Dechert

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Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
4
Dechert (28)
112.9
114.1
111.8

 

Dechert attorneys recently won a key victory in a fight to win damages from foreign diplomats who allegedly brought domestic servants into the United States and then abused them. Although two Kuwaiti officials have asserted that diplomatic immunity protects them from prosecution and lawsuits in the U.S., Dechert partner David Kotler and associate The Am Law Pro Bono 100Catherine Rosata convinced a federal judge that the defendants’ residual immunity—any immunity that remains after the diplomats are no longer serving—should be reduced. The ruling, which came in April in federal district court in Manhattan, is one of the latest developments in two lawsuits Kotler and Rosata have filed since 2006 on behalf of four Indian women who allege that their diplomat employers treated them like slaves. The women say the diplomats underpaid, imprisoned, threatened, and physically abused them, and they are seeking damages that could total millions of dollars. The U.S. Department of State has expelled the diplomats from the country, but the Kuwait Mission and Embassy deny the allegations in each case, attributing the alleged behavior to cultural differences. The plaintiffs are also suing Kuwait, saying the state is responsible for the trafficking and exploitation of servants by its diplomats.

The nonprofit Break the Chain Campaign, which is helping the Indian women, first contacted Dechert to represent similar clients several years ago. Kotler, a litigator in Dechert’s Princeton office, settled two civil complaints on behalf of former domestic workers, but in his most recent cases, diplomatic immunity issues have come to the fore.

In the first of these cases, an Indian woman is suing her former employers, a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife, alleging that he raped, psychologically abused, and imprisoned her. The domestic employee’s suit, originally filed in 2002, was dismissed because the Kuwaiti defendants claimed diplomatic immunity. When the diplomat ceased serving and left the U.S., Dechert and the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law refiled the suit. Following the April ruling restricting the former diplomat’s immunity, the defendants have appealed the default judgment against them. (Claims against Kuwait have been dismissed.)

In the second case, Dechert and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in 2007 on behalf of three Indian women against their former employers, another Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife, in federal district court in Washington, D.C. The individual defendants have won a motion to dismiss claims, which Dechert is appealing. Meanwhile, Kuwait has refused to waive the diplomats’ immunity.

In both cases, Kotler and Rosata argue that hiring a servant falls under the commercial activity exception to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. They also say that the Convention does not supersede the Thirteenth Amendment—which prohibits involuntary servitude in private conduct—and that the activity was a violation of international norms. The Kuwaiti defendants have countered that hiring a worker is incidental to being a diplomat, and not a commercial activity.

Rosata says Kuwait can be held responsible under the tort and commercial activity exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which establishes the limitations on whether a foreign state may be sued in the U.S. So far, however, the Dechert team’s arguments have been largely unsuccessful, with the exception of the April win.

“It’s been awfully difficult to fight with diplomatic immunity,” Kotler says. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t justice that can be obtained.”

—Vivian Yee | July 1, 2009

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