A US federal judge is allowing a lawsuit accusing Crowley Maritime and an employee of sex trafficking and forced labour to go forward.

District Judge Marcia Morales Howard ruled that Salvadoran national Vanessa Treminio has plausible arguments that she was trafficked and forced to work after being groped by her boss, Juan Emilio Blanco, then had her employment prospects threatened if she did not go with him on a trip to Crowley’s Florida headquarters, where he allegedly raped her.

“Blanco’s alleged plan to use a business opportunity to lure Treminio into a vulnerable position where he could sexually assault her raises a reasonable inference that the things of value [she kept her job and the threats of termination ended] were received on account of the sex act,” Judge Morales Howard wrote in court papers published on 5 January.

Treminio first sued in the federal court for the Middle District of Florida in February 2022.

She worked for Crowley at an inland department in El Salvador.

She alleges that Blanco had sexually harassed and sexually assaulted several female employees before she was transferred to his department in 2017.

Shortly thereafter, Treminio claims he grabbed her breast.

When she reported the incident, Treminio alleges the local human-resources manager threatened to fire her and told her she had to go on the trip with Blanco to Jacksonville, Florida.

Once there, Blanco allegedly gained access to her hotel room and raped her.

From there, several Crowley employees allegedly told her to stay quiet, including vice president Arthur LaMoureaux, who also fired Blanco, his supervisor and the human-resources manager.

Treminio said she was threatened with termination again in early 2021 when the company discovered she was going to therapy to cope with Blanco’s assault.

The company offered her a $600 settlement in exchange for a confidentiality agreement after she began posting about Crowley’s behaviour on social media.

Treminio argues that she was trafficked, because the rape she suffered constituted a commercial sex act under federal law, as she received a job, relief from threats of termination and potential career advancement in exchange.

She contends that she was forced to work for Crowley, as the company used threats of termination and reputational harm to go to Jacksonville.

Judge Morales Howard said termination is not typically a threat of harm, but Crowley employees allegedly told Treminio that her reputation could be damaged so badly that she would never work again and she and her child would starve.

Crowley said it is committed to the safety and welfare of its employees, that it has a zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct of any kind and that it regularly trains employees on such issues.

“While we take allegations of sexual assault seriously, and especially the disturbing ones in this case, we will vigorously defend ourselves against the lawsuit asserting that Crowley engaged in sex and labour trafficking as false and without merit,” it said.