WASHINGTON—Today, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by a group of 10 nurses and their attorney against corrupt former prosecutors, who used their power to punish the nurses for quitting their jobs at a politically connected nursing home with a spotty history.
“For more than a decade our clients have been denied justice, and today’s decision not to hear their case is just the latest example of that,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) Attorney Ben Field, who represented the nurses and their attorney in the Supreme Court appeal. “The immunities granted to these corrupt former prosecutors have slammed the door shut on any chance of holding them accountable.”
In 2006, the nurses were recruited from the Philippines to come work at a Suffolk County nursing home run by a company called Sentosa. When they arrived in the U.S., they were put up in shoddy housing, subjected to harsh work conditions at facilities that did not match what their contracts promised, and were given fewer benefits than what they were told they would receive. The nurses reached out to the Philippine consulate and were put in touch with attorney Felix Vinluan, who advised them that they could quit because Sentosa had breached its contract with the nurses, so long as they made sure their shifts were covered—which they did.
Sentosa attempted to punish the nurses for exercising their right to leave an abusive job. Sentosa reported the nurses to the state’s nurse-licensing agency, which determined the nurses did nothing to endanger their patients. Sentosa also filed a lawsuit against the nurses in state court, which failed. And Sentosa complained to the Suffolk County Police Department, which investigated and found, once again, the nurses did nothing wrong.
Undeterred by the first three failures, Sentosa reached out to then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his assistant Leonard Lato. The duo knew the nurses and Felix did nothing wrong, but still secured a “patient endangerment” indictment against the nurses and charged Felix for providing them with legal advice.
In 2009, an appellate court ordered the prosecution stopped, holding that Spota and Lato’s prosecution violated Felix’s First Amendment rights to provide good-faith legal advice and the nurse’s Thirteenth Amendment rights not to be subjected to criminal penalties that would treat them as indentured servants. However, when Felix and the nurses sued to vindicate their rights, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Spota and Lato were entitled to prosecutorial absolute immunity, a legal doctrine that protects even intentional rights violators from being held accountable.
“The nurses and I should have never been prosecuted in the first place, and every time we’ve tried to get justice we’ve been denied,” said Felix. “It’s upsetting to not be able to hold the people who violated our rights accountable.”
“Today’s decision is an unfortunate one and we’re disappointed to not be given the chance to vindicate our clients’ rights,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock. “We stand committed to continue fighting back against the immunities that shield government officials from accountability when they violate people’s constitutional rights.”