3 National Hotel Chains Sued In Federal Court Over Texas Human Trafficking
The fight against human trafficking in Texas is now at the doorsteps of national hotel chains and franchisers who are increasingly facing legal fire for their franchisees' failure to stop trafficking on the premises.
Human trafficking victims in Houston filed three federal lawsuits in December, claiming they were forced into prostitution inside South Texas hotels linked to the Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, dba La Quinta Inn & Suites; Hilton Worldwide Holdings, dba Doubletree by Hilton; and Choice Hotels-Comfort Inn brands.
The lawsuits serve as a harbinger for whether commercial real estate owners and franchisers can face civil penalties under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act for failing to stop trafficking activity at hotels.
All of the national hotel brands named in the suit told Bisnow they take trafficking seriously and actively participate in anti-trafficking organizations and training.
Houston attorney Annie McAdams named the chains as civil defendants in federal court after previously suing dozens of other social media websites and hotel operators in state district courts last year for failing to stop trafficking.
McAdams sees her latest federal suit as a chance to remove the shield of liability that national hotel chains often rely on when their franchisees or locally based operators face trafficking allegations.
"For the local hotels and landlords this should be welcome. Over the past two years the parent companies have thrown their hands up and placed all of the blame on the local companies/franchisees," McAdams told Bisnow in a statement.
"These recent cases are our first effort to say not so fast to the parent company hotels, you share in responsibility and can no longer turn a blind eye."
In each suit, plaintiffs named as Jane Does accuse the hotel brands of allowing them to be trafficked at hotels where staff members failed to prevent illicit activities against them after observing predatory behavior on the premises.
In the suit against Hilton Worldwide, a Jane Doe says she was trafficked at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel at 8181 Airport Blvd. in Houston.
The plaintiff alleges in the lawsuit that Hilton functioned as a "perpetrator" under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and therefore "benefitted, by receiving financial and other compensation, through its participation in a venture involving the trafficking, harboring, and maintenance of human trafficking victims in exchange for financial benefits."
This legal language is from the federal TVPA and is designed to create federal penalties for those who profit from doing business with traffickers.
While Hilton refused to comment on the pending litigation, a spokesperson released a statement saying Hilton complies with the law in every country and region where it operates and is committed to human rights.
"We condemn all forms of slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking, and encourage our suppliers and business partners to share in this commitment," Hilton said in a statement to Bisnow. "We have a long-standing record of opposing human trafficking and sexual exploitation, demonstrated through our efforts to provide anti-human trafficking training to all Team Members across all brands and properties."
A second Jane Doe plaintiff sued Wyndham-La Quinta under the same federal statute, claiming she was trafficked in 2012 at a La Quinta Inn at 1625 West Loop South in Houston.
The plaintiff alleges hotel staff failed to intervene after seeing obvious signs of trafficking, including excessive male traffic outside hotel rooms, customers paying for rooms with cash or prepaid cards and minors paying for hotel rooms.
Wyndham also refused to comment on the lawsuit itself, but highlighted its partnerships with anti-trafficking groups, including the International Tourism Partnership, ECPAT-USA and Polaris Project.
"We have worked to enhance our policies condemning human trafficking while also providing training to help our team members, as well as the hotels we manage, identify and report trafficking activities," Wyndham said in a statement to Bisnow. "We also make training opportunities available for our franchised hotels, which are independently owned and operated."
The final plaintiff is a minor child who traffickers allegedly abused at a Choice Hotel (branded as a Comfort Inn) at 6687 Southwest Freeway at Westpark Houston. The Jane Doe's claims mirror those filed against Hilton and Wyndham.
Choice Hotels declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said, "Choice Hotels condemns human trafficking and, as a signatory of ECPAT’s Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, we are committed to working with our independently owned and operated franchised hotels to combat this violation of human rights."
Choice Hotels also said it offers training to managers and employees working at franchised locations to help them identify and stop human trafficking.
Trafficking activity in Texas is a major concern for state authorities, with 79,000 Texas minors victims of sex trafficking at any given time, according to the Texas Attorney General's office.
The Texas legislature continues to ponder aggressive regulations against building owners and landlords when it comes to on-site trafficking activity.
Texas Senate Bill 498, proposed last year, attempted to hold building owners and landlords liable for failing to stop traffickers on their premises. The bill didn’t pass before the legislative session ended, but it made it through the Senate, and advocates plan to push for its passage again in the future.