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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Nursing News Abroad: Filipino nurses, lawyer charged celebrate legal victory

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It was literally the icing on the cake - "We are Free," scrawled in blue atop a small carrot cake as nurses and their lawyer gathered Friday to celebrate their legal victory.

"It feels like home at last," said Ma Theresa Ramos as she sat with her fellow nurses in the Garden City office of attorney Jim Druker.

A state appeals court on Thursday halted the Suffolk district attorney's prosecution of 10 Filipino nurses who had resigned from a Smithtown nursing home, along with their lawyer at the time, Felix Vinluan.

In an unusual tactic, the nurses' attorneys had asked the Appellate Division to grant a "writ of prohibition" barring Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota or Justice Robert W. Doyle from trying the case, claiming it violated the nurses' and their lawyer's constitutional rights.

The appeals court decision was rare, said John Ray, a Miller Place defense attorney. "This is a clear message to the court and district attorney that they were way out of bounds," he said.

Calls to Spota's office went unanswered Friday, but assistant district attorney Leonard Lato Thursday said the office would weigh whether to appeal.

Like her nine fellow defendants, Ramos had come from the Philippines to work at Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Smithtown, owned by SentosaCare of Woodmere. Unhappy with working conditions, she and the other nurses quit in April 2006.

Spota indicted the nurses and Vinluan in March 2007, charging the nurses with endangering the patients' welfare and Vinluan with conspiracy, apparently unprecedented charges in the state.

A month after the nurses quit, SentosaCare officials met privately with Spota, and advocates for the nurses charged the indictment came about because of Sentosa's ability to meet with Spota. Spota's office said the case was warranted.

Sentosa executives also asked Sen. Charles Schumer to help them after the Philippines suspended the company's affiliated recruitment operation. Schumer wrote four letters on the company's behalf. A few months later, the Philippine government lifted the suspension.

During the next two months, a national campaign fund headed by Schumer received nearly $75,000 from investors, attorneys and vendors for SentosaCare-affiliated nursing homes.

Schumer has said the letters were part of his job to help New York companies. A Schumer spokesman Friday declined to comment on the appeals court decision, as did a spokesman for SentosaCare.

But Druker and Vinluan's lawyer, Oscar Michelen, said they saw the decision as a triumph of the judicial system over money and influence.

The Philippine consul general, Cecilia Rebong, said she was "happy and thankful" for the decision, "which finally clears any diversion of attention on the basic issue of whether contractual rights of the Filipino nurses were violated."


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