Judge Doris Pryor, nominated by President Biden to the Seventh Circuit, cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that a victim of sex trafficking and her mother could go forward with a suit for damages against a corporation that allegedly helped the sex trafficker carry out its improper activities. This was despite a dissent by Trump judge Thomas Kirsch. The August 2023 ruling was in GG v Salesforce.com inc.
What is this case about?
When she was 13 in 2016, GG ran away from home and “fell into the hands of a sex trafficker.” He used a “combination of force, fraud, coercion, enticement, alcohol and drugs” to cause her to “repeatedly” engage in “commercial sex.” He also advertised her availability on Backpage.com, a marketplace website which, by 2008, had been “publicly identified by law enforcement, United States Attorneys General, and every state Governor as the biggest and most notorious sex trafficking and pimping website in the United States.” After criminal prosecution of Backpage’s CEO, the Justice Department seized the website and shut it down in 2018.
Prior to that, however, Backpage grew “exponentially”, with the significant help of Salesforce.com, Inc. As alleged in a complaint later filed by GG and her mother, Salesforce designed and sold software to Backpage to “facilitate and support” its growth and provided “active, ongoing support” that was “tailored” to its needs, including consulting directly with Salesforce at least five times between 2013 and 2017. Salesforce even “facilitated” a system reorganization when Backpage wanted to move its operations overseas when it faced “imminent seizure” by the federal government.
Several years after her mother located and helped free GG, they filed a lawsuit for damages against Salesforce, the only one of the three participants in the sex trafficking that was still commercially viable. They filed suit under a federal law that authorizes sex trafficking victims to recover damages not only from sex traffickers themselves, but also from anyone who was a “participant” in a “venture” that they “knew or should have known” has engaged in sex trafficking. The district court dismissed the case because it claimed that the facts alleged were not sufficient to hold Salesforce liable. GG and her mother appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
What did the Seventh Circuit majority and Judge Pryor decide and why is it important?
Judge Pryor cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that reversed the district court and ruled that the complaint was sufficient so that GG and her mother could proceed against Salesforce. In a comprehensive opinion of more than 40 pages, the majority carefully analyzed the law and the alleged facts, as well as numerous defenses raised by Salesforce. They concluded that these defense theories “seek to impose restrictions” on the remedy for trafficking victims “that are not consistent” with the law passed by Congress, and that the complaint filed by GG and her mother “states a viable claim” against Salesforce.
A primary argument made by Salesforce, which Trump dissenting judge Kirsch accepted, was that it did not have actual or constructive knowledge that GG, the victim who was suing them, was a “specific victim” of sex-trafficking by Backpage. The majority squarely rejected that claim as “contrary to the statutory text.” If Congress “had meant” that such knowledge was required, the majority explained, “it could have simply said so,” but “did not.” Imposing that requirement, the majority continued, would mean that “the larger the sex trafficking venture and the more extensive [a defendant’s] participation in the venture – and so the less likely it is to have known the specifics of individual victims – the harder it should be for a victim to obtain civil relief.” The result, the majority concluded, is that the law would be “severely undermined in some of the most egregious cases.”
Instead, the majority agreed with most courts that have considered the issue that no such specific knowledge of individual victims is necessary and that a victim must allege only that a defendant has “constructive knowledge that a venture generally” has engaged in sex trafficking. That was what GG and her mother contended in their complaint, the majority explained, and that was sufficient to allow the case against Salesforce to proceed.
This decision is obviously important for GG and her mother to be able to seek damages and justice against Salesforce. It also sets a precedent in the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, and which can help other sex trafficking victims in the future. By considering and rejecting numerous defenses by the defendant corporation, moreover, it may also help discourage corporations from assisting sex trafficking. In addition, the decision provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judicial nominees like Judge Pryor nominated by President Biden.