Filipino teachers still awaiting $4.5M from federal lawsuit

KSLA News 12 Investigates: Filipino teachers still awaiting money from federal lawsuit
Updated: Mar. 7, 2017 at 10:00 PM CST
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Booking photo of Lourdes Navarro after being charged with money laundering in 2000, an...
Booking photo of Lourdes Navarro after being charged with money laundering in 2000, an unrelated crime to her connection to UPI. (Source: Orange County Sheriff's Department)
UPI brochure given to school districts. (Source: AFT Complaint)
UPI brochure given to school districts. (Source: AFT Complaint)

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Teachers brought to Caddo Parish from the Philippines still have not seen a penny from a 2012 federal lawsuit that awarded them $4.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit was filed after the teachers claimed they were lured from the Philippines for teaching jobs and ended up being exploited.

In 2008, California-based recruitment company Universal Placement, International, Inc. (UPI) helped more than 40 teachers get their H-1B visas and placed them in schools in Caddo Parish. The company also placed more than 300 teachers in other school districts across the state.

According to a Louisiana Workforce Commission complaint, three Caddo Parish administrators traveled to the Philippines as part of the recruitment process: Jan Holiday, Sara Ebarb, and Pamela Barker.

According to a public records request included in the complaint, Interim Superintendent Wanda Gunn approved of professional leave for the administrators to go on the $8,362.80 trip, paid for by UPI.

The teacher's say they heard about UPI and the opportunity to teach in America through fliers and word of mouth. After being interviewed, the most qualified were offered jobs, given visas and brought to Caddo Parish to fill teachers jobs.

However, the teachers say the process wasn't easy.

They claim they were faced with excessive fees and threats by UPI. As a result, the teachers joined forces with the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center among others to file a class action lawsuit along with 350 other Filipino teachers across the state against UPI in 2010.

According to the lawsuit against the recruitment company, "the teachers were systematically defrauded and exploited in the recruitment and hiring process in the Philippines" by the recruitment company. The petition also accused the company of using the promise of a unique opportunity to teach in Louisiana "to ensnare teachers in a psychologically coercive and financially ruinous trafficking scheme that subjected the teachers to exorbitant debt and forced labor."

On December 17, 2012, a jury concluded UPI and its president Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro should pay the teachers $4.5 million in damages and $3.1 in court costs. All contracts the teachers were held to by the recruitment company were thrown out.

An appeals court upheld the jury's decision at the end of 2015. But the teachers still have not seen a penny from the lawsuit.

"The judgment is great, but it is just a fancy piece of paper unless you can actually collect on that money that judgment represents and the work doesn't stop at that point," says Southern Poverty Law Center Attorney Jim Knoepp. 

That work has included trying to collect the money from some of Navarro's real estate dealings.

"The main target of that was some property Ms. Navarro had purchased in Los Angeles around the same time that she was collecting all of this money from the teachers."

Knoepp explained they have been successful in foreclosing and forcing a sale on Navarro's $600,000 Los Angeles home. They are hoping to distribute that money soon but right now it is tied up in litigation. The litigation was filed by another entity claiming that they had a superior lien on the Navarro's property based on a deed of trust that was transferred between Navarro and her brother. However, Knoepp calls the claim "completely baseless."

Knoepp says the case is still subject to an appeal period, so they have to hang on to the money before dispersing it to the teachers.

"It is difficult to say how much more money we will be able to collect on top of the sale of the property," he said.

Knoepp explains the judgment will follow Navarro until they collect all that is owed.

"The judgment still stands out there as a lien against any acquired property that they would purchase in the future or any earnings that they would have so that is still hanging over that person's head."

After so many years, the judgment is reaffirmed and rerecorded so it still remains as a lien against the person's property and assets. 
The judgment stays as a record associated with the defendant's name until he or she satisfies the judgment either through a settlement or the collection of the judgment, Knoepp said.

Knoepp thinks there is a major lesson from this lawsuit.

"If you try and take advantage of people in this way, it's going to catch up with you. The jury award showed that."

Knoepp makes it clear that they are going to do whatever it takes to collect that money.

"That means going after your property, your assets, and whatever it might be, wherever you've tried to hide the money, we are going to go after that."

It's been a long road for the teachers to get to this point.

Nine years after being recruited to teach in Caddo Parish by UPI, Maryln Pangatungan says she is pretty happy with her life. She is a mom, wife, and teacher and best of all she is living her dream of living in the United States.

"I always believe if you do good, it will always come back to you a million times, said Pangatungan. "I think that is what is happening now." 

But it hasn't been the easiest getting to this point.

"The very beginning was really hard."

Looking back, Pangatungan can only describe what she has been through as something you might watch on TV. 

"It is kind of like a reality show," she said. "It's like you were the major characters in the story but each one of us has a different story to tell."

When Pangatungan was brought here by UPI, she thought the American dream was within her grasp.

"People in other countries they look forward to what America is because America is a very beautiful country."

But the dream turned dark after they say UPI defrauded and exploited them in what the teachers call a "human trafficking scheme."

All the teachers, including Isabelita Quintero, tell the same story.

"Every week we are asked to give a thousand dollars for the processing."

The teachers were continually slapped with new fees, some paying up to $16,000 just to get the job and were required to sign over a percentage of their salary. They say the company threatened to give their visas away if they couldn't pay.

Merlina Aytona said she was surprised by how she was treated.

"Well, what kind of agency is this!?" Aytona recalls thinking of the constant demands for money.

The money already paid was non-refundable and the company had confiscated their visas and passports to make sure the fees were paid.

Feeling powerless, Ireen Rivera explained they found ways to get the money to cover the fees.

"Of course we loaned money, we begged money from our relatives and friends, my mother-in-law."

When they got to Caddo Parish from the Philippines, they discovered the shakedown for money wasn't over.

"When I came here, we were forced by 'Lulu' to go to financing agencies where we could borrow money," said Quintero.

The teachers say the president of the company, Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro, a convicted felon, used coercive tactics like legal threats, threats of deportation,  and segregation from the Filipino community to control the teachers.

In 2009, KSLA News 12 spoke with a teacher who at the time did not want to be identified, but said Navarro forced the teachers to live four to an apartment, two to a room, with no transportation.

"We did not expect there would be four in each apartment," Pangatungan said, describing the first year in the United States as very tough.

Flordeliza Ascuncion said remembering the families left behind in the Philippines was a way to cope.

"You always tell yourself you are doing this for them so that keeps you going."

At first, the teachers kept quiet about their struggles. Eventually, however, they began to speak up.

Romeo Mangaoang served as a spokesperson for the teachers in Caddo.

"It is all about the teachers who want the jobs but not to be exploited because we all have rights," Mangaoang said.

Red River United Teachers Union President Jackie Lansdale says at the time, the situation didn't pass the "smell test" for her.

"It was so wrong. It was an easy choice to stand up and say, 'This needs to be fixed.'"

Mangaoang testified on behalf of his colleagues during a 2-week trial in California in 2012.

"I'm glad I did because it made a difference," he said.

In the end, the jury handed down a decision that some view as a partial win because the jury did not agree the teachers were victims of human trafficking. The teachers feel differently.

"All of us are victims of human trafficking because we were deceived they didn't tell us the truth. So, I was and I am," said Pangatungan.

But the jury did agree the teachers were deceived and awarded them $4.5 million and $1.3 million in court costs because the defendants made "negligent misrepresentations to the plaintiff class" and violated the California Unfair Competition Law. 
"The outcome was great," says Mangaoang. I feel good about it. Especially when they were talking about the money the defendant is supposed to paying us." 

But she says the victory in court is more than just about money.

"It is about respecting our dignity as a person and as professionals."

About half of the 43 teachers who initially came over still work in Caddo Parish schools. Some work in Bossier Parish schools. Others left the state.

The teachers say they now are living the life they dreamed, teaching students in America and free from Navarro's contracts and fees.

"These teachers were able to survive and now most of us have homes now, " he said.

Many of the teachers have since been able to bring their families to the United States from the Philippines.

Pangatungan says looking back, the experience was worth it to be where she is now with her husband and three American-born children.

"This is what we imagined way back home," she said.

Now many of the teachers either have or are close to getting their green cards and on their way to becoming US citizens.

Navarro has not been criminally charged for her involvement with UPI.

However, in an unrelated case, she was charged in 2000 with money laundering and identity theft. She pleaded guilty in a 2003 hand-written confession to "knowingly and willfully cause false claims to be submitted to Medi-Cal, which caused a loss to Medi-Cal in excess of $1 million."

Navarro also admitted to laundering money and using names of doctors without their permission. She was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution and investigative costs.

In September of 2009, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed a complaint with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, saying UPI broke laws by operating in Louisiana without a license.

The AFT claimed UPI violated all of the operational mandates in the Louisiana Administrative Code, which include failure to maintain an office in Louisiana and failure to file a $5,000 bond with the assistant secretary.

The complaint also stated UPI engaged in conduct prohibited by Louisiana regulations by charging customary fees and collecting fees from both the employer and the applicant, charging fees to applicants never employed by a school system in Louisiana.

After conducting a hearing, the LWC concluded that UPI was, in fact, operating a private employment service without a license in violation of R.S. 23:104. The hearing officer also found UPI violated the private employment service law by charging a "marketing fee" in violation of La. R.S 23:111, collecting fees, and failing to adjust fees upward and downward based upon the actual gross earnings of the application.

LWC ordered UPI to pay a fine and litigation expenses and to refund placement fees by the Filipino teachers.

A district court affirmed the decision of the LWC. UPI appealed the district court's decision. 

On July 26, 2012, the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal First Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision.

The Department of Labor also investigated the Caddo Parish School Board for their involvement in the situation and found several violations.

As a result, the DOL issued an order that the district pay the teachers back wages totaling $128,760.00. 

Each teacher reportedly received between $2,000 - $3,000.

A Caddo Parish schools spokesman says they solved the issue before they were required to:

In 2011, the district reached out and voluntarily sought to determine any additional compensation to which our teachers recruited from the Philippines may be entitled. This included legal and other miscellaneous fees paid by the teachers to a third party. The district, upon approval by the Board, paid all such compensation to affected employees. Thus, resolving the matter in 2011.

The Red River United Teachers Union President Jackie Lansdale says the story is not yet over. She says the Filipino teachers in Caddo Parish are not being paid an appropriate salary based on their education and teaching experience.

A Caddo Parish schools spokesman released this statement in regard to the concerns regarding compensation of teachers pertaining to years of service/degrees:

The district follows policy as established by the Caddo Parish School Board in regard to years of service and degrees which qualify an employee for additional compensation.  In determining experience, Caddo Schools recognizes years of service attained while serving as an educator at a regionally or nationally accredited school or institution. For employees who have worked outside the United States or its territories, the school where a teacher served must have been must be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, all Caddo's teachers are paid in alignment with degrees and certifications as affirmed on their Louisiana teaching certificate.

Click here to read the policy.

Navarro could not be located for a request to comment on this story.

The school district will hold a meeting with the teachers on the topic of the back wages paid to the teachers on March 15.

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