WilmerHale Team Sets Standard for Liability in Human Trafficking Cases With Win for Victimized Client

WilmerHale Team Sets Standard for Liability in Human Trafficking Cases With Win for Victimized Client

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A WilmerHale team concluded its precedent-setting representation of pro bono client Lisa Ricchio on December 3, securing a favorable settlement of her sex trafficking claim against a motel and its owners and managers under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). 

The case settled after one day of trial, during which Ms. Ricchio took the stand and steadily, calmly and persuasively told her story to the jury. Partner Cynthia Vreeland gave a powerful opening statement, and Counsel Kelli Powell presented oral arguments.

In 2014, a criminal case on behalf of Ms. Ricchio resulted in a conviction and prison sentence for Clark McLean, a pimp and convicted sex offender who pretended to be her boyfriend, lured her from Maine to Massachusetts, and attempted to force her into prostitution. 

The civil case against the motel owners has groundbreaking implications for other sex trafficking victims in the United States. As the first civil suit to be filed against a hotel or motel under the TVPA’s civil-remedy provision, it has clarified what makes hotels and motels, and their insurers, liable for sex trafficking on their premises under the TVPA. 

“The TVPA dates back almost 20 years, but it has been under-litigated on the civil side—there’s not a lot of law on what’s covered or not covered,” says Counsel Jason Liss, who has represented Ms. Ricchio since the firm took on her case in 2015. “It’s very gratifying that the decisions that came out of this case can beused to define liability in other cases.”

A Long Personal and Legal Fight

In 2011, Mr. McLean convinced Ms. Ricchio to visit him in Massachusetts by falsely claiming to have cancer. He imprisoned her at the Shangri-La Motel in the town of Seekonk, where he subjected her to severe and sustained abuse, including rape, drugging, humiliation, starvation and theft, to try to force her into prostitution. According to an expert consulted by WilmerHale, McLean’s “grooming” of Ms. Ricchio through the development of a seemingly mutual relationship, and subsequent abuse and coercion, are hallmarks of sex trafficking.

Another hallmark, according to that expert, is the selection of a conducive location. The Shangri-La Motel fit the profile—it had a reputation as a hotspot for drugs and prostitution, and Mr. McLean already knew the couple that managed the motel. And, in fact, over the course of her captivity, Ms. Ricchio repeatedly sought assistance from that couple. She recalled making direct eye contact with one of them and begging for help to escape on her first night there, but the manager only watched as Mr. McLean beat her and dragged her back into a room. The managers continued to ignore her pleas and her deteriorating health; one even joked about “making money” and “getting this thing going again” with Mr. McLean.

After Mr. McLean’s conviction, the Human Trafficking Legal Center, a pro bono partner of the firm, asked WilmerHale to represent Ms. Ricchio in a civil lawsuit against the motel. The case was initially summarily dismissed by the district court, rejecting the firm’s theory of liability under the TVPA. But Partner Felicia Ellsworth argued a successful appeal in 2017, convincing former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter—sitting by designation in the First Circuit—to reverse that decision. In his unanimous opinion, Justice Souter endorsed the firm’s theory of liability, confirming that “payment for the motel room” could constitute a “knowing benefit” under the TVPA. 

“Following the First Circuit’s decision, other district courts across the country have favorably cited the First Circuit’s decision in construing the TVPA,” says Ellsworth. "In the last few years, we have seen a significant volume of these cases, so our decision has already had an impact for trafficking victims.” 

The case proceeded through a contentious discovery process, and Ms. Ricchio faced repeated personal attacks from the defendants. But ultimately, the First Circuit win was not the only precedent the case set for victims of trafficking. Judge F. Dennis Saylor also denied an insurance carrier’s summary judgment motion, establishing two important principles: first, that negligence—i.e., that the motel owners knew or at least should have known of the trafficking—is sufficient to recover under the TVPA; and second, that common insurance policies therefore cover viable TVPA actions against the insured. The team is hopeful that with insurance companies now on notice, Judge Saylor’s decision will lead to more responsible practices in the hotel and motel industry.

A Dedicated WilmerHale Team

In addition to Ms. Ellsworth, Ms. Vreeland, Mr. Liss and Ms. Powell, a large team from WilmerHale brought their skills to Ms. Ricchio’s case. 

“It was amazing to watch this group in action,” says Ms. Vreeland. “Lisa could not have had a stronger set of advocates. Both in the courtroom and behind the scenes, they handled her case with respect, confidence and dedication.”

Mr. Liss, Senior Associates Eric Hawkins and Arjun Jaikumar, and Associates Jillian Schlotter, Aaron Macris and James Bor-Zale briefed and argued critical motions, successfully undercutting the defense’s strategy to attack Ms. Ricchio’s credibility. Ms. Schlotter and Associate Tess Foley worked extensively with Ms. Ricchio to prepare her to testify, and Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Macris and Partner Jordan Hirsch conducted mock cross examinations. Senior Associate Dan Willey and Associates Lucas Fortier and Gary Howell-Walton contributed key legal research during the trial. 

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re all very proud to have made positive changes in the law for trafficking victims,” says Hawkins. “And we’re so happy to have helped Lisa put this ordeal behind her. I’m honored to have worked with this great team for the last four years.” 

Ms. Ricchio is now working toward a degree in art therapy and hopes to use this degree and her own harrowing experience to help with women who have endured similar circumstances.