LOS ANGELES (Feb. 26, 2013) — The Asian Pacific American Legal Center on Tuesday, a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, and the law firm of Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC (“Caldwell Leslie”), announced a $45,000 settlement on behalf of Sakina Begum, a Bangladeshi immigrant, in a suit against her former employer, Desh Management dba Little Dhaka Restaurant and Groceries (“Desh”), for sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and wage theft.
The case began in February 2010 when Desh and its owners filed a lawsuit against Ms. Begum and her husband for defamation and other claims as a means to silence and intimidate her from complaining about sexual harassment she suffered in the workplace. APALC and Caldwell Leslie successfully defended against that lawsuit, and filed a counter lawsuit against Desh and its owners which they vigorously litigated for almost two years until Desh and its owners admitted their wrongdoing, agreed to settle the case, and apologized to Ms. Begum for their mistreatment of her.
“I feel happy that this case has been resolved and I am thankful to APALC and Caldwell Leslie for standing by me and my husband for all these years and for helping me fight for my rights as an employee,” Ms. Begum said. “I was a hard-working employee of the restaurant for so many years. The sexual harassment I endured was degrading and humiliating. Workers should be respected and no one should ever have to endure the kind of harassment and retaliation that I experienced as a worker and a woman.”
Ms. Begum, an immigrant from Bangladesh who speaks limited English, worked as a cook at Little Dhaka Restaurant and Groceries in the “Little India” neighborhood of Artesia, California for nearly six years. She was the only female employee at the restaurant, and in January 2010 was repeatedly groped, battered, and demeaned by a new male head cook. When Ms. Begum reported this abuse to the restaurant managers, the owners of Desh did not stop the harassment or reprimand the male head cook, who continued to torment and harass Ms. Begum.
Ms. Begum then sought assistance from South Asian Network (SAN), a grassroots community organization devoted to advancing the health, empowerment and solidarity of persons of South Asian origin, particularly those with language and cultural barriers. When SAN attempted to intervene on Ms. Begum’s behalf, Desh retaliated by firing her without paying her wages. Desh then sued her, her husband and SAN for defamation and various other claims to punish Ms. Begum and her husband for speaking out about her rights.
APALC filed a motion under a California law prohibiting strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP suits), resulting in dismissal of all of the claims against SAN and most of the claims against Ms. Begum. SLAPP suits typically are frivolous lawsuits brought by employers or powerful entities to interfere with an individual’s exercise of civil and labor rights and to silence and intimidate workers and advocates who speak out against abuse and exploitation.
“Unfortunately, this case is typical of many complaints we hear from low-wage, limited English speaking immigrant workers,” said Laboni Hoq, APALC’s Litigation Director. “Immigrant workers must often endure degrading and exploitative working conditions from people within their own communities because of the numerous barriers they face to exercising their rights as workers. Ms. Begum simply wanted to do her job with dignity and to be fairly compensated her for her hard work. We hope this case will send a strong message to employers that they will be held accountable for failing to prevent or stop sexual harassment, engaging in wage theft, and also retaliating against workers who assert their workplace rights.”
APALC and Caldwell Leslie vigorously prosecuted the case for over two years, including winning numerous monetary sanctions against Desh, its owners, and its attorneys for their abuse of the litigation process. APALC and Caldwell Leslie also brought a second suit against Desh and its owners for fraudulently conveying assets to avoid satisfying Ms. Begum’s claims. In February 2013, Desh agreed to settle the dispute, pay damages to Ms. Begum and her husband, and apologize for the mistreatment they suffered.
“We are happy to achieve such a successful result for Ms. Begum,” said Caldwell Leslie attorney Puneet V. Kakkar, “and to shine a light on the larger issue of immigrants who are being taken advantage of by their communities and need legal assistance to vindicate their rights.” Albert Giang, co-chair of the firm’s pro bono practice, added “Caldwell Leslie is proud to partner with the Legal Center in its important work on behalf of the least advantaged in the Asian American community.”