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story.lead_photo.caption The Quality Inn at 6100 Mitchell Drive in Little Rock is shown in this file photo. ( John Sykes Jr.)

The former owners and operators of the Quality Inn and Suites hotel at 6100 Mitchell Drive in Little Rock asked a federal judge Friday to throw out a lawsuit alleging they ignored and tolerated sex trafficking activities at the business.

Earlier in the week, their attorneys, Michael Huckabay Jr. and Kathryn Knisley of the Huckabay Law Firm in Little Rock, transferred the case from Pulaski County Circuit Court, where it was first filed Sept. 19, to federal court, where it was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker.

The plaintiff's attorneys at the Rainwater firm in Little Rock said in the lawsuit it wasn't removable to federal court. However, nothing has been filed since the transfer asking Baker to remand the case to state court.

In a motion to dismiss, the Huckabay firm pointed out that the plaintiff -- a woman identified only as Jane Doe -- alleges she was taken to the hotel in May 2014 "by a known trafficker" and was "held against her will in a room on the fourth floor ... from May to July 2014 where she was forced to have sex and perform sexual acts for ten to twelve individuals per day for money."

The defense attorneys said the lawsuit allegations are barred by the Arkansas statute of limitations. They noted the lawsuit asserts a claim of negligence, which has a three-year statute of limitations for filing suit. They contend July 31, 2014, was the last possible date on which the purported negligence could have occurred, which would have required the lawsuit to be filed by July 31, 2017.

The suit also brings a claim under an Arkansas statute allowing civil remedies for human trafficking, but that statute, Arkansas Code 16-118-109, has a five-year statute of limitations. Under the same argument, the lawsuit would have had to have been filed by July 31 of this year.

The Huckabay firm noted the lawsuit doesn't cite any reason, such as confusion about where the incidents occurred or evidence of fraud that kept Doe from discovering the identity of the hotel operators, that might cause the statute of limitations to be extended.

An amended version of the lawsuit, filed Oct. 4, was likely an attempt to get around the expected statute-of-limitations defense, they said. The amended suit states the statute period for asserting the human trafficking claim "does not begin to run until" the plaintiff discovers that the defendants caused, were responsible for or profited from the human trafficking incidents.

When a defendant shows that a claim appears to be time-barred, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the limitations period was tolled, or put on hold, by an extenuating circumstance, the filing notes.

The first and second versions of the lawsuit named as defendants Seven Star Hotels Group, doing business as Quality Inn and Suites. The Oct. 4 version of the lawsuit added Shri Jinasha LLC doing business as Quality Inn & Suites, and two of its officers, Rajni Patel and Lina Patel. But the defense attorneys said in the dismissal request that the Patels "are not proper parties to the lawsuit" under Arkansas law.

Under Arkansas Code 4-32-304, known as the Small Business Act, "members, managers, agents and employees of limited liability companies, not performing professional services, cannot be held personally liable for the acts of the company," they wrote, noting that the lawsuit "is void of any allegation that either Rajni Patel or Lina Patel were in any way rendering professional services on behalf of Shri Jinasha, LLC."

The lawsuit is the first in Arkansas to seek civil liability against a hospitality organization over alleged human trafficking activities, although similar civil lawsuits have been filed in other states.

Doe's suit alleges that she was one of several women and girls held against their will at the hotel, located near Interstate 30 and Geyer Springs Road, and forced to have sex with customers who paid the trafficker. Doe said she was beaten and choked several times a week by her trafficker, and she screamed when her trafficker attacked her, but hotel managers and employees never called 911 to report the screaming, nor did they intercede to help her.

The woman alleges the fourth floor of the hotel was used exclusively for human trafficking, and the phones on the fourth floor were disconnected, preventing any of the victims from calling for help. She said the traffickers controlled when housekeepers were allowed to clean rooms on the fourth floor, and loud music played on the floor all day and all night.

She said whenever she walked past the front desk, workers, managers and other staff members would put their heads down and look away, even when she was clearly injured.

Little Rock police responded to the hotel 991 times between 2009 and 2019, according to police data, including at least 32 times during the period that the lawsuit says Doe was held captive there.

Shri Jinasha LLC purchased the hotel in 2011 and sold it to Seven Star Hotels Group Inc. in 2015, according to property records. Aniary purchased the hotel in March, and co-owner Henry Patel said in October he was unaware of the hotel's history before the purchase. Neither Aniary nor Henry Patel are defendants in the suit.

NW News on 12/02/2019

Print Headline: Ex-hotel owners: Dismiss lawsuit

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