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Even though hotel staff knew a sex trafficking victim well enough to wink as she checked in and offer a "jetted tub" upgrade, they were seemingly unaware she was being exploited and she may not sue for her two years of abuse, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer found the allegations insufficient to show that Choice Hotels International, the parent company for multiple lodging brands, knew that trafficking was occurring at two specific sites where Megan Lundstrom was forced into servitude. 

"There are also no allegations that plaintiff made a member of the staff at either hotel aware that she was being forced to engage in commercial sex activity, as opposed to engaging in commercial sex by choice," Brimmer wrote in a Nov. 30 order.

The lawsuit was one of approximately 91 active sex trafficking civil cases, according to a 2020 report from the Human Trafficking Institute. Nearly all of those who prosecutors charged in trafficking were individual men and women, but hotels comprised 43% of defendants in civil cases filed against organizations.

In a report released on Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged as a priority the need to pursue "facilitators" of trafficking like hotel owners, calling them "important participants in the criminal network" that are "sometimes overlooked by investigators and prosecutors."

Lundstrom was 23 years old when she was reportedly forced to endure assaults, psychological torment and murder threats from her trafficker. The man allegedly advertised Lundstrom on the now-defunct classified site backpage.com, and forced Lundstrom to service between 10 to 15 men per day for nearly two years.

In March of this year, Lundstrom filed a lawsuit against Choice Hotels, whose franchises included a Quality Inn in Centennial and Sleep Inn in Thornton where her trafficker took her to have sex with strangers weekly from 2010 to 2011.

"Defendant knew, or should have known, Ms. Lundstrom was being trafficked because she stayed at the hotel only during day light hours, always checked in early, by about 9:00 a.m., and always left the hotels by about 5:00 p.m.," her lawyers wrote. "Additionally, there was consistent traffic of men in and out of her room, during daytime hours, she carried no luggage, she did not stay overnight, the room amenities were rarely used, and there were numerous condoms and single use sanitary towels left in the room."

Lundstrom alleged that employees who recognized her even winked at her as she checked in and once "upgraded her to a room with a jetted tub."

She relied on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which in 2008 gave victims the ability to sue their perpetrator or anyone else who knowingly benefits by "receiving anything of value" from participating in the trafficking operation.

Lunstrom's lawsuit claimed Choice Hotels profited financially from her abuse, valuing room rentals above her safety. She sought monetary damages and revised company policies for addressing sex trafficking.

Choice Hotels asked Brimmer to dismiss the lawsuit. It argued the company had not knowingly participated in any trafficking venture, that it was merely the franchise administrator and that Lunstrom had not even established that she was a trafficking victim.

"The Court finds that plaintiff has plausibly alleged that she was trafficked," countered Brimmer.

The judge also agreed with Lundstrom that she had credibly claimed Choice Hotels knowingly benefited from the trafficking operation. He noted that renting hotel rooms for sex trafficking could constitute a benefit under the federal law.

Despite that determination, however, he ultimately found Lundstrom failed to show that the parent company knew or should have been aware of her specific experience on its franchisees' property.

"Plaintiff alleges that defendant was on notice about the prevalence of sex trafficking generally at its hotels and in the hotel industry," Brimmer wrote. "But this is not sufficient to show that defendant should have known about what happened to plaintiff."

Lundstrom's case is similar to many others filed across the country relying on federal trafficking or organized crime laws in an attempt to hold hotels responsible for victims' injuries. Earlier this year, Brimmer tossed another lawsuit from a woman who alleged her trafficker shuttled her between hotels in the Denver Tech Center. Again, Brimmer did not believe the hotels had knowledge of what was happening.

“While plaintiff alleges that she had a visible injury, appeared malnourished, received male guests, and that there were used condoms in the room, she does not allege that hotel staff noticed these to be signs of trafficking,” Brimmer wrote in February.

Other judges have come to the opposite conclusion, however, about the same federal trafficking law. A case in Ohio, also featuring Choice Hotels as a defendant, survived a motion to dismiss after U.S. District Court Chief Judge Algenon L. Marbley found the hotels could be held liable even if they did not know about the trafficking. Otherwise, he decided, "the 'should have known' language...would be meaningless."

The parties agreed to dismiss that case in September.

Sabrina Atkins, an Atlanta-based attorney, told Hotel Business Magazine that in order to identify possible trafficking activity, hotels should watch for "increased foot traffic in and out of a single room, multiple phones or computers in a single room, a guest requesting multiple sets of towels or bed sheets in a single day, as well as women or young girls who appear malnourished or injured, have little luggage, no identification, no money and are constantly watched or monitored.”

The case is Lundstrom v. Choice Hotels International, Inc.

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