U.S.A v. Sabhnani, No. 08-3720-cr(L)

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtDEBRA ANN LIVINGSTON
Citation599 F.3d 215
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Mahender Murlidhar SABHNANI, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, Defendants-Appellants.
Decision Date25 March 2010
Docket NumberNo. 08-3720-cr(L),No. 08-3731-cr(CON).

599 F.3d 215

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Mahender Murlidhar SABHNANI, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 08-3720-cr(L)
No. 08-3731-cr(CON).

United States Court of Appeals
Second Circuit.

Argued: Feb. 5, 2009
Decided: March 25, 2010.


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Monica E. Ryan, Assistant United States Attorney (David C. James and Vincent Lipari, Assistant United States Attorneys, of counsel), for Benton J. Campbell, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, NY, for Appellee.

Alan M. Dershowitz (Victoria B. Eiger, Natham Z. Dershowitz, Amy Adelson and Daniela Klare Eliott, Dershowitz, Eiger & Adelson, P.C., New York, NY, of counsel), Cambridge, MA, for Defendant-Appellant Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani.

Susan C. Wolfe, Hoffman & Pollok LLP, New York, NY, for Defendant-Appellant Varsha Mahender Sabhnani.

Before: WESLEY, LIVINGSTON,

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Circuit Judges, and RESTANI, Judge.*

DEBRA ANN LIVINGSTON, Circuit Judge:

Defendants-Appellants Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani ("Mahender") and Varsha Mahender Sabhnani ("Varsha") (collectively "the Sabhnanis" or "appellants") appeal from judgments of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York following a jury trial before the Hon. Arthur D. Spatt, Senior Judge, convicting them of two counts each of forced labor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589(a), harboring aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(l)(A)(iii), holding a person in a condition of peonage in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1581(a), and document servitude in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1592(a), as well as conspiracy to commit each of these substantive offenses. The district court sentenced Mahender Sabhnani to 40 months' imprisonment, to be followed by a threeyear term of supervised release, and ordered him to pay a $12,500 fine and a special assessment of $1200. Varsha Sabhnani was sentenced to 132 months' imprisonment, followed by a three-year term of supervised release, and was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and a special assessment of $1200. The court also required both defendants to pay the sum of $936,546.22 in restitution to their victims, and ordered both defendants to forfeit their ownership interest in their home, where their victims had been held. The district court's forfeiture order was stayed pending the disposition of this appeal. Varsha is currently serving her sentence, and Mahender was granted bail pending appeal by this Court.

The Sabhnanis jointly and individually make numerous arguments on appeal, in cluding: (1) improper refusal by the district court to change the venue of the trial in light of negative publicity regarding the defendants; (2) erroneous refusal to compel a prosecution witness to submit to an independent psychiatric examination; (3) incorrect instruction of the jury to the effect that it could convict Mahender Sabhnani of the charged crimes on a theory of omission as opposed to affirmative action; (4) insufficiency of the evidence as to Mahender Sabhnani's convictions; (5) incorrect instruction of the jury prohibiting it from drawing an adverse inference from the refusal of prosecution witnesses to speak to defense counsel; (6) improper refusal to recall a prosecution witness following the completion of testimony and the beginning of jury deliberations; (7) insufficient investigation into purported juror misconduct; (8) procedural unreasonableness in Varsha and Mahender's sentencing, consisting of multiple errors in the district court's calculation of the applicable Guidelines range; (9) various errors in the calculation of the required amount of restitution; and (10) overbroad and unconstitutionally excessive property forfeiture. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that none of these challenges has merit, with the partial exception of the Sabhnanis' challenge to the calculation of the restitution award.

BACKGROUND

Mahender Sabhnani, a naturalized citizen of the United States born in India, lived with his wife, Varsha Sabhnani, a naturalized United States citizen born in Indonesia, in a single-family home in Syosset, New York with their four children. The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the Sabhnanis conspired to harbor in

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their Syosset home two aliens who were unlawfully in the United States—specifically, two domestic servants the couple brought from Indonesia. The jury further found that the Sabhnanis conspired to hold these two women in peonage, keeping their travel documents, and to have the aliens perform forced labor on the Sabhnanis' behalf. The jury also convicted the Sabhnanis of substantive counts of harboring, peonage, forced labor, and document servitude based upon the evidence of their mistreatment of the two women, Samirah and Enung. The evidence at the Sabhnanis' trial, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, demonstrated the following:

In 2001 and 2002, Varsha's mother, known as "Mrs. Joti, " arranged for Samirah, a 53-year old woman from Indonesia, to obtain an Indonesian passport and United States visa in order to travel to the United States to work in the Sabhnanis' home. Samirah, a rice vender who spoke no English, did not know what a visa was. She did not know how to drive a car or use an American telephone. Samirah agreed to work in the United States as a domestic servant for $200 per month. She traveled to the United States in February 2002 in the company of Mrs. Joti, who carried Samirah's passport, and Varsha's brother Naresh. Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani met them at John F. Kennedy International Airport and drove them to the couple's home. Varsha Sabhnani took Samirah's passport and other related documents and kept them until approximately April 2007, about one year after Samirah's passport had expired. Mrs. Joti returned to her home in Indonesia shortly after delivering Samirah.

Samirah worked as a domestic servant for Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani from February 2002 through May 2007, even though the visa that Mrs. Joti obtained for her authorized Samirah to enter the United States solely as Mrs. Joti's employee and to work for her in this country only until May 2002. During her time with the Sabhnanis, Samirah was responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other chores at the couple's large three-story residence, which included about seven bedrooms, seven baths, and separate offices from which Mahender Sabhnani operated PVM International and Eternal Love Parfums, the two companies that togetherconstituted his international perfume and toiletry business.1 Varsha told Samirah that her $200 per month salary was being paid to her daughter Lita in Indonesia. Lita was in fact paid only $100 per month. Samirah received no money herself.

The circumstances of Samirah's employment were more than severe. While at the Sabhnanis' home, Samirah, who had slept in her own bed at home in Indonesia, was required to sleep first on the carpet outside the bedroom of one of the children and then on a mat on the floor of one of the residence's kitchens. Samirah was not given adequate food to eat—to the point that she was often forced by hunger to eat from the garbage. She worked for extremely long hours per day and was often deprived of sleep. On one occasion in 2003, William Hespeler, an electrician performing work at the home, observed Samirah dressed in "raggedy clothes, " following Mahender Sabhnani as she carried a food and beverage tray. Tr. 3586. Her meager dress that day was not atypical. Indeed, beginning around March 2007, Varsha Sabhnani refused to provide Samirah

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with even the semblance of adequate clothing, requiring her to wear tattered sweat pants and a top made from old rags and the cut remnants of a dress. Various witnesses testified that Samirah wore "torn or tattered, " "messy" clothing, rags "used for cleaning the floor" and clothing that left her "private part... visible." Tr. 1786, 3834.

Samirah was subjected to extremely harsh physical and psychological treatment in the Sabhnanis' home. On one occasion sometime before 2005, for example, Samirah drank milk directly from a container, without using a glass; the incident was reported to Varsha Sabhnani by one of her daughters. Varsha responded by beating Samirah and pouring scalding hot water on her arm. At her mother's instruction, one of Varsha's daughters took a photograph of Samirah with the milk container. Varsha Sabhnani told Samirah that the photo would be sent to Samirah's family in Indonesia to prove that Samirah was a thief. The photo, which Varsha thereafter kept in a locked cabinet in a closet adjoining the Sabhnanis' bedroom, was introduced into evidence at the trial. It depicts the discoloration on Samirah's arm from the scalding.

The milk incident was not an isolated one. Samirah was beaten by Varsha Sabhnani with various household objects, such as a broom, an umbrella, and a rolling pin. She was punished for sleeping late, for not receiving permission to throw out the garbage, for stealing food from the trash, and for failing to clean the garage. Varsha threw boiling water on Samirah on at least three separate occasions. She also mutilated Samirah, pulling on Samirah's ears until they bled, causing scabs and scars, and cutting Samirah with a knife, leaving scars on her face and various parts of her body. Wearing plastic supermarket bags on her hands, Varsha Sabhnani on more than one occasion pulled on Samirah's ears and dug her fingernails into the flesh behind them, causing blood to trickle down Samirah's neck. She punished Samirah for various alleged misdeeds by forcing her to eat large quantities of hot chili peppers until Samirah vomited or moved her bowels uncontrollably....

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239 practice notes
  • United States v. Kenner, No. 3-CR-607 (JFB) (AYS)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • March 10, 2020
    ...sufficient to support the forfeiture." United States v. Viloski , 814 F.3d 104, 113-14 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Sabhnani , 599 F.3d 215, 263 (2d Cir. 2010) (noting that the Second Circuit has upheld a civil forfeiture against a building owner who was "willfully blind" to the......
  • Elat v. Ngoubene, Civil Case No. PWG–11–2931.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • January 21, 2014
    ...if she tried to leave”). Relevantly, a scheme or conspiracy “can be inferred from circumstantial evidence.” United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 244 (2d Cir.2010) (noting that “ ‘a single act may be sufficient for an inference of involvement ... if the act is of a nature justifying an i......
  • In re Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (“MTBE”) Prods. Liab. Litig., Docket Nos. 10–4135–cv, 10–4329–cv.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • July 26, 2013
    ...of misconduct “relate to statements made by the jurors themselves, rather than to outside influences.” United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 250 (2d Cir.2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). Even if a party moving for a mistrial shows that the court abused its discretion, however, it......
  • United States v. Auernheimer, No. 13–1816.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • April 11, 2014
    ...contract, assumption of care, creation of peril, controlling the conduct of others, and landowner); accord United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 237 (2d Cir.2010). Failure to perform a required act could confer venue where a defendant should have performed that act when a statute penaliz......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
239 cases
  • United States v. Kenner, No. 3-CR-607 (JFB) (AYS)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • March 10, 2020
    ...sufficient to support the forfeiture." United States v. Viloski , 814 F.3d 104, 113-14 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Sabhnani , 599 F.3d 215, 263 (2d Cir. 2010) (noting that the Second Circuit has upheld a civil forfeiture against a building owner who was "willfully blind" to the......
  • Elat v. Ngoubene, Civil Case No. PWG–11–2931.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • January 21, 2014
    ...if she tried to leave”). Relevantly, a scheme or conspiracy “can be inferred from circumstantial evidence.” United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 244 (2d Cir.2010) (noting that “ ‘a single act may be sufficient for an inference of involvement ... if the act is of a nature justifying an i......
  • In re Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (“MTBE”) Prods. Liab. Litig., Docket Nos. 10–4135–cv, 10–4329–cv.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • July 26, 2013
    ...of misconduct “relate to statements made by the jurors themselves, rather than to outside influences.” United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 250 (2d Cir.2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). Even if a party moving for a mistrial shows that the court abused its discretion, however, it......
  • United States v. Auernheimer, No. 13–1816.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • April 11, 2014
    ...contract, assumption of care, creation of peril, controlling the conduct of others, and landowner); accord United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 237 (2d Cir.2010). Failure to perform a required act could confer venue where a defendant should have performed that act when a statute penaliz......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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