Not just cops: judge highlights how unqualified immunity shields prosecutors


(Reuters) – A federal appeals court decided last Wednesday that a former district attorney on Long Island has immunity from a civil rights suit even though his offices violated the Constitution’s prohibitions on forced labor by wrongfully indicting 10 Filipino nurses who quit their jobs in protest.

Dissenting Judge Denny Chin disagreed, saying “prosecutors were complicit” in what appears to be a racially motivated effort to take advantage of a group of foreign workers.
The ruling is another example of how immunities created by the U.S. Supreme Court protect government officials from accountability even for reprehensible misconduct. Absolute immunity is broader than the widely criticized qualified immunity doctrine – and prosecutors, unlike police, are protected by both in most circumstances (as are judges and lawmakers).

This was not the first allegation of wrongdoing for the target of the nurses’ lawsuit, former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was found guilty of obstruction of justice and witness tampering in an unrelated 2019 case. The former DA and his top anticorruption prosecutor were convicted and each sentenced to five years in prison for a years-long coverup of serious misconduct by the county police chief – a protege of Spota’s. (Spota’s conviction is on appeal.)

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Stephen O’Brien, an attorney at O’Brien & O’Brien who represents Spota and other county defendants, denies “the suggestion of any racial animus on the part of DA Spota, his assistants and/or anyone connected to” the Suffolk DA’s office.

Sentosa Care, the nursing home operator that used to employ the 10 foreign workers, has also had past civil rights issues. It was held liable by a different federal court for violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by threatening another group of Filipino nurses with massive financial penalties if they left their jobs. Those plaintiffs were awarded more than $1.5 million, and another $3 million class settlement was approved in November 2021.

Sentosa Care didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The case decided last week at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involves allegations that Spota was politically motivated to protect Sentosa, a large local employer. Spota charged the 10 nurses for endangering children and patients’ health when they resigned in 2006, according to the opinion. Spota’s indictments of the nurses, and also their lawyer, Felix Vinluan, came after county police and even the State Education Department – which oversees nursing licenses – declined to take enforcement or disciplinary action.

Vinluan, an immigration and labor lawyer, had advised the nurses that they could resign after their shifts because Sentosa had breached their contract. Spota’s offices also brought conspiracy charges against him. (Prosecutors told grand jurors the nurses had abandoned their patients mid-shift, but all the nurses, in fact, resigned after their shifts, according to the opinion.)

A state appeals court took the exceedingly rare step of blocking Spota’s prosecution of the nurses and their lawyer in July 2009, saying his case was a baseless and “impermissible infringement” on constitutional rights against involuntary servitude and also violated Vinluan’s free speech rights. That sort of prosecutorial action is “the antithesis” of the voluntary labor system envisioned by the Constitution, the state court concluded.

Vinluan’s attorney, Oscar Michelen of Cuomo LLC, told me he couldn’t find another case where a court granted a “writ of prohibition” (an order for the government or an official to refrain from doing something that exceeds their authorized powers) against a prosecution specifically because there wasn’t any crime to be charged. Michelen said he firmly believed this case fit into the one, narrow exception to prosecutorial immunity – an argument Judge Chin agreed with.

Still, absolute immunity bars claims against the prosecutors, despite the fact that the nurses allegedly admitted “disgraceful behavior” that “may be true,” Judge Raymond Lohier wrote for the 2nd Circuit.

It’s a disturbing conclusion. The majority opinion acknowledged that the dissent by Judge Chin “raises strong, even compelling policy concerns … in favor of significantly curtailing the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity.”

Judge Chin’s opinion is not an outlier. For example, a judge lambasted federal prosecutors in Charleston, West Virginia, last month, pointing to an apparent pattern of overlooking constitutional failures by police.

Absolute immunity, which was developed by the Supreme Court in 1976, is premised on the notion that prosecutors would be discouraged from “vigorous and fearless performance” of their duties if they faced the threat of civil lawsuits. That concern now seems utterly misplaced, as more and more data establishes the U.S.’ status as the world’s foremost jailer (not to mention that prosecutors are so powerful that more than 94% of convictions happen through plea bargains, according to a November 2020 report by the Marshall Project).

The 2nd Circuit case further demonstrates the need for the Supreme Court to rectify its immunities case law in order to deter officials who are negligent, or simply corrupt.
Michelen, Vinluan’s lawyer, told Reuters “we will continue to pursue justice for Mr. Vinluan and for an analysis of the harmful effects of blanket absolute immunity for prosecutors.”

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