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Filipino nurses sue Suffolk DA, nursing home firm

Ten Filipino nurses and their attorney filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, the county and the nursing home company that sought unsuccessfully to prosecute them.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, seeks unspecified damages resulting from criminal charges brought against the immigrant nurses that an Appellate Court last year determined were unconstitutional.

"It was a malicious prosecution," said Oscar Michelen of Mineola, who represents Felix Vinluan, an immigration attorney who had advised the nurses and also faced criminal charges. "It violated their due process rights."

In March 2007, Spota won indictments against the nurses and Vinluan after the nurses quit their jobs at Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Smithtown.

The nurses, Filipino immigrants recruited by the nursing home company SentosaCare of Woodmere, said they resigned together in April 2006, because of bad working conditions and disputes over pay and benefits.

SentosaCare officials met with Spota the next month. The district attorney then determined that the resignations caused a staffing crisis that could have harmed the critically ill children, some of whom were on ventilator units.

The nurses had been earlier cleared of wrongdoing by the state education department, but they were then charged with endangering the welfare of children. Vinluan, who advised the nurses of their right to resign, was charged with criminal solicitation.

These were apparently the first such charges in the state, and they sparked an outcry from groups in the Philippines and in New York.

Last January, the state's Appellate Division declared that the criminal proceedings were unconstitutional because they violated the nurses' rights to be free from slavery.

A spokesman for Spota did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Howard Fensterman, the attorney for SentosaCare, called the federal lawsuit "problematic" because it is in part based on issues that have not been resolved in a pending civil suit against the nurses.

"If we win the case and the court concludes there was a breach of contract by the nurses, that undermines a good portion of the complaint," he said.

But the nurses' attorney, James Druker of Garden City, called the civil lawsuit "a dead man walking."

"In theory he may be right, but in practice there is no way they are winning that civil lawsuit" because of the Appellate Division's decision, he said.

Vinluan said he was gratified the federal suit was filed.

"We have finally moved on with our lives," said Vinluan, whose law practice was on hold while he fought the charges against him. "We are hoping we will be finally vindicated by securing any damages due to us."

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