A federal judge threw out fashion model Alexia Palmer’s case against Donald Trump’s modeling agency on Wednesday. But Palmer’s lawyer says the battle is just beginning.
Palmer had filed the proposed class action lawsuit in 2014, alleging that Trump Model Management recruits foreign models under the H-1B visa program with promises of wages that never materialize and defrauds the U.S. government on visa applications.
In her case, Palmer received net payments of less than $5,000 over the course of three years, despite the fact that the agency told the Department of Labor on its official visa application that the model would receive “at least $75,000” a year, court documents show.
But on Wednesday, a federal judge dismissed the case — noting that alleged violations of immigration law (like Palmer’s claims) must first be taken to the Department of Labor, which is tasked with ensuring that both U.S. and foreign workers are paid the wages required by law.
Trump Model Management attorney Lawrence Rosen said that the judge’s decision validated the firm’s argument that the case had no merit. “We are obviously very pleased with the outcome, as is Mr. Trump,” said attorney Lawrence Rosen.
Many attorneys CNNMoney interviewed earlier this month predicted this very outcome.
When CNNMoney asked a dozen attorneys and other immigration experts to review facts and documents from the case, the vast majority said Trump’s agency appears to have violated immigration law. But many questioned whether the federal court case would be successful. Instead, they said Palmer would have a much better chance for justice if she turned to the U.S. government for help.
Unfortunately for Palmer, it may be too late.
On Wednesday, Palmer’s attorney Naresh Gehi told CNNMoney that he plans to file a complaint with the Labor Department in coming weeks — unless he decides to appeal the judge’s ruling first.
But Trump Model Management attorney Rosen said he is not worried about a potential Labor Department complaint because he believes that the statute of limitations has passed.
Gehi disputed this, arguing that the law would still allow him to bring such a blatant wage violation to the Department of Labor, noting that he plans to argue that there were extenuating circumstances.
But the Department of Labor told CNNMoney that in general, H-1B wage complaints must be filed with the agency within a year of the alleged violation. Palmer’s employment ended in May of 2014, according to the lawsuit.
Experts interviewed by CNNMoney agree that Palmer was indeed underpaid. They say that the firm was required by law to pay the amount stated on Palmer’s visa — in this case, $75,000 a year. Even more egregious, they say, was that the Trump agency didn’t pay the “prevailing wage” determined by the U.S. government (which is based on the industry and location and was around $45,000 for Palmer).
Earlier this month, the DOL and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) said they could not comment on any specific case.
But the USCIS confirmed that a sponsoring company “must pay the actual wage or the prevailing wage, whichever is higher” — meaning it was illegal to pay Palmer below either listed wage. “Employers may never pay below the prevailing wage,” the agency said in a statement.
If a complaint was deemed valid by the Labor Department, the agency could require that the modeling agency pay Palmer back wages, along with financial penalties of up to $35,000 per violation. It could also bar the agency from receiving future H-1B visas and even file criminal charges if it is determined that fraud has occurred.
“We are not backing down on this case,” said Gehi. “This is the beginning of a battle.”