Bent Philipson, a co-owner of SentosaCare, on March 23, 2007.

Bent Philipson, a co-owner of SentosaCare, on March 23, 2007. Credit: Photo by Howard Schnapp

A federal judge has ruled that the owners of a Long Island-based nursing home company violated human trafficking laws by using financial threats to coerce more than 200 overworked and underpaid Filipino nurses to stay on the job.

The nurses said they all were recruited to the United States to take jobs with or through SentosaCare, a nursing home company based in Woodmere, but weren't paid what they were promised and were threatened with substantial financial penalties if they quit.

Such conditions amounted to a “threat of serious financial harm” designed to keep anyone from quitting and, therefore, violated anti-trafficking laws, Judge Nina Gershon of the federal Eastern District of New York ruled on Sept. 24. She determined the owners of Sentosa, Benjamin Landa and Bent Philipson, can be held personally liable for violations of anti-trafficking laws.

An attorney for the defendants said no nurses were threatened or compelled to work and said the ruling will be appealed.

For now, Gershon’s decision sets the groundwork for the nurses to pursue a class-action lawsuit. It also marks the latest milestone in a story running more than a decade and including an attempt by then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota to charge the nurses with endangering the welfare of children when they quit at two Smithtown facilities.

Eventually, a state court ruled the charges brought by Spota were unconstitutional because they violated the nurses’ right to be free from slavery.

The case centers on SentosaCare as well as two other nursing and rehabilitation care companies, and two nurse-recruitment companies. The facilities and firms were involved in recruiting nurses from the Philippines to the United States.

The lawsuit at hand was filed in 2017 by nurse Rose Ann Paguirigan and on behalf of some 200 other nurses. But the tale of legal fights between the nurses and companies goes back even further, as Gershon noted.

From 2006 to 2008, Sentosa and the other companies filed lawsuits against more than 30 Filipino nurses in attempt to force them to pay a $25,000 damages penalty inserted in their contracts for quitting, according to Gershon. 

In the current legal action, it’s the nurses who are suing. They alleged the companies didn’t pay them the correct prevailing wage. They also asked the court to declare the damages penalty-unenforceable and, effectively, an illegal tool to keep the nurses bound to their jobs.

Besides SentosaCare, other defendants are Sentosa Nursing Recruitment Agency, Prompt Nursing Employment Agency, Golden Gate Rehabilitation and Health Center in Staten Island and Spring Creek Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Brooklyn.

Paguirigan, according to court records, said in a deposition the penalty is the “reason we were not able to leave or were scared” while working in what she called unsafe and understaffed conditions. 

Gershon agreed with the nurses.

“Having viewed the records and considered the parties’ arguments, I find on the undisputed facts that defendant Prompt Nursing violated the TVPA,” Gershon wrote, referring to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“The nurses in this lawsuit were all recent arrivals from the Philippines,” Gershon continued. “They were not paid the prevailing wage and a base salary, despite terms of their contracts … Critically, if (Paguirigan) or any nurse wanted to stop working for the defendants during the first year of the contract, he or she would have to pay $25,000” as a penalty called “liquidated damages provision.”

The judge concluded: “On these undisputed facts, it is apparent Prompt Nursing acted with knowledge and intent that the liquidated damages provision would effectively coerce nurses into continuing work.”

Going further, Gershon ruled Landa and Philipson and others violated “conspiracy provisions” of the anti-trafficking act and, therefore, are personally liable.

The judges slated a Nov. 4 conference to address damages.

Elliot Hahn, one of the lawyers for the defendants, called the ruling disappointing. In an email, he said no nurses were threatened or "compelled to work." And he said Gershon looked past "well settled law" in determining the nurses' prevailing wage claims. 

"The court's decision may have far reaching unintended consequences throughout the industry, and affecting contracts of all sorts, and would unduly burden both the employers and immigrant employees," Hahn wrote, in part. "Given this uncertainty, we anticipate that some employers may rescind the job offers and decline to execute contracts with the immigrant employees even if the United States government would otherwise grant a visa to the immigrant employees after they waited several years for the visa."

 His clients will appeal, Hahn said.

 An attorney for the nurses didn't immediately return messages to comment.

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