In an important victory for an Orrick pro bono team, a federal court jury in Illinois has awarded $156,000 to a human trafficking victim who was brought to the United States from Cameroon and exploited by a family that kept her in forced servitude for more than five years.
After a seven-day jury trial, an Orrick team led by Of Counsel Trish Higgins secured the favorable verdict on July 18 for Christine Ekalle, who was brought from her native Cameroon in 2002 by the defendants. The defendants paid Christine nothing at first to care for their children and Schaumburg, Illinois household, eventually upping her “salary” to just $350 per month for round-the-clock work. Because the defendants brought Christine to the U.S. via another person’s passport, she was stranded without legal immigration status and unable to advocate for herself because she was unable to speak English.
Christine escaped after five and a half years, and her case was referred to Orrick in 2014 by a not-for-profit organization, Safe Horizon. Our complaint against the defendants alleged human trafficking violations and FLSA, Illinois Wage and Payment, fraudulent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and conversion claims. The jury’s verdict sided with us on the FLSA, Illinois Wage and Payment, unjust enrichment and conversion claims in awarding the $156,000 judgment. Christine may still recover a penalty for late payment of wages, which could total more than $200,000, as well as recover attorney’s fees.
If able to collect the judgment, Christine plans to donate money to Safe Horizon and buy a plane ticket home to visit her family in Cameroon, where she has not been since 2002.
“The Orrick team gave this survivor her day in court,” said Martina Vandenberg, of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. “And the team presented an extremely strong case. That alone is an incredible gift.”
The case is the latest example of Orrick’s widely recognized pro bono efforts. The American Lawyer in 2017 ranked us #9 nationally and #6 internationally for pro bono work among the top 200 law firms.