For Ms. P, a 36-year-old nurse in the Philippines, the job offer was a dream come true. With more than 10 years’ experience in her own country, she longed to come to America where pay was higher and benefits better.

She and nine colleagues were recruited by M Corp, an agency based in the Philippines. The agency told them that they would be hired directly by various nursing homes within M Corp’s network in the United States. Later, the nurses received contracts that specified where they would work and promised free travel to the United States, two months of free housing and health insurance, training, and help in obtaining legal residency and a state license. The contracts required the nurses to stay on the job for three years and to pay M Corp $25,000 if they failed to honor that commitment.

The 10 nurses signed the contracts and boarded a plane to America with high hopes. What they got, however, was not what they expected.

When the plane landed, the nurses learned they would not be working for the nursing homes named in their contracts. Rather, they were to work for an employment agency that paid less and offered a less stable form of employment.

The employment agency assigned the group to a nursing home that cared for chronically ill children. Ms. P and four other nurses were assigned to work almost exclusively with children who required ventilators.

The nurses learned that the facility had not obtained temporary licenses for them as promised. Initially, they were forced to work as clerks until the licenses were obtained. Their “free” housing consisted of a house for the entire group, with no phone, one bathroom, and sporadic heat.

Ms. P and several other nurses complained to the nursing home management about the working conditions and less-than-promised benefits but were ignored. Undeterred, they wrote letters to both the nursing home and to M Corp outlining their grievances, including the poor housing conditions, short staffing, and failure to pay overtime and night-shift differentials.

Two months went by, and still the nurses’ complaints went unheeded.

Ms. P had reached the end of her rope. Not knowing what else to do, she contacted the Philippine consulate and was referred to an attorney who met with the entire group.

“We want to resign,” Ms. P told him. As the most experienced of the 10 nurses, she had become their unofficial leader. “The working conditions are horrible, and we can’t take them much longer. What can we do?”

“Under the law, you can’t resign during a shift when you are on duty,” the lawyer replied. “You do have the right to resign after your shift has ended, but I’d recommend that you stay at your current positions and give me a chance to file a complaint against the nursing home.”

The nurses discussed that advice when they returned to the house. They agreed that they didn’t want to wait any longer to resign, and they feared retaliation if they waited for the attorney to act. Together they wrote a form letter of resignation that each of them would use.

The next day, all 10 nurses quit, either at the end of a shift or before their next shift. Their timing gave the nursing home 8-72 hours’ notice before each nurse’s next scheduled shift.

Almost immediately, M Corp sued the nurses for breach of contract. The nursing home lodged a formal complaint of professional misconduct with the state nursing board, charging that they had abandoned their patients by resigning en masse without adequate notice.

But after investigating, the state board sided with the nurses. It found that no one had resigned mid-shift and no patients were deprived of care, since the nursing home had been able to obtain coverage. Therefore no misconduct had occurred.

Ms. P gave a sigh of relief, believing she was finished with attacks on her professionalism. But she wasn’t.

Unbeknownst to Ms. P, the nursing-home management had filed a complaint with the district attorney who began an investigation on possible criminal violations. Almost a year after they walked off the job, the nurses were indicted for endangering the welfare of the children under their care. The nurses were now facing criminal charges and potential jail time.

Their lawyer immediately made a motion to dismiss, but the judge denied it. The attorney then went to the Court of Appeals, where he argued before a panel of five judges.

“My clients are being deprived of their rights under the U.S. Constitution,” the attorney declared. “Prosecuting them for resigning is a violation of the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.

“If it’s a criminal act to resign from a job, then these nurses are basically slaves because no matter how bad the working conditions are, they cannot leave without fear of being arrested. Making it a crime for these nurses to resign means that they are forced to stay at their jobs, and that is involuntary servitude.”

The attorney paused and looked toward where Ms. P and the other nurses were sitting.

“My clients hurt no one,” he said, quietly. “They were concerned about their patients. They waited until they had finished their shifts and then resigned. No one was harmed. No one was even in danger of being harmed. The facility was able to find nursing coverage without a problem, and the patients were never without care or in danger of being without care.”

The argument was persuasive. The judges dismissed the case and prohibited the district attorney from prosecuting the group. In his written decision, the chief judge explicitly agreed that subjecting these nurses to a criminal penalty for resigning was indeed violation of the 13th Amendment.

Legal background

The proper forum for this case is in civil court, where the breach-of-contract suit is still pending. The nurses believe that M Corp violated their employment agreement by not following through with its promises. On the other hand, M Corp believes the nurses violated the contracts by not honoring their three-year commitment.

The nursing home might have a civil claim against the nurses if it incurred heavy expenses trying to get coverage after the nurses quit unexpectedly. But it should not have tried to turn the dispute into a crime. The district attorney should have declined to prosecute, especially since the state nursing board found no professional misconduct.

Protecting yourself

Ms. P was wise to consult a lawyer about how to quit. If the nurses had left their patients mid-shift or immediately before their shift was to start, the dispute might have played out very differently. The walkout could have been considered professional misconduct.

In its ruling on the dismissal, the appeals court emphasized that the nurses did not abandon their posts or leave their patients without care. If leaving your employment with little notice becomes necessary, never quit in the middle of a shift or otherwise leave a patient without care.