Anilao v. Spota

Decision Date09 March 2022
Docket NumberAugust Term, 2020,Docket No. 19-3949-cv
Citation27 F.4th 855
Parties Juliet ANILAO, Harriet Avila, Mark Dela Cruz, Claudine Gamaio, Elmer Jacinto, Jennifer Lampa, Rizza Maulion, Theresa Ramos, Ranier Sichon, and James Millena, Plaintiffs-Counter-Defendants-Appellants, Felix Q. Vinluan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Thomas J. SPOTA, III, Individually and as District Attorney of Suffolk County, Office of the District Attorney of Suffolk County, Leonard Lato, Individually and as an Assistant District Attorney of Suffolk County, County of Suffolk, Karla Lato, as Administrator of the Estate of Leonard Lato, Defendants-Appellees, Susan O'Connor, Nancy Fitzgerald, Sentosa Care, LLC, Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, Prompt Nursing Employment Agency, LLC, Francris Luyun, Bent Philipson, Berish Rubinstein, Defendants-Counter-Claimants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Stephen L. O'Brien, O'Brien & O'Brien, LLP, Nesconset, NY, for Defendant-Appellee Thomas J. Spota, III.

Brian C. Mitchell, Assistant County Attorney, Suffolk County Attorney's Office, Hauppauge, NY, for Defendants-Appellees County of Suffolk and Karla Lato, as Administrator of the Estate of Leonard Lato.

Oscar Michelen, Cuomo LLC, Mineola, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellant Felix Vinluan.

Paula Schwartz Frome (James O. Druker, on the brief), Kase & Druker, Esqs., Garden City, NY, for Plaintiffs-Counter-Defendants-Appellants Juliet Anilao, Harriet Avila, Mark Dela Cruz, Claudine Gamaio, Elmer Jacinto, Jennifer Lampa, Rizza Maulion, Theresa Ramos, Ranier Sichon, and James Millena.

Before: SACK, CHIN, and LOHIER, Circuit Judges.

Judge Chin dissents in a separate opinion.

LOHIER, Circuit Judge:

Ten nurses and their former attorney, Felix Vinluan, filed claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as common-law claims of false arrest and malicious prosecution under New York law against the defendants — the County of Suffolk, the Office of the District Attorney of Suffolk County (the "DA's Office"), Thomas J. Spota, III, the District Attorney of Suffolk County, and Leonard Lato, an Assistant District Attorney who was at all relevant times the Chief of the Insurance Crimes Bureau at the DA's Office. The plaintiffs allege that Spota and Lato improperly prosecuted them for child endangerment, endangerment of a physically disabled person, and related charges by fabricating evidence and engaging in other improper conduct before a grand jury, in violation of the plaintiffs’ federal constitutional rights and New York state law. The state prosecution ended only when a New York state appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were being "threatened with prosecution for crimes for which they cannot be constitutionally tried." Matter of Vinluan v. Doyle, 60 A.D.3d 237, 873 N.Y.S.2d 72, 83 (2d Dep't 2009). The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Bianco, J. ) found that Spota and Lato were entitled to absolute immunity for starting the criminal prosecution and presenting the case to the grand jury, and it dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims arising from any alleged misconduct during that prosecutorial stage. Anilao v. Spota, 774 F. Supp. 2d 457, 466–68 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (" Anilao I"). The District Court later granted summary judgment in favor of the prosecutors and the DA's Office as to the remaining claims after concluding that there was insufficient evidence that Spota or Lato had violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights during the investigative phase of the criminal proceedings. Anilao v. Spota, 340 F. Supp. 3d 224, 250 (E.D.N.Y. 2018) (" Anilao II"). And "given the absence of any underlying constitutional violation in the investigative stage," the court concluded, "no municipal liability can exist against Suffolk County as a matter of law." Id. at 251.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm the District Court's judgment. Although Spota and Lato may have unlawfully penalized the plaintiffs for exercising the right to quit their jobs on the advice of counsel, under our precedent both of them are entitled to absolute immunity for their actions during the judicial phase of the criminal process. As for the plaintiffs’ claim that Spota and Lato fabricated evidence during the investigative phase of the criminal process, we agree with the District Court that there was insufficient admissible evidence of fabrication to defeat summary judgment. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

Sentosa Care, LLC ("Sentosa")1 operates health care facilities throughout New York and recruited the nurse plaintiffs from the Philippines to work in various Sentosa nursing home facilities on Long Island, New York. Each nurse signed an employment contract that required the nurses to work for at least three years or face a $25,000 penalty. When they arrived in New York, the nurses learned that they would be working for an employment agency, not Sentosa, and that the agency had assigned them to work at Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Center ("Avalon"), a nursing home for both adults and children.

Following a relatively brief stint at Avalon, the nurses began to complain about their working and living conditions — longer than expected work shifts, overcrowded and substandard housing, lower insurance benefits and pay, and less vacation time than their contracts provided. The nurses also voiced their concerns to the Philippine Consulate in New York, which referred them to Vinluan, an immigration and employment attorney, for advice. After speaking with the nurses and evaluating the facts, Vinluan concluded that Sentosa had breached its contracts with the nurses and advised them that they were free to resign from their positions without legal repercussion once their shifts ended. Based on Vinluan's advice, on April 7, 2006, all ten nurses resigned either after their shift was over or in advance of their next shift.

Soon after the nurses resigned, Sentosa filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Education, which licenses and regulates nurses. The company also filed a complaint in Nassau County Supreme Court to enjoin the nurses and Vinluan from speaking to other nurses about resigning. It even filed a complaint with the Suffolk County Police Department. None of Sentosa's complaints led to any action against the plaintiffs, however, and on September 28, 2006, the Department of Education closed the case after determining that the nurses had not engaged in any professional misconduct or deprived any patient of nursing care.

Unfazed, Sentosa continued its campaign against the plaintiffs. It finally found a receptive audience in Spota. Not long after representatives of Sentosa met with Spota to urge the DA's Office to file criminal charges against the nurses for imperiling the health and safety of Avalon's patients, Spota assigned the criminal investigation to Lato. Lato then quickly interviewed the plaintiffs, as well as other witnesses, like Francris Luyun, the head of Sentosa's recruitment agency.

In defense of the plaintiffs, who were now plainly the targets of a criminal investigation, Vinluan presented Lato with "significant exculpatory information." App'x 55. Among other things, Vinluan pointed to the fact that the Department of Education and the New York State Supreme Court had declined to act against the nurses. He also provided "information ... that," contrary to Sentosa's assertion, "none of the Nurse Plaintiffs had ceased work during a shift." App'x 55.

Lato was unpersuaded by Vinluan's arguments and presented several witnesses to a grand jury in Suffolk County. Among the witnesses were several Sentosa employees, an investigator in the DA's Office, a nurse who had also resigned but who is not a party to this appeal, and a nurse who filled in at Avalon immediately after the nurse plaintiffs resigned. The grand jury returned an indictment charging the nurses and Vinluan with (1) conspiracy in the sixth degree, in violation of New York Penal Law (N.Y.P.L.) §§ 105.00 and 105.20 ; (2) endangering the welfare of a child, in violation of N.Y.P.L. §§ 260.10(1) and 20.00 ; and (3) endangering the welfare of a physically disabled person, in violation of N.Y.P.L. §§ 260.25 and 20.00. Vinluan was also charged with criminal solicitation in the fifth degree, in violation of N.Y.P.L. § 100.00.

In response, the nurses and Vinluan moved in New York State Supreme Court in Suffolk County to, among other things, dismiss the charges against them. All of them insisted that their conduct was not criminal and that, in any event, the indictment was not supported by sufficient evidence. They also argued that the prosecution violated their constitutional rights. The nurses claimed that the prosecution violated their rights under the Thirteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution, which, with one exception not relevant here, prohibits any form of involuntary or forced labor without pay. Vinluan argued that the prosecution against him violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and to association in connection with providing counsel to his clients.

The state court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims of insufficient evidence, holding that "the evidence [was] legally sufficient to support [all] the charges contained in the indictment" and "that each count of the indictment properly charges these defendants with a crime ...." App'x 814.2 The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments. With respect to the nurses’ constitutional challenge, the state court concluded that "[t]here is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this prosecution in any way violates the rights of any of these defendants under the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution." App'x 815. As for Vinluan's First Amendment challenge, the court determined, there was "no basis to disturb" the grand jury's finding that there was "sufficient evidence that [Vinluan] had entered into an agreement to perform an act which would endanger the welfare of...

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