ARLINGTON, Va.—Last Friday, a group of 10 immigrant nurses asked the United States Supreme Court to hear their case against former Suffolk County, New York, prosecutors who brought bogus charges against them in an attempt to keep them trapped in indentured servitude at a politically corrupt nursing home company. The petition, filed by attorneys at the Institute for Justice (IJ), argues that a prosecutor is not immune from civil litigation when he attempts to use criminal law to force employees to stay with an abusive employer, nor is he entitled to immunity when he brings illegitimate charges against a lawyer who provides legal advice to those employees.
“Absolute prosecutorial immunity prevents victims of appalling prosecutorial misconduct from receiving justice in civil court, even when the prosecutors act in blatantly unconstitutional ways,” said IJ Attorney Ben Field. “We’re asking the Supreme Court to hear this case and reconsider the doctrine of absolute immunity so that victims can have their rights vindicated.”
In 2006, the nurses were recruited from the Philippines to work at Sentosa, New York State’s largest nursing home operator. They were told they would be working at one of Sentosa’s nice-looking facilities and located near quality housing, and they signed a contract saying they would work there for three years. However, when the nurses arrived in New York, they were housed in overcrowded apartments, given fewer benefits than promised, and were subjected to grueling work conditions at facilities that did not match what they were promised.
The nurses reached out to the Philippine consulate for help addressing their living and working conditions, and they were put in touch with attorney Felix Q. Vinluan. Felix explained to the nurses that Sentosa had breached its contract and that they could quit their jobs, but only after completing their shifts so that their patients would have coverage. Felix also filed a federal discrimination claim on the nurses’ behalf with the U.S. Department of Justice. Because the conditions continued to be intolerable, the nurses resigned, giving 8-72 hours of advance notice and making sure all of their patients received uninterrupted care.
Sentosa retaliated by reporting the nurses to New York’s nurse-licensing agency, which found the nurses did nothing to endanger their patients; filing a lawsuit in state court, which failed; and submitting a complaint to the Suffolk County Police Department, which investigated the nurses but declined to take any action.
“We never endangered any patients, and we shouldn’t have been punished for something we didn’t do,” said Juliet Anilao, one of the nurses.
Instead of acknowledging they had no case against the nurses who innocently quit a bad job, Sentosa reached out to then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his assistant Leonard Lato. Despite knowing that previous investigations had found the nurses did nothing wrong, Spota and Lato secured an indictment against the nurses for patient endangerment and conspiracy. They also charged Felix for providing legal advice and filing a discrimination claim with the federal government.
“I never thought I’d be criminally charged simply for doing my job,” said Felix. “The district attorney trampled on my rights and the nurses’ rights when he indicted me for providing the nurses with legal advice.”
In 2009, a New York appellate court found that Spota and Lato had brought the charges “without or in excess of jurisdiction” because they violated the First Amendment right of a lawyer to give legal advice and the Thirteenth Amendment rights of the nurses not to be subjected to involuntary servitude. The court ordered the prosecution stopped. However, when Felix and the nurses brought a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Spota and Lato, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the two prosecutors were entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. Prosecutorial immunity shields prosecutors from civil lawsuits, even when their actions are intentional, bad-faith violations of constitutional rights. The Second Circuit even acknowledged that Spota and Lato “may have unlawfully penalized the plaintiffs for exercising the right to quit their jobs on the advice of counsel,” but nevertheless held they were immune from suit.
“The illegitimate prosecution brought by Spota and Lato blatantly violated the rights of Felix, Juliet and the other nurses, and they deserve to have those rights vindicated,” said IJ Attorney Brian Morris. “A corrupt former district attorney should not be above the law.”
As part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ is fighting back against various immunity doctrines that shield government officials from accountability when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. Those cases include one where a citizen journalist was arrested and prosecuted by police in Texas for doing his job, one where a family court judge in West Virginia barged into a man’s home without a warrant and led a search party, and another where a Minnesota police officer fabricated a crime ring, ruining the lives of dozens of people.