Sahebdin v. Khelawan

Decision Date24 September 2022
Docket Number21-CV-2956 (MKB)
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York

MARGO K. BRODIE, United States District Judge:

Plaintiff Intaz Sahebdin commenced the above-captioned action on May 25, 2021, against Defendants Angela Khelawan, A&N West Indian American Grocery, doing business as A&N Fish Market, and Yadram Harry, alleging that Defendants subjected him to exploitative work conditions, refused to pay him wages, and trafficked him to Suriname, in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (the “TVPRA”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1584, 1589, 1590 et. seq. and the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. (Compl. ¶¶ 2-3, 61-87.) Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants are liable under theories of quantum meruit, unjust enrichment, fraud and constructive fraud, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. (Id. ¶¶ 88-127.)

Defendants move to dismiss all claims pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Plaintiff opposes the motion in part.[1] For the reasons explained below, the Court grants Defendants' motion in part and denies it in part. The Court also grants Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint within thirty days.

I. Background

The Court assumes the truth of the factual allegations in the Complaint for the purpose of deciding Defendants' motion.

a. Factual background

i. Events that occurred in the United States before 2013.

Plaintiff is a citizen of Suriname and came to the United States in 2003 seeking employment. (Compl. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff currently resides in Queens, New York as a permanent resident. (Id. ¶ 6.) Not long after his arrival in 2003, Plaintiff found a job at A&N Fish Market, located in Queens, where he weighed, cut, and prepared fish and other seafood for customers. (Id. ¶¶ 9,10, 13; Pl.'s Opp'n 2.) Khelawan and Harry (“Individual Defendants) owned and operated A&N Fish Market and agreed to pay Plaintiff $240 a week in wages. (Id. ¶¶ 10, 14.) Plaintiff worked twelve to fifteen hours a day for seven days for the first three months of his employment. (Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiff's job duties included throwing out the trash, cleaning the store, stocking shelves, and unloading produce. (Id. ¶ 16.) At times, Individual Defendants told Plaintiff to clean the store at night after they locked up. (Id. ¶ 17.) “Individual [D]efendants would close the fish market for the day[and] lock the outside door, leaving [P]laintiff with no means of exit and literally imprisoned.” (Id. ¶ 18.) After the first three months of Plaintiff's employment, Individual Defendants stopped paying him; Plaintiff lived on tips he received from customers. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21.)

Six months into Plaintiff's employment, Individual Defendants offered Plaintiff accommodations in in the basement of the A&N Fish Market rent-free.[2] (Id. ¶ 22.) The basement room was a large and windowless boiler room with a freezer and a toilet. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff slept on top of milk crates and used a bucket to bathe. (Id. ¶ 24.) When Plaintiff inquired about his wages, Individual Defendants told him that they could not pay him because they were saving up to buy him an apartment.[3] (Id. ¶ 27.) On one occasion, “sometime prior to 2013, tenants [who] owed rent to [I]ndividual [D]efendants were beaten up[,] and after that Plaintiff got scared and stopped asking [them] for his wages.” (Id. ¶ 31.) The treatment of the other tenant scared Plaintiff and he stopped asking Defendants for his wages. (Id.) Defendants also kept possession of Plaintiff's legal documents, including his passport, green card, and social security card. (Id. ¶¶ 25, 30.)

i. Events in Suriname from 2013-2016

In 2013, Individual Defendants told Plaintiff they opened a fishing business and store in Suriname, named Goldfish Import & Export, that would operate similarly to A&N Fish Market. (Id. ¶ 33.) Individual Defendants offered to provide Plaintiff with lodging if he went to Suriname to manage the store. (Compl. ¶ 34.) Between 2013 and 2016, Plaintiff managed Goldfish Import & Export in Suriname and Individual Defendants provided him with a rented house/apartment to live in while he worked. (Compl. ¶¶ 34, 36.) Individual Defendants required Plaintiff to sign documents in Dutch that he did not know the significance of and Plaintiff executed the documents despite his illiteracy, having received no formal education since the age of ten. (Compl. ¶ 35.)

In 2015, Khelawan was travelling to the United States and was stopped at John F. Kennedy Airport by Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) agents because she was carrying Plaintiff's passport. (Compl. ¶ 37.) When the TSA agents questioned her about the passport, she called Plaintiff and told him to say she had permission to have his passport. (Compl. ¶ 38.) Around the same time, Plaintiff was approached by the Suriname government and was told that he incurred approximately $100,000 in debt associated with Goldfish Import & Export, including taxes, rental arrears and various other debts. (Compl. ¶¶ 39, 43.) Plaintiff learned that the Dutch documents that Khelawan made him sign were incorporation documents for Goldfish Import & Export and on the documents Plaintiff was named as the owner and person responsible for the debts and liabilities of the business. (Id. ¶ 40.) Plaintiff also discovered that he had incurred debts for two businesses that were owned and operated by Individual Defendants in Suriname. (Id. ¶ 42.) Khelawan abandoned Plaintiff in Suriname in September of 2016, leaving him without his passport and with no money. (Id. ¶ 44.) After Khelawan's departure, Plaintiff made money by catching and selling crabs until he could acquire a temporary passport to return to the United States. (Id. ¶ 46.)

ii. Events in the United States after August of 2017

Using his temporary passport, Plaintiff returned to the United States in August of 2017 with the money he earned from catching and selling crabs. (Id. ¶ 47.) Plaintiff went to Individual Defendants' home upon his return and stayed at their apartment for one night and the following day the Individual Defendants told Plaintiff that they rented a room for him. (Id. ¶ 4849.) On August 25, 2017, Individual Defendants told Plaintiff he owed them money and had thirty days to pay it back or they would have his hands and feet broken. (Id. ¶ 50.) Upon receiving physical and verbal threats, Plaintiff left the apartment and went back to living with his grandmother. (Id. ¶ 51.) Plaintiff later found employment at another fish market where he was paid wages. (Id. ¶ 52.)

In 2021, Plaintiff found out that the Internal Revenue Service (the “IRS”) sent him a notice stating that he owed sales tax since 2008 for a business called Liberty Fish & Meat, located at the same premises as A&N Fish Market. (Id. ¶¶ 53, 55.) Plaintiff never opened, owned, operated or managed this business. (Id. ¶ 54.) Individual Defendants used Plaintiff's private information to open Liberty Fish & Meat under Plaintiff's name, incurring debt and leaving Plaintiff with the debt. (Id. ¶ 57.) When Plaintiff reached out to Individual Defendants about the business, they threatened him with bodily injury. (Id. ¶ 58.)

b. Procedural background

On May 25, 2021, Plaintiff filed a Complaint alleging violations of the TVPRA, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1584, 1589, 1590, et seq., and the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. (See Compl.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “knowingly recruited, transported, and harbored [] Plaintiff so as to obtain his labor and services by threats of serious harm, scheme or pattern of behavior and/or abuse of legal process . . . while he was employed at A&N Fish Market between 2003-2013 and later on between 2013-2017 when he was employed at Goldfish Import & Export in Suriname.” (Id. ¶ 62, 69, 72.) In addition, Plaintiff alleges the Defendants “forced [him] to work for them under threats of psychological and legal coercion manifested in the confiscation of his passport and threats of harm that would result should Plaintiff ask for his passport, his wages owed or the debts incurred in Suriname under his name or the back taxes owed to the [IRS] and Defendants caused [him] to have and to believe he had no way of avoiding continued service or confinement in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition on involuntary servitude.” (Id. ¶¶ 80-81.) Plaintiff also asserts common law claims for quantum meruit, unjust enrichment, fraud and constructive fraud, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. (Id. ¶¶ 88-127.)

On September 24, 2021, Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint arguing that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the applicable statutes of limitation. (See Defs.' Mot.; Defs.' Mem.; Defs.' Reply.) In addition Defendants argue that Plaintiff (1) fails to plead actionable forced labor and trafficking claims, (Defs.' Mem. 8-11); (2) cannot assert claims relating to his employment in Suriname under the Thirteenth Amendment or for quantum meruit, unjust enrichment, fraud and false imprisonment, (id. at 13-17, 20); (3) fails to plead his fraud claims with specificity, (id. at 18-19); (4) fails to assert that he was confined to support his false imprisonment claim, (id. at 20); (5) fails to plead facts showing that Defendants conduct was outrageous and extreme or that Defendants intended to cause severe emotional distress, to support his infliction of emotional distress claim (id. at 21-22); and (6) fails to assert how his civil conspiracy claim is connected to an actionable...

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