A federal judge in Colorado has dismissed a lawsuit against four major hotel chains with Denver locations, litigation that is part of a multistate effort to hold hotels accountable for sex trafficking within their facilities.
In a Feb. 24 order, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer concluded that a woman identified only as J.L. had failed to prove that Best Western International, the Hyatt Corporation, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Marriott International knew or should have known that their hotels were aware of her status as a trafficking victim.
“Plaintiff claims that her trafficking, torture, and sexual exploitation occurred at the Best Western Plus, Hyatt Place, La Quinta Inn & Suites, and Sheraton hotels in the Denver Tech Center and that, as a direct and proximate result of defendants’ refusal to prevent human trafficking at these properties, she was sexually exploited and repeatedly victimized,” wrote Brimmer.
However, he concluded “[g]eneral knowledge of commercial sex activity occurring at hotels across the United States is insufficient on its own to demonstrate” that the hotels participated in trafficking.
In 2019, according to The Guardian, 13 women accused multiple hotel operators of willfully ignoring the indicators of sex trafficking taking place at their locations. Since then, the lawsuits have proceeded on different trajectories: in September 2020, a federal judge in New Hampshire permitted some claims from a lawsuit there to proceed. Five months prior, a judge in Philadelphia greenlit another lawsuit against Marriott.
Last October, the parties in a case out of Little Rock reached a settlement, and a federal judge there dismissed the lawsuit.
In the case of J.L., who filed her original complaint in December 2019, she reportedly ran away from her father at age 17. While homeless, a friend introduced her to a man who promised to help her. Instead, he brought her to the Best Western Plus in the Denver Tech Center where, she alleged, “he bludgeoned J.L. with a gun rendering her completely unconscious, then stripped her nude, tied her to the bed, raped her, and posted naked photos of her online at Backpage.com,” a website largely for sex work that federal authorities have since seized.
The man then “shuttled” J.L throughout the Denver Tech Center where she was forced into sex work. After one month, she wrote, the Federal Bureau of Investigation intercepted her.
J.L. took legal action against the hotel chains under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, arguing they knowingly benefited from sex trafficking violations they knew, or should have known, were happening.
“Criminals parade their misconduct openly on Defendants’ brand hotel properties throughout the United States while Defendants’ industry remains willfully blind to the criminal misconduct to continue earning a profit at the expense of human life, human rights, and human dignity,” wrote J.L.’s attorneys in her amended complaint.
J.L. cited the Best Western Plus, Hyatt Place, La Quinta Inn & Suites and Sheraton hotels as the sites of her abuse. In one instance, J.L. said she arrived at the Best Western with no luggage and, when she left days later, wore the same clothes and was visibly injured. She alleged she left the Best Western with an “astounding number of used condoms scattered about and a broken dresser with J.L.’s blood on it.” Personnel would have seen similar circumstances at other hotels, she argued.
In Hyatt's request to dismiss the lawsuit, the hotel indicated it was "one of the first hospitality brands to sign the End Child Prostitution and Trafficking Code of Conduct in 2015, and Hyatt supports the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign to end human trafficking."
However, it also argued J.L.'s allegations were "vague" and that it "simply does not follow that any entity affiliated with that hotel, let alone the franchisor, is therefore liable for resulting harm."
Brimmer agreed with J.L. that the fact the hotels received room revenue from the trafficking was sufficient to establish that they benefited from the illegal activity. However, regarding J.L.’s contentions that the hotels should have known about the trafficking due to noise complaints — including when the trafficker attempted to inject her with heroin — and other “obvious signs,” Brimmer determined she failed to establish that the companies plausibly should have known about the activity in their facilities.
“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,” the chief judge wrote in response to her allegations against Best Western.
According to the trafficking response organization Polaris, the National Human Trafficking Hotline recorded nearly 3,600 cases of human trafficking involving a hotel or motel between December 2007 and 2017, and 75% of all survivors responding to a survey indicated they came into contact with hotels at some point while being trafficked. The U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted 1,049 suspects for human trafficking 2015, representing a 44% increase from four years prior.
In 2010 alone, Denver-area law enforcement investigated up to 150 cases of sex trafficking.
Attorneys for J.L. and multiple hotels did not respond to a request for comment. Hyatt, in a statement, said the company has "taken industry-leading steps that underscore our commitment to this issue including implementing mandatory training across all managed and franchised Hyatt hotels worldwide. Consistent with our commitments to respect the fundamental human rights of all people, Hyatt actively supports national and global organizations that target sexual violence, assault and trafficking, and we participate in a variety of industry-wide efforts to raise awareness of this global issue."
In the New Hampshire case, the federal court found a similar set of circumstances applied to the victim there. However, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea K. Johnstone determined the allegations of liability were sufficient to proceed to trial, which is set for October 2022.
The plaintiff, she wrote, “has alleged sufficient facts to support a plausible claim that the defendants received financial benefits from a venture they vicariously participated in (through their franchisees) that the franchisees should have known was engaged in sex trafficking.”