A naval officer from the United Arab Emirates has been ordered to pay $1.2 million to a former domestic worker who accused him of imprisoning her and forcing her to work long hours for little pay, although it is unclear whether she will ever receive any money.
Col. Arif Mohamed Saeed Mohamed Al-Ali was found to be in default in August for failing to appear in court in a lawsuit brought by Elizabeth Ballesteros, who cared for Al-Ali's family in East Greenwich when he was studying at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell ordered Al-Ali to pay Ballesteros for forcing her to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and for what he called outrageous and inhumane conduct, including withholding her passport and threatening her if she tried to leave. The award included $10,000 per day for each of the 84 days that McConnell said Ballesteros was imprisoned and subject to emotional abuse.
Al-Ali was acquitted of related criminal charges during a bench trial before U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi, who said Ballesteros' testimony didn't ring true. Lisi said Ballesteros exaggerated when she said she worked long hours cleaning the house, washing two cars daily, cooking, doing laundry and ironing for a family of seven.
But McConnell wrote that he accepted the allegations as true and called her a highly credible witness.
"This court finds that her testimony about the conditions of her employment and her treatment at the hands of Mr. Al-Ali was compelling and believable," McConnell wrote, adding, "The emotional toll it had on Ms. Ballesteros was obvious to this court in observing her testimony."
Al-Ali's lawyer, Robert Clark Corrente, withdrew from the case in January, saying Al-Ali did not want to spend more money on the lawsuit. Since then, letters sent to Al-Ali's listed address in the UAE have been returned as undeliverable.
Corrente did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on Thursday, but he said previously that Al-Ali has returned to the UAE and doesn't have any assets in Rhode Island.
Ballesteros' lawyer, Ivy Suriyopas, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, called it a bittersweet victory because they don't know if Ballesteros, who is now working at a Rhode Island hotel, will ever collect. She said Al-Ali doesn't have any assets in the United States that she knows of, although she pledged to continue to look for ways to pursue any money he does have.
Still, she said, the decision sends a message to employers and workers to be aware of their obligations and rights.