In their first public comment since a federal court ordered them to pay $15.3 million in damages to 11 workers, the owners of the Los Angeles-area L’Amande bakeries insist they are the ones being victimized in the ordeal.
“The default judgment is a miscarriage of justice, brought about by the abuse of both the justice and immigration systems by the plaintiffs and their lawyers,” Analiza Moitinho de Almeida told NBC News in an e-mail.
Almeida contends the suit was a ploy by the workers to enrich themselves and change their immigration status.
But the default judgment is a consequence of the Almeida’s failure to defend themselves in court. The bakery owners abandoned the lawsuit and then left the United States last November.
“We decided to no longer continue our defense as our lawyers were costing us $80,000-$100,000 a month,” Almeida told NBC News. “It was also truly frustrating that we had to abide by the procedures of the court and could not just submit the evidence we had.”
“They claim their innocence and that our clients lied. But they could have represented themselves in the lawsuit. They squandered that opportunity.”
Almeida said answering “thousands of interrogatories” meant expensive legal work. Instead of the court system, Almeida chose Facebook to fight the workers allegations of mistreatment. She posted pictures of the workers enjoying their life in America, questioning how the situation equated with being trafficked or being indentured workers.
“Since we refuse to give in to intimidation and to any form of coercion, specially [sic] when undeserved and contrived in the most fraudulent way, we had no choice but to allow them to proceed with a default judgment,” Almeida said in her e-mail.
She did not indicate whether she and her husband were in the U.S. or the Philippines.
Almeida — the daughter of Juan B. Santos, the former head of Nestlé in the Philippines and current head of that country’s Social Security System — is the co-owner of the bakery with her husband Goncalo.
“They claim their innocence and that our clients lied. But they could have represented themselves in the lawsuit,” Yanin Senachai, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Los Angeles and one of the workers' attorney, told NBC News. “They squandered that opportunity.”
In 2015, 11 bakery workers filed a $1 million lawsuit against the Almeidas claiming 27 counts of human trafficking, racketeering, and labor abuses.
The California lawsuit claimed that the Almeidas fraudulently obtained E-2 visas in 2009 for their former employees in the Philippines to help them start a new bakery in the U.S.
"We decided to no longer continue our defense as our lawyers were costing us $80,000-$100,000 a month"
At the time, immigration advocates said it was a warning to all foreign nationals who use the E-2, also known as the "investor" visas.
The visa allows foreign investors to bring in to the U.S. temporary skilled workers who perform "duties of an executive or supervisory character," or are in some way considered "special" or "essential."
When the Almeidas failed to defend the suit in court last September, lawyers for the 11 workers filed for the default judgment in November.
Just this month, Federal Judge Fernando Olguin granted the motion and awarded $15,252, 297, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court on May 2.
The judgment specifically voids the transfer and sale of the Almeidas' main suburban Los Angeles home. It also voids deeds of trusts that identifies Analiza Moitinho de Almeida’s father, Juan B. Santos, as beneficiary of the property. And it attaches all remaining assets of the Almeidas and prevents any transfer of assets from their residence trust.
But lawyers for the workers say a sale did take place and that they are now trying to recover the assets.
“Proceeds of the sale went overseas, we don’t where they are,” Senachai said. “Now it’s a collections case. We’re not giving up.”
But the workers aren’t counting on seeing a dime.
“For us, we’re not actually expecting that money,” Armelinda Dela Cerna told NBC News. “With the judgment that happened, we have a better life. That money will be a bonus for us.”
As a bakery manager, Dela Cerna was paid by the Almeidas $2,000 a month to work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. She said she considered the Almeidas friends, and Goncalo as a mentor.
“I was so surprised he was taking advantage of me,” Dela Cerna said.
As for the Almeidas' claim that they are the real victims, Dela Cerna was adamant. “They’re not the victims,” she said.
The workers lost their E-2 visas when the Almeidas shut down the bakeries. Currently, 10 of the workers are on T visas, which allow survivors of human trafficking and their families to live and work in the United States if they cooperate in legal proceedings. One worker is on "continued presence status," which protects from deportation and allows them to work.
“For us, we’re not actually expecting that money. With the judgment that happened, we have a better life. That money will be a bonus for us.”
Dela Cerna, a single mother, is hoping to bring her 8-year-old son from the Philippines to join her in America. She left him behind with her mother to work in the United States.
“I’m so relieved about the decision of the judge, all stress, it’s all gone and all the fears in our heart are gone, too," she said. "We are so happy focusing on our new jobs and looking forward to reuniting with our families.”
Another worker, Gina Pablo, can’t forget the verbal abuse and threats she received from Analiza Moitinho de Almeida, whom she had known in the Philippines.
“She said, ‘If you cannot keep up all your work, I’m going to send you to the Philippines. I don’t think you can find a job there. You don’t know my father,’ that’s what she told me,” Pablo told NBC News.
Pablo worked for just $300 a month for the first 8 months of her employment, working round the clock with no day off, she said. Pablo’s job was to clean the house, as well as the apartment building owned by the Almeidas.
“It’s still on my mind, everything,” Pablo said. “That’s why I still remember. I couldn’t help but cry…You’re just here in America, and I had no idea of the law in America at the time.”
No criminal charges against though Almeidas have been filed, according to the workers' lawyers. While there could be restitution for the workers, Senachai said there wouldn’t be any duplicate recovery in a criminal case if there is money from the civil case. But it could potentially mean jail time or community service for the defendants.
“I’m not aware of anyone pursuing a criminal case, but we definitely think there should be one,” Senachai said. “If prosecutors want our clients to be witnesses, of course, they would cooperate.”