Proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 to prohibit the respondent Thomas J. Spota, District Attorney, from prosecuting the petitioners in the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, under Indictment No. 00769-07, and to prohibit the respondent Robert W. Doyle, Justice of the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, from presiding over the matter, on the grounds, inter alia, that the prosecution would violate the First Amendment rights of the petitioner Felix Vinluan, and the Thirteenth Amendment rights of the remaining petitioners.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eng, J.
Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.
FRED T. SANTUCCI, J.P., DANIEL D. ANGIOLILLO, RANDALL T. ENG and CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, JJ.
Ten nurses, all from the Republic of the Philippines, are under indictment in Suffolk County for the misdemeanor offenses of conspiracy in the sixth degree, endangering the welfare of a child, and endangering the welfare of a physically-disabled person. The prosecution of these individuals came in the aftermath of their simultaneous resignations from positions at a Long Island nursing home. The attorney who provided these nurses with legal advice was also indicted.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, enacted at the conclusion of the Civil War primarily to abolish the institution of slavery, declares that involuntary servitude shall not be permitted to exist within the United States. In this proceeding, we are asked to determine whether the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude would be violated by prosecuting these nurses, and whether the prosecution of their attorney would violate constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights. For the reasons which follow, we find that these criminal prosecutions constitute an impermissible infringement upon the constitutional rights of these nurses and their attorney, and that the issuance of a writ of prohibition to halt these prosecutions is the appropriate remedy in this matter.
The petitioners Elmer Jacinto, Juliet Anilao, Harriet Avila, Mark Dela Cruz, Claudine Gamiao, Jennifer Lampa, Rizza Maulion, James Millena, Ma Theresa Ramos, and Ranier Sichon (hereinafter the nurses) were recruited to work in the United States by the Sentosa Recruitment Agency, a Philippines-based company that hires nurses for several nursing care facilities in New York controlled and managed by Sentosa Care, LLC (hereinafter Sentosa). According to the nurses, the recruitment agency promised that they would be hired directly by individual nursing homes within the Sentosa network. To this end, each of the nurses signed an employment contract with the specific nursing homes for which they had been selected to work. Under the terms of these employment contracts, the nurses were to receive free travel to the United States, two months of free housing and medical coverage, training, and assistance in obtaining legal residency and nursing licenses. In recognition of the substantial expenses incurred in the recruitment process, the contracts required the nurses to give their prospective employers a three- year commitment, and provided for liquidated damages in the amount of $25,000 should the nurses fail to honor their commitment.
When the nurses arrived in the United States, they learned that they would be working for an employment agency instead of the specific nursing homes they had signed contracts with, which allegedly is a lower paid and less stable form of employment. The nurses were assigned by the employment agency to the Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center (hereinafter Avalon Gardens), a nursing home located in Smithtown, New York. Among the patients at Avalon Gardens are chronically ill children who need the assistance of ventilators to breathe. All of the nurses were trained to care for children on ventilators, and five of the nurses worked almost exclusively with these children.
The nurses alleged that almost immediately upon their arrival at Avalon Gardens, issues arose concerning the terms of their employment, and the promises made to them in the Philippines were breached. When the nurses first arrived at the facility to begin their employment, they discovered that Avalon Gardens had not obtained their limited nursing licenses, and thus many of them were initially required to work as clerks for about $12 per hour. Furthermore, the nurses allegedly were housed in a single-family staff house with only one bathroom, inadequate heat, and no telephone service. After informal oral complaints about their working conditions and pay went unheeded, in February and March of 2006 the nurses wrote several letters to Sentosa and Avalon Gardens outlining their concerns, including the failure to compensate them properly for overtime and night shifts, short staffing, and last minute shift changes.
Believing that their complaints were not being properly addressed, the nurses sought assistance from the Philippine Consulate, and were referred to the petitioner Felix Vinluan, an attorney specializing in immigration law. When Vinluan met with the nurses to discuss their options, they told him that they wanted to resign because they could not tolerate the working conditions they were experiencing much longer. Vinluan advised the nurses that under the New York Education Law, they could not leave their positions during a shift when they were on duty. Although Vinluan also counseled the nurses that they had the right to resign once their shifts had ended, he suggested that it might be in their best interest to remain at Avalon Gardens while he pursued other remedies on their behalf. Following his meeting with the nurses, on April 6, 2006, Vinluan traveled to Washington D.C., where he filed a complaint on their behalf with the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices.
On the following day, April 7, 2006, the nurses resigned from their employment either at the end of their shift, or in advance of their next shift, using an identical form letter which they had agreed upon together. The amount of notice provided before the next scheduled shift for each nurse ranged from 8 to 72 hours. Vinluan claims that he was unaware of the nurses' intention to resign on April 7. The nurses maintain that they decided to collectively resign with limited notice because they feared retaliation during any notice period they might have given. Fourteen other Filipino nurses employed by three other Sentosa nursing homes also resigned from their employment between April 6 and April 7.
In the wake of the resignations, Sentosa commenced a civil action against Vinluan and the nurses in the Nassau County Supreme Court seeking damages, inter alia, for breach of contract and tortious interference with contract. In addition, on April 10, 2006, Avalon Gardens' Director of Nursing sent the New York State Education Department (hereinafter the Education Department) a letter of complaint charging that the nurses had abandoned their patients by simultaneously resigning without adequate notice. Following an investigation, on September 28, 2006, the Education Department closed the nurses' cases, concluding that they had not committed professional misconduct because none of them had resigned in mid-shift, and no patients were deprived of nursing care since the facility was able to obtain appropriate coverage.
However, in March 2007, nearly one year after the resignations, a Suffolk County Grand Jury handed down a 13-count indictment against the petitioners. The first count of the indictment charged Vinluan and the nurses with conspiracy in the sixth degree predicated upon their alleged intent to engage in conduct constituting the crimes of endangering the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a physically disabled person. The first count theorized that the object of the conspiracy was to obtain alternative employment for the nurses and a release from their three-year commitment to Sentosa without incurring a financial penalty of $25,000. Furthermore, the indictment alleged that Vinluan and the nurses pursued their objective "without regard to the consequences that their pursuit would have on Avalon Gardens' pediatric patients," and that the nurses resigned without notice despite "knowing that their resignations and the prior resignations at other Sentosa Care facilities would render it difficult for Avalon Gardens to find, in a timely manner, skilled replacement nurses for Avalon Gardens' pediatric patients." The overt acts alleged to have been committed in furtherance of the conspiracy consisted of Vinluan's filing of a federal discrimination claim on behalf of the nurses, and the nurses' submission of their resignation letters. The second count of the indictment charged Vinluan alone with criminal solicitation in the fifth degree, asserting that he, with the intent that the nurses engage in conduct constituting the crimes of endangering the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a physically-disabled person, "requested and otherwise attempted to cause the nurses to resign immediately from Avalon Gardens." Counts three through seven of the indictment ...