A federal appeals court found Wednesday that nurses who abruptly resigned from a Smithtown facility in 2006 over working conditions, then faced child-endangerment charges that were thrown out, can’t sue former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota for prosecuting them.
Spota, now incarcerated for an unrelated corruption conviction, and the late former assistant district attorney Leonard Lato get "absolute immunity" for their prosecutorial actions, according to the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The legal doctrine protects them 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 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.
Ten Filipino nurses who worked at Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Center and their labor attorney, Felix Vinluan, had faced misdemeanor charges of conspiracy, child endangerment and endangering the welfare of a physically disabled person, after the nurses resigned on the same day. The resignations were at the end of their shifts or before their next ones, according to court records.
Attorney James Druker, who represents the nurses, told Newsday after the 2007 arrests there was "no crime." The nurses, who were under contract, resigned to protest conditions they said included longer-than-expected work shifts, substandard housing and lower pay and insurance benefits, according to court records.
Lato said publicly at the time that the treatment of a half-dozen young children was impacted by the sudden resignations. That included a child who was terminally ill and four who were on ventilators.
"You cannot walk out on disabled children who have nobody to call," Lato, then chief of Spota’s Insurance Crimes Bureau, also said.
The criminal case ended in 2009 after a state appellate court found the charges violated the nurses' constitutional rights that protect 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 get an indictment they knew violated their rights in order to punish them and discourage other nurses from resigning.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit also contended that prosecutors lacked probable cause to bring the charges and the grand jury wasn’t told the state Education Department previously had found the nurses hadn’t violated the regulations they were indicted on a charge of violating.
The plaintiffs argued that a narrow exception to absolute immunity applied, but the court disagreed Wednesday by a 2-to-1 majority. The ruling also said there was insufficient evidence Spota and Lato fabricated evidence.
However, U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in a dissenting opinion that the case involved "extraordinary circumstances" and 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.
"This prosecution never should have been brought … This is one of the rare cases where the government officials indeed were ‘plainly incompetent,’ " Chin added.
In December, Spota began serving a 5-year federal prison sentence following his 2019 conviction. A jury found he and one of his chief aides orchestrated a cover-up of the 2012 beating of a burglary suspect that then-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke carried out with detectives.
Lato, who also worked as a federal prosecutor and defense lawyer during his career, was found dead in 2018 on a Quogue beach. Authorities said then they didn't suspect foul play. Friends of Lato said he had been an avid ocean swimmer.
A spokeswoman for the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, which was named as a defendant in the civil litigation along with Suffolk County, referred an inquiry Wednesday to county officials, who didn't immediately comment.
"We are pleased with the Court's opinion affirming the District Court decisions finding that DA Spota and his assistants were entitled to absolute immunity from suit on all claims against them," said attorney Stephen O'Brien, who represented Spota.
Druker said the plaintiffs "almost certainly" were going to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.
Attorney Oscar Michelen, who represents Vinluan, said: "Even though we didn't win, these decisions show what happened to our clients and the public record is clear that they were wronged."