Owners of closed Torrance bakery accused of human trafficking

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Owners of closed Torrance bakery accused of human trafficking ordered to pay workers $15.2 million

The owners of L’Amande, a bakery restaurant in Torrance’s Rolling Hills Plaza, closed the business due to allegations of human trafficking and labor violations by employees. A judge has ruled they must pay former workers $15.2 million. August 2015 file photo. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)
The owners of L’Amande, a bakery restaurant in Torrance’s Rolling Hills Plaza, closed the business due to allegations of human trafficking and labor violations by employees. A judge has ruled they must pay former workers $15.2 million. August 2015 file photo. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

The owners of a popular Torrance bakery, shut down last year amid allegations of human trafficking and labor violations, have been ordered to pay 11 Filipino workers more than $15.2 million for exploiting them once they came to the United States.

In a default judgment, U.S. District Court Judge Fernando Olguin issued his ruling May 2 against Analiza Moitinho de Almeida and her husband, Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida, a Rolling Hills Estates couple who operated the L’Amande French Bakery at Rolling Hills Plaza, along with a second site in Beverly Hills, court documents showed.

Last year, the couple abruptly shut down the bakeries, fired their employees, sold a $2.375 million apartment complex they owned in Long Beach and attempted to transfer the deed to their $1.4 million home on Aurora Drive in Rolling Hills Estates to a relative.

Attorneys for the employees alleged in court documents that the couple was trying to liquidate their assets after the employees filed the lawsuit against them, alleging they were treated like slaves under a federal program that legally brings foreign workers to the United States.

In court documents filed last year, the former workers claimed the Almeidas brought them to the United States from the Philippines on E-2 visas in 2012, promising them jobs as skilled and supervisory employees at their bakeries.

But when they arrived, the workers were forced to work 15-hour days, cleaning and painting at the Long Beach building and doing laundry and yard work at the couple’s house, where they slept on the floor.

The lawsuit alleged employees received $3 an hour working for months without a day off and were told they had to repay the Almeidas $11,000 each for their airfare and visas or they would be deported.

Last year, the state Labor Commissioner’s Office investigated the couple’s practices and ordered them to pay $250,000 in overtime wages to their workers.

Analiza Moitinho de Almeida, a Filipino national, denied wrongdoing in repeated emails to the Daily Breeze. She and her husband, Goncalo, a native Australian, owned a chain of bakeries in the Philippines, moved to Southern California and opened two more under a company called French Concepts.

By all accounts, they were popular among their customers.

After the employees’ lawsuit was filed, Analiza Moitinho de Almeida called the allegations “blatant lies,” and posted photos of her employees on her closed business’ windows. The photos, she said, depicted employees enjoying life in Southern California, sightseeing in Hollywood, Universal Studios and Disneyland, and sunbathing at the beach.

Analiza Moitinho de Almeida said she treated her employees like family, “shouldering many of their financial needs, including educational, medical, dental, disaster relief, clothing and housing needs, for decades.” She claimed to have bought them laptops and tablets, paid their rent and utilities, and offered no-interest loans.

“By closing the bakeries, my husband and I will be losing not only our investment, but our only source of income,” she wrote last year. “Although it was a little jewel in Torrance, it was not financially viable anymore. This is why we sold the building in Long Beach. We had to find some funding from somewhere for the never-ending fees that will still come our way. Surely, the courts will agree that we have the right to find ways to defend ourselves.”

The court did not agree, issuing a default judgment when the couple did not show up for oral arguments on May 2.

According to the judge’s ruling, the Moitinho de Almeidas must pay:

• More than $3.7 million in compensatory damages for human trafficking and $1.25 million for violating the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

• More than $3.7 million in punitive damages for human trafficking and $1.25 million for FEHA violations.

• More than $1 million in statutory damages for wage and hour law violations;

• $200,000 for statutory damages for violation of California’s whistleblower and retaliation law.

• More than $1.2 million for damages under the RICO Act.

• More than $2.8 million in attorneys’ fees.

In addition, the judge voided the couple’s transfer of their home.

Analiza Moitinho de Almeida did not respond to questions posed to her in an email about the case. Instead, she sent a link to a justiceforlamandebakery.com, which contains many posts critical of her employees and others who were expected to testify against her. The last post was in December.