Judge Nina Gershon. Photo: Rick kopstein

A federal judge has certified a class of Filipino nurses who have brought human trafficking claims against New York’s largest network of for-profit nursing homes who say they had to stay with the company or face getting hit with $25,000 lawsuits.

U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon of the Eastern District of New York approved a class that includes any nurses who have been recruited since Dec. 23, 2008, by the Philippines-based staffing agency Sentosa Services to work for Golden Gate Rehabilitation and Health Care Center on Staten Island and Spring Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Brooklyn.

The three entities are part of the SentosaCare network—also a defendant in the suit—which has recently received criticism for the quality of care that some patients have received at its facilities, according to news reports, and which has previously been the target of legal action over employment terms for nurses recruited from the Philippines.

The certified class could include more than 200 plaintiffs bringing claims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), said John Howley of the Howley Law Firm, who represents plaintiff Rose Ann Paguirigan.

While Paguirigan’s suit names SensotaCare’s facilities in Brooklyn and Staten Island, the class may include Filipino nurses who went to work for 15 of the company’s facilities across the state, Howley said.

Leandro Lachica of the Howley Law Firm is also working on the case.

Elliot Hahn of Hahn Eisenberger, which represents SensotaCare, said that Paguirigan was never “threatened in any way” and that the company is appealing the class certification.

The defendants “intend to vigorously defend this case, including exercising all appellate rights if necessary,” Hahn said.

The defense team also includes Seth Eisenberger of Hahn Eisenberger and Sheldon Eisenberger of Robinson Brog Leinwand Greene Genovese & Gluck.

According to court papers, Paguirigan in 2015 signed a three-year employment contract to work for Golden Gate with promises that she’d be paid $29 per hour but with the proviso that, if she leaves the company within the first year of her employment, she would be on the hook for a $25,000 early termination fee, a sum that the company claims is necessary to recoup the costs of bringing Filipino nurses into the United States.  

After signing the contract, Paguirigan was assigned to the facility at Spring Creek and left the company less than one year later.  

Last year, Paguirigan filed a breach of contract suit against the company in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, claiming that her employment contract stipulated that she would receive the prevailing wage when she began working for the company and that it fell short.

Hahn said Paguirigan’s agreed-upon pay rate from SentosaCare was $2 more per hour than the prevailing wage.

Paguirigan also argues that SentosaCare should be aware that the early termination fee is not enforceable: in 2006, SentosaCare sued a group of 38 nurses who resigned from the company, but a state Supreme Court judge in Nassau County found that the early termination fee contained in SentosaCare’s contract was unenforceable, as any damages the company incurs from nurses jumping ship early could be determined at trial.

Despite the state court’s ruling, SentosaCare has continued to threaten Paguirigan and other foreign nurses with the early termination fee and take legal action to obtain it, Howley said.

Additionally, according to court papers, the company has also filed tortious interference claims against Paguirigan and two other nurses seeking $250,000 in damages.

The defendants acknowledged that they brought the suits, Gershon wrote in her ruling to certify the class, published on Wednesday, but provided no further information about their motives for doing so.

But Howley said that SentosaCare brought the tortious interference claims against the nurses for telling their co-workers they were leaving the company and that the company is using the threat of quarter-million-dollar lawsuits to prevent SentosaCare nurses from becoming rabble rousers and encouraging other nurses to break their contracts.      

“None of these legal actions were undertaken for any legitimate reason,” Howley said. “They were undertaken solely for the purpose of intimidating the nurses.”

Hahn did not respond to a request to respond to Howley’s claim.

Howley said that he does not have an estimate as to how many of the nurses have paid damages to SentosaCare, but said that about half of the roughly 20 nurses his firm has spoken with so far have paid up.

Hahn noted that Paguirigan acknowledged that she was never overtly threatened with legal action, but she argues that the termination fee was emphasized during the recruitment process, and Howley said the company’s history of litigiousness could amount to a threat of serious financial harm, which is actionable under the TVPA.  

Last year, Gershon denied the defendants’ dismissal motion and both sides are filing motions for summary judgment.

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