A lawsuit filed in December contends that employees at the Fairfield Inn in Ann Arbor failed to recognize warning signs of trafficking. Dominick Sokotoff/Daily.  Buy this photo.

A woman who reports she was held in captivity and abused at two southeast Michigan hotels filed a lawsuit that contends Marriott International, Inc. and the InterContinental Hotels Group are liable for failing to notice she was being trafficked at their properties.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in December, provides details of how the victim, identified as H.G. due to the sensitive nature of the case, withstood repeated abuse at the hotels over the span of several years.

The case is one of 26 similar lawsuits filed across the country against 15 major hotel brands. Attorneys filed a movement to consolidate the cases under a single federal judge, but it was denied Feb. 5 by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

Court filings claim H.G. was first trafficked in 2003 when she was a 17-year-old living in Detroit, not under the custody of her parents. The lawsuit states H.G.’s traffickers would frequently kidnap her and hold her captive for days at a time at the Ann Arbor Fairfield Inn or the downtown Detroit Holiday Inn Express and Suites. These hotels are franchises operated under the Marriott and IHG brands, respectively.

“H.G’s trafficker specifically chose the hotels in Detroit and Ann Arbor because they had a reputation for commercial sex and illegal activity,” the complaint states.

While at the hotels, H.G. was allegedly verbally, physically and sexually abused by the traffickers and buyers. If she did not sexually service enough buyers to meet daily quotas, a trafficker would beat her, the complaint says.

The lawsuit details instances at the Detroit hotel in which hotel staff did not attend to H.G.’s screams and in which H.G. approached the front desk staff bleeding, received no help and was taken back upstairs by her trafficker. Further, the plaintiff argues that, in addition to the “constant stream of male visitors to her room,” there were clear indications crimes had occurred.

According to Tiffany Ellis, an associate attorney for Weitz & Luxenberg representing H.G., hotels profit from traffickers and are therefore not motivated to ensure employees are reporting trafficking.

“All of these (signs) add up over time in a hotel … If the cleaning staff sees some of these things and the front desk staff doesn’t, they should know who to tell about it,” Ellis said.

“There should be a common point of contact and a common reporting period. There should also be auditing procedures that go into place to ensure that these policies are being followed. I think that at the root of it, this is about greed and turning a blind eye to things that they should have stopped.”

Law School student Ashleigh Pelto, fellow at the Human Trafficking Institute, told The Daily she believes this lawsuit will pressure the hotel industry to begin making more drastic policy changes.

“I think that the discovery that (hotel brands) could be held responsible for trafficking that’s going on in their own hotels is probably the biggest thing towards prevention,” Pelto said. “Because, if it’s going to be something where they could lose money or even be held criminally responsible, I think that’s going to be the biggest incentive and push for them to start figuring out how to stop it from happening.”

Pelto said it is easy to forget trafficking is local and that training should not be limited to the hospitality industry.

“I think a lot of times there’s a perception that trafficking is something that happens overseas or only in major cities or at major sporting events like the Super Bowl … but it’s something that’s happening every day, and it’s going on in Ann Arbor,” Pelto said. “And so … learning to recognize those signs is something that anyone can learn how to do.”

Portfolio Hotels and Resorts, the operator of the Ann Arbor Fairfield Inn franchise, provided The Daily with a statement condemning human trafficking and establishing that the company took over management of the hotel in 2013 after the alleged events occurred.

“We take human trafficking with the utmost seriousness and are committed to the training and engagement of our hotel teams … All Fairfield Inn Ann Arbor employees have successfully completed the required Marriott training on preventing human trafficking,” the statement reads.

In an email to The Daily, IHG spokesperson Jacob Hawkins wrote that he is not able to comment on pending litigation, but that IHG is committed to combatting human trafficking in their properties.

“We condemn human trafficking in all forms and are committed to working with hotel owners to fight human trafficking across our industry and in local communities,” Hawkins wrote. “As part of this, we provide mandatory human trafficking prevention training for all IHG-branded hotels in the Americas.”

Marriott International’s counsel did not reply to The Daily’s request for comment.

Ellis stressed the need for more robust trafficking prevention training and believes hotel brands have a responsibility to take steps toward implementing these changes across their franchises.

“If a brand can control thread counts in sheets and the toiletries that go into the bathroom, they can certainly control the way their staff is handling things in each of the individual hotels under that brand,” Ellis said. “We believe that a suit like this can help hold (the industry) accountable for when they did not do that and ensure that more significant protections are put in place in the future.”

Reporter Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at sokotoff@umich.edu

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