GARDEN CITY, N.Y. – With temperature hovering at single digit on a gloomy Friday morning, the sun finally cut through the clouds and turned it into a bright and resplendent day. For the 10 nurses accused of endangering patients from a Long Island nursing home after they resigned en masse in April 2006 to protest working conditions, they did not want the day to end.
News of a state appeals court clearing them of criminal charges warmed their hearts. They all felt relieved and freed from a burden they thought they had since March 2007 when a Suffolk County Grand Jury handed down a 13-count indictment against them. That morning they braved the weather to go to the law offices of Kase & Druker in Garden City to meet with their lawyer, James O. Druker, and celebrate their legal victory.
Felix Vinluan, their lawyer at that time, who was likewise charged in the indictment with criminal solicitation, felt vindicated as well.
“I knew from the start that this criminal case filed against us has no legal and factual basis. The only reason this prosecution was initiated in the first place was because the lawyers and principals of the Sentosa Enterprise pulled their political weight and influence to continue retaliating against me and the nurses, in their attempt to ensure that other similarly-situated immigrant nurses would not exercise their right to resign,” he said.
When asked to comment on the court’s decision, he said, that it “shows the independence of the judiciary, or at least of the appellate courts. Remember that the Supreme Court Justice (Robert) Doyle earlier denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Defendants believed that the Court did not have jurisdiction to proceed with the prosecution of the case as said prosecution infringe on their constitutional rights.”
In a 13-page decision, the four-person Appellate Division said that the charges violated the nurses’ 13th amendment rights that protect against “involuntary servitude.” With regard to Vinluan, it said that “[a] prosecution which would compel the disclosure of privileged attorney-client confidences, and potentially inflict punishment for the good faith provision of legal advice is, in our view, more than a First Amendment violation. It is an assault on the adversarial system of justice upon which our society, governed by the rule of law rather than individuals, depends.”
The court’s unanimous decision, penned by Justice Randall Eng, prohibited Thomas J. Spota, District Attorney, from prosecuting the nurses and their lawyer in the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, under Indictment No. 00769-07, and Justice Robert W. Doyle from presiding over the matter. Justices Fred T. Santucci, Daniel D. Angiolillo, and Cheryl E. Chambers concurred.
The Article 78 petition for prohibition was filed on March 20, 2008 before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn. The purpose of the petition was to prohibit the criminal prosecution of the nurses and their lawyer. According to Vinluan, if the Court did not issue an order of stay, which it did on April 11, 2008, the trial of the case would have been held starting April 28, 2008. He said that “the prosecution was definitively prohibited by the decision of January 13, 2009 on constitutional grounds.”
A total of 26 nurses and one physical therapist resigned from SentosaCare in April 2006. Ten more nurses followed suit a few months later. However, only the 10 nurses that resigned from the Avalon Gardens facility in Suffolk County were criminally charged including Vinluan.
Vinluan thinks that perhaps SentosaCare and its lawyers could convince only the District Attorney in Suffolk County to institute the criminal case but not the District Attorneys of Queens and Nassau County.
The case, which even rippled to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) including the Philippine Consulate General in New York, was dubbed as a struggle for justice by various Filipino American community organizations. They learned that New York Senator Charles Schumer wrote letters to several officials in the Philippines in support of SentosaCare, LLC, whose operations was suspended by POEA.
SentosaCare LLC recruited nurses to work in the US through Sentosa Recruitment Agency, a Philippine-based company that hires nurses for several nursing care facilities in New York controlled and managed by them.
Meanwhile, according to Newsday, a Long Island-based newspaper, the “attorney for the nursing home” has said that the state appeals court decision “will have no impact on the civil lawsuits against them” (the nurses). Such contention, Newsday added, “the nurses’ lawyer disputed”.
Newsday quoted Howard Fensterman, SentosaCare lawyer, as saying “The legal issues the district attorney’s office was handling are truly irrelevant to the civil case. The civil case is a very straightforward breach of contract case.”