Court Bars Prosecution Of 10 Nurses Who Quit

By Joesph Berger
Published: January 25, 2009

THE 10 Filipino nurses were branded by the Suffolk County, N.Y., district attorney as derelict in their duties, accused of abandoning five chronically ill children, four of whom were on ventilators, and one terminally ill man by quitting their jobs in 2006 in a labor dispute.

But in a strongly worded ruling, a New York State appeals court, the Appellate Division in Brooklyn, has barred District Attorney Thomas J. Spota from prosecuting the nurses and said that he had joined with their employers in forcing them into ”involuntary servitude” by using criminal sanction to force them to work against their will, thus violating the nurses’ constitutional rights.

The Jan. 13 ruling also said the district attorney violated the First Amendment rights of the lawyer who advised the nurses by prosecuting him for conspiracy.

The case concerns 10 nurses, all fresh immigrants, who were recruited in 2005 by a large New York network of nursing homes known as SentosaCare. The company, with 24 homes or affiliates caring for 5,000 patients, is headquartered in Woodmere, N.Y.

The 10 nurses were quickly sent to work for a SentosaCare home in Smithtown, Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, but they said it was soon obvious that the terms of their contracts were not being honored. They joined 16 other Filipino nurses in claiming they were significantly underpaid, did not receive the same health insurance and workers’ compensation benefits as other nurses and worked on understaffed shifts.

On April 7, 2006, the 10 nurses submitted their resignations and quit at the end of their shifts, saying they were confident that pediatric and elderly patients would be attended because they knew of SentosaCare nurses waiting for assignment. No patient was ever in jeopardy, they said.

SentosaCare sued them, and in March 2007 the Suffolk district attorney secured a grand jury indictment on misdemeanor charges of endangering the welfare of a child and of conspiracy. The charges carried a yearlong sentence in jail. All 10 nurses eventually landed nursing jobs, though for a time some employers declined to hire them because of the charges, according to their lawyer, James O. Druker.

Overruling a lower-court judge, the four-judge Appellate Division unanimously issued a writ of prohibition halting the prosecutions — a rare judicial maneuver used when a prosecutor oversteps his powers. While state law does bar nurses from leaving in midshift, the judges found that the 10 nurses did not do so, that the nursing home was in fact able to find the needed coverage and that ”no patients were deprived of nursing care.”

Leonard Lato, who brought the indictment for the district attorney’s office, said the office was weighing whether to file an appeal with the Court of Appeals, which accepts only a small percentage of Appellate Division decisions for review.

”Do we think the decision was wrong? Yes,” he said, explaining that the Appellate Division did not fully appreciate the danger to the children on ventilators.

Lawyers for SentosaCare have denied that the nurses were mistreated or shortchanged.

The Appellate Division judges agreed with defense lawyers that prosecuting the 10 nurses violated the 13th Amendment prohibition against ”involuntary servitude by seeking to impose criminal sanctions upon the nurses for resigning their positions.”

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