Supporters march outside Suffolk County Court in October 2007 with...

Supporters march outside Suffolk County Court in October 2007 with Filipino nurses charged with abandoning their patients after they quit their jobs in 2006 at a Smithtown nursing facility. Credit: Newsday/Michael E. Ach

A 15-year legal battle for 10 Filipino nurses who were arrested along with their attorney after they abruptly resigned over working conditions at a Smithtown nursing facility may be considered by America’s highest court.

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely decide in late January or early February whether it will consider a petition filed on behalf of the 11 people prosecuted in 2007 by then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. The nurses and their attorney Felix Vinluan, who was arrested after advising them, are challenging the right of Spota and a colleague to absolute immunity, which blocks the 11 from suing in civil court.

The nurses, who were under contract, resigned from Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Center on April 7, 2006, to protest conditions they said included longer-than-expected work shifts, substandard housing and lower pay and insurance benefits than what they were promised, according to court papers.

Along with Vinluan, they faced misdemeanor charges of conspiracy, child endangerment and endangering the welfare of a physically disabled person, after the nurses all resigned on the same day. The resignations were all at the end of their shifts or before their next ones, according to court records.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will likely act in late January or early February on a petition filed on behalf of the 11 people prosecuted in 2007 by then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.
  • Ten nurses and their attorney are challenging the right of Spota and a colleague to absolute immunity in civil court.
  • A federal statute currently protects prosecutors from civil liability.
Attorney Felix Vinluan, who advised the 10 nurses, is seen...

Attorney Felix Vinluan, who advised the 10 nurses, is seen last week. He was arrested and prosecuted along with his clients in 2007 by then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota. The criminal case ended in 2009 after a state appellate court found the charges violated the nurses' constitutional rights protecting against "involuntary servitude," while also violating Vinluan's First Amendment rights. Credit: Jeff Bachner

“I never thought I’d be criminally charged simply for doing my job,” Vinluan said. “The district attorney trampled on my rights and the nurses’ rights.”

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in March that the legal doctrine protects Spota and former Assistant District Attorney Leonard Lato although they "may have unlawfully penalized the plaintiffs for exercising the right to quit their jobs on advice of counsel," according to the ruling. The “civil action for depravation of rights” federal doctrine shields a prosecutor from liability for money damages in a lawsuit, even when the result is that a wronged plaintiff may be left without an immediate remedy, the judicial panel explained.

“One of the most egregious violations of constitutional rights is absolute prosecutorial immunity,” said attorney Brian Morris of the Institute for Justice, the Virginia-based libertarian nonprofit public interest law firm that filed the petition on behalf of Vinluan and the nurses.

The petition, filed Dec. 11, asks the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether a plaintiff can defeat a prosecutor’s absolute immunity by demonstrating “the prosecutor lacked any colorable authority to bring charges under the statute he invoked” and whether the court should “reconsider the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity.”

“We're hopeful,” Morris said. “There's been a lot of justices on both sides of the aisle that we think have expressed concerns with these immunity doctrines. You don't see cases involving prosecutors with facts worse than this.”

It takes the U.S. Supreme Court about six weeks to act on a petition after it is filed, according to a court spokesperson. The application to be heard by the high court is then either denied or if accepted, there will eventually be oral arguments on the merits of the case. Of the more than 5,000 petitions filed each year, the court usually hears about 60 to 70, the court notes on its website.

The Institute for Justice has had 10 petitions heard by the U.S. Supreme Court since the firm's inception in 1991, according to spokesman Dan King. The institute typically files about one petition per month, Morris said.

Lato, who died in 2018, said publicly at the time that the treatment of a half-dozen young children was impacted by the sudden resignations, including a child who was terminally ill and four who were on ventilators.

The criminal case ended in 2009 after a state appellate court found the charges violated the nurses' constitutional rights protecting against "involuntary servitude," while also violating Vinluan's First Amendment rights.

The nurses and Vinluan then filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 alleging that Spota and Lato improperly prosecuted them by fabricating evidence and engaging in other improper conduct in front of a grand jury. The litigation contended that prosecutors acted with the nurses' employer, Sentosa Care — which recruited them from the Philippines — to secure an indictment they knew violated the nurses' rights in order to punish them and discourage other nurses from resigning.

The plaintiffs' lawsuit also alleged that the prosecutors lacked probable cause to bring the charges and the grand jury wasn't told the state Education Department previously found the nurses hadn't violated the regulations they were indicted on a charge of violating, court papers show.

The plaintiffs argued that a narrow exception to absolute immunity applied, but the appeals court disagreed in March by a 2-1 majority. The ruling also said there was insufficient evidence that Spota and Lato fabricated evidence.

Thomas Spota, seen in 2013, prosecuted the 10 Filipino nurses...

Thomas Spota, seen in 2013, prosecuted the 10 Filipino nurses and their attorney, Felix Vinluan, in 2007. Spota was the Suffolk County district attorney from 2002 to 2017, when he resigned after his federal indictment on charges of obstruction of justice and witness tampering, crimes for which he was convicted, in an unrelated case. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in his dissenting opinion that the case involved "extraordinary circumstances" and that the actions of Spota and Lato shouldn't be protected by immunity. He found it was beyond their authority to criminally charge the nurses for resigning to protest what they believed were discriminatory work conditions or to charge their lawyer for giving them legal advice.

Spota attorney Stephen O’Brien told Newsday in March that he was “pleased with the court’s decision.”

Absolute immunity under the federal doctrine stems from a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The ruling has been cited to affirm or reverse many other lower court decisions, including a 2004 appellate ruling that “political motive” should not deprive Suffolk County prosecutors, including former Assistant District Attorney Christopher McPartland, of absolute immunity in an unrelated lawsuit filed by town officials in Babylon.

Spota and McPartland are both currently serving federal prison sentences following their convictions on corruption charges. A jury found that the two prosecutors helped orchestrate a cover-up of the 2012 beating of a burglary suspect that then-Suffolk police Chief James Burke carried out with detectives.

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