforce it, they would “tell on” Plaintiff to their parents if she “didn't follow the rule.” Id. at 271:3–21. Defendants told Plaintiff not to talk to strangers and told her that they, also, did not speak to strangers. Id. at 272:15–273:18, 380:5–382:11. Dany Ngoubene, in Plaintiff's opinion, “was really mean” to her by calling her a “bitch,” telling her that she “didn't like kids in general,” and “count[ing] the chocolate [wrappers] that [J.] had eaten,” which made J. “sad.” Id. at 257:1–258:1, 280:9–281:4. Plaintiff and her daughter had to live in an addition of the house that “didn't have [a] heating or cooling system” and, although Marie–Thérèse Ngoubene bought a space heater, it “wasn't working properly,” and Mrs. Ngoubene did not replace it. Id. at 425:16–432:5.

Once, in October 2006, Plaintiff told Marie–Thérèse Ngoubene that she “wanted to leave,” but that was “the only day” she asked to leave. Elat Dep. 101:6–17, 107:4–11, 110:22–111:1. Plaintiff testified that, after she “told Marie–Therese that [she] wanted to leave, ... Caroline said, well, [you] can't leave the house because [you] don't have papers,” and “Caroline used the term ‘deported.’ Id. at 108:6–17, 109:1; see id. at 110:20–111:6 (same). Plaintiff acknowledged that the October 2006 conversation was the only time Caroline Ngoubene mentioned deportation, and that Roxane Ngoubene and Dany Ngoubene never mentioned deportation. Id. at 109:14–19.

In May 2008, Plaintiff left the Ngoubene household. Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. 5; Defs.' Mem. 63–64. The day she left, her uncle, Mr. Ngoubene asked her for her passport and Roxane Ngoubene searched Plaintiff's bags for the passport. Elat Dep. 274:15–22. However, Plaintiff already had given her passport to her husband, who had moved to the United States, for safekeeping. Id. at 275:19–276:1.

One month later, Plaintiff's attorney mailed a letter to Mr. Ngoubene, stating that Plaintiff “worked as an employee at [Mr. Ngoubene's] home for two years” without “receiv[ing] compensation,” and asking Mr. Ngoubene to have his attorney contact Plaintiff's attorney. June 3, 2008 Ltr., Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. Ex. O. After that, events began to happen that, in Plaintiff's view, were attempts by the Ngoubenes to dissuade her from filing her lawsuit. Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. 6. In October 2010, Plaintiff's mother “started calling [her] regularly,...

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