Monday, November 18, 2013
How many federal appellate opinions begin like this?
"An attorney's reputation is her most valuable possession. It forms the basis for her peers' view of her and plays an important role-often a determinative one-in how she advances in her career. This case began with a government attorney's unauthorized filing of a motion for sanctions against Debra K. Migdal, an attorney who has served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender for nearly 25 years. It quickly took on a life of its own, resulting in two district-court orders strongly, publicly, and, we conclude, erroneously reprimanding Migdal. Because the record does not support any basis for these orders, we VACATE the sections of the first order pertaining to sanctions, REVERSE the second order in its entirety, and DISMISS the sanctions proceeding against Migdal."
And how many of them end like this?
"This opinion closes the book on a regrettable chapter in Debra Migdal's career, clears her of all claims that her conduct in this matter was sanctionable, and removes any taint of public censure on her reputation."
As anyone who practices criminal law in the federal court system knows, different districts, and sometimes different judges within a district, have different rules, formal and/or informal, for the issuance of subpoenas demanding early document production pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. Proc. 17(c). Some districts allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to issue the subpoenas, and examine documents, on their own. Other districts require a motion and court order. (Of course, the playing field is uneven, because the prosecution typically has the evidence it needs well before trial through the use of grand jury subpoenas.)
In 2011 Debra Migdal was an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Northern District of Ohio handling a case in front of U.S. District Judge John R. Adams. At the time, neither the Northern District of Ohio nor Adams had any formal policy regarding the issuance of Rule 17(c) subpoenas. Migdal issued two Rule 17(c) subpoenas on her own, one of which was sent to the custodian of records at the U.S. Border Control, calling for the early production of materials in Judge Adam's court, but on a day she designated that was prior to a scheduled court date. Two previous district court opinions in the Northern District, neither of which were written by Judge Adams, had come to opposite conclusions about the propriety of issuing such subpoenas absent the court's permission. Migdal was unaware of the opinion holding that a court order is necessary.
Migdal used Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Form AO 89, which commands both the appearance and testimony of the witness and, if necessary, the production of documents. In other words, unless the issuer crosses out the part of the authorized pre-printed form calling on the witness to testify, he/she is always commanded to appear and testify, even though in many cases the issuing party is only interested in obtaining documents. By way of contrast, on the federal civil side, there are two authorized subpoena forms, one calling for documents only and one calling for witness testimony.
AUSA Gregory Sasse told the Border Patrol Agent to ignore the subpoena. Sasse then moved to quash the subpoena and asked the court to impose whatever sanctions it deemed appropriate. Sasse wasn't authorized to move for sanctions and his superiors later withdrew this request. But Judge Adams was clearly not happy with Migdal. He held two hearings and publicly sanctioned Migdal under 28 U.S.C. Section 1927 and his inherent authority.
Section 1927 reads as follows:
"Any attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct."
The Sixth Circuit, noting that nothing whatsoever in the statute's language authorizes the imposition of non-monetary sanctions, ruled that Judge Adams abused his discretion in sanctioning Migdal under 1927.
The Sixth Circuit then rejected the three rationales Judge Adams relied on for sanctioning Migdal pursuant to his inherent authority. (Any sanctions against Migdal required a showing of bad faith on her part.)
1. Adams had ruled that a criminal defendant is entitled to materials under Rule 17(c) "only after requesting-and not getting-the necessary items from the government via Rule 16 discovery." Incredibly, he believed he had the inherent authority to sanction Migdal for failing to follow this protocol. But as the Sixth Circuit pointed out, no such protocol exists under Rules 16 and 17.
2. Adams had ruled that Migdal violated her duty of candor to to the court by commanding production at a hearing that had not been scheduled or requested. (He referred to it as a "fabricated" hearing.) Migdal acknowledged that the subpoenas were defective in this regard, apologized to the court, and argued that she had not acted in bad faith. The Sixth Circuit agreed, emphasizing that: a) AO Form 89 lacks clarity; b) Migdal called for production in Judge Adams' courtroom, so she was obviously not trying to hide anything from the court; c) the longstanding practice in Migdal's office and in many Federal Public Defender Offices, was to issue Rule 17(c) subpoenas without prior court approval; and d) Migdal relied on a prior Northern District of Ohio opinion specifically authorizing issuance of Rule 17(c) subpoenas without prior court approval. Judge Adams noted that he preferred the contrary judicial opinion. "But Judge Adams' inclination to side with one judge's view over that of another obscures the point that Migdal did not act in bad faith when she hewed to at least one judge's reading of the controlling rule."
3. Adams had ruled that Migdal "utterly disregarded Rule 17(c)'s implicit requirement that the court must approve and order early-production subpoenas." (internal quotations omitted). The Sixth Circuit carefully pointed out that reasonable people could disagree on this point, as evidenced by the conflicting district court opinions. That Migdal chose to take a view of Rule 17(c) at odds with Judge Adams' position, at a time when there was no clear controlling authority, could hardly amount to bad faith.
Throughout Judge Jane Stranch's opinion, for a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel, there runs a tone of incredulity at Judge Adams' actions in "branding a blemish on Migdal's reputation." It should never have happened. It should never happen again.
Here is the Sixth Circuit Migdal Vindication Opinion.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
The defendant was charged with two counts of allegedly mailing threatening communications (18 U.S.C. § 876) and two counts of intentionally conveying false and misleading information (18 U.S.C. § 1038(a)(1)). The defendant challenged the "government's introduction of testimony by a handwriting expert pursuant to Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and 403." In this case it was a report and expert testimony of a US Postal Service handwriting analyst. The district court found that under the Daubert and Kumho standards "that the science or art underlying handwriting analysis falls well short of a reliability threshold when applied to hand printing analysis." This case was handled by Stephen J. Meyer (Madison, Wisconsin).
Thursday, October 31, 2013
The opinion is in United States v. Kyle. Although not a white collar prosecution, the ruling applies to all federal criminal cases in the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit noted that when a district court goes beyond giving the reasons for its rejection of a plea agreement and starts discussing hypothetical agreements that it might accept, "it crosses over the line establsihed by Rule 11."
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
In United States v. Miller, the Sixth Circuit today reversed three of four counts of conviction in a mortgage fraud prosecution. The court held that appellant Miller did not unlawfully "use" a means of identification within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. Section 1028A, the Aggravated Identity Theft statute, when he falsely stated that two named individuals had given him authority to act on behalf of an LLC. Since Miller did not steal their identity, pass himself off as them, or purport to be acting on their behalf as individuals, he is not guilty of violating the statute. The government had argued for a broader construction, but the Sixth Circuit applied the rule of lenity.
The court also reversed a Section 1014 count, because it was bottomed on Miller's signing of a loan renewal and modification agreement. Since the modification and renewal agreement did not repeat the false statement contained in the original loan papers, Miller could not be guilty under Section 1014. The court indicated that Miller had engaged in fraud and false pretenses during the loan modification process. But this was not enough to support a Section 1014 conviction, which requires a knowingly false statement.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Last week in United States v. Willena Stargell, the Ninth Circuit declared, in effect, "we are family with our sister circuits" in interpreting the federal wire fraud statute. Stargell, a tax preparer, was charged and convicted under 18 U.S.C. Section 1343 with wire fraud "affect[ing] a financial institution." Based on her filing of false tax returns, Stargell obtained Refund Anticipation Loans ("RALs") from financial institutions. Even though three of the four loans involved in Stargell's convictions did not result in a loss to any bank, the Ninth Circuit held that the statute was violated because, "[t]he increased risk of loss presented by fraudulent terms is sufficient to 'affect' a financial institution." The Ninth Circuit joined "our sister circuits in defining such term to include new or increased risk of loss to financial institutions." In fact, the only circuits the Ninth joined were the Seventh and Tenth. "The banks were affected because the risk of loss on the RALs was increased by the fraudulent nature of the related returns." The opinion takes a sledgehammer to the rule of lenity.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
In what appears to be a case of nationwide first impression, the Third Circuit ruled today that federal district courts may require a defendant's sentencing allocution to be sworn, without violating Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32 or the U.S. Constitution. The textual Rule 32 discussion seems particularly weak as the rule itself nowhere requires the allocution to be sworn. The case is United States v. Ward. The opinion is here.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Yesterday the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and remanded (7-2) a Section 1014 (and Section 317) conviction connected to the mortgage meltdown crisis. Judge Posner wrote the majority opinion. Chief Judge Easterbrook (joined by Judge Bauer) dissented. The opinion is United States v. Lacey Phillips and Erin Hall.
Section 1014 prohibits making any false statement or report for the purpose of influencing in any way a federally insured bank. Longstanding case law requires the government to prove that the defendant knew the statement was false at the time it was made. Phillips and Hall were an unmarried couple who applied for a home loan and were rejected. Hall then contacted his friend Bowling, a mortgage broker, who began advising Hall and Phillips and ultimately led them to a different bank, Fremont Investment & Loan, which granted a home loan to Phillips. Hall was not listed as a borrower. This was a stated income loan, also known in the industry as a liar's loan.
Phillips and Hall could not keep up with the payments and lost their home. A prosecution ensued. There were several false statements on the loan application, but Phillips and Hall testified that they only were aware of one of the statements, which was as follows. Under the Borrower's Income line, Phillips put down the couple's combined income.
Phillips and Hall wanted to testify that Bowling told them: 1) Phillips should be the only applicant for the stated-income loan, because her credit history was good while Hall's was bad because of the recent bankruptcy; 2) Hall's income should be added to Phillips' on the line that asked for borrower's gross monthly income; and 3) adding the incomes together was proper in the case of a stated income loan, because the bank was actually asking for the total income from which the loan would be repaid, rather than just the borrower's income.
The government wanted to keep this testimony from the jury and U.S. District Court Barbara Crabb (I kid you not) agreed. The Seventh Circuit, per Posner, reversed, in an unnecessarily complicated opinion, but one that is nevertheless fun and instructive to read.
I see it this way. According to Phillips and Hall, Bowling told them that, to Fremont Investment & Loan, Borrower's Income meant the total income from which the loan would be repaid. They were in essence informed that Borrower's Income was a term of art for Fremont. If Phillips and Hall believed that Borrower's Income meant (to Fremont) Combined Income of the People Repaying the Loan, then Phillips and Hall were not making a statement to Fremont that they knew was false. Their state of mind on this point was directly at issue. Theirs may have been be an implausible story, but the jury was allowed to hear it. Judge Posner's opinion has some important things to say about terms of art and interpretation of seemingly simple terms.
This case reminds me of a home loan I took out while I was an AUSA. The bulk of the down payment was being paid through my Thrift Savings Plan. That is, I was loaning myself money out of my government retirement fund. At the time, all of the standard loan applications required the borrower to state that no part of the down payment was coming from a loan. I asked my real estate agent and the mortgage broker whether that language applied to a Thrift Savings Plan Loan. They assured me that it did not. So, when I wrote down on the application that no part of my down payment came from a loan, I knew that in one sense this might be considered false, but to the bank, and presumably to any bank, it would be considered true, because the bank did not consider a Thrift Savings Plan Loan to be a loan. Had I defaulted and been prosecuted, I would have liked to present this as a defense, and it is hard to believe that any competent judge would have prevented me from doing so. But Judge Crabb did not allow this kind of evidence in, and Judge Easterbrook cheers her on.
Judge Easterbrook points out that the jury, in finding Phillips and Hall guilty, already determined that the couple knew several statements on the loan application were false. This is back-asswards and misses the point. This is not a sufficiency of the evidence case. If the jurors had heard the excluded testimony, they may well have been more likely to believe Phillips' and Halls' testimony that the rest of the false statements were made and submitted by Bowling without their knowledge. According to Posner, there was evidence to the effect that Phillips and Hall were naive, while Bowling (who pled guilty and cooperated) and Fremont (a bank that Posner deems disreputable) were sophisticated.
Of course, it is appalling and embarrassing that any self-respecting U.S. Attorney's Office would prosecute a case like this, but it is all part of DOJ's Piker Mortgage Fraud Initiative. Even more embarrassing was the government's contention on appeal that the excluded statements were hearsay. Posner called this a "surprising mistake for a Justice Department lawyer." I'm not so sure. Maybe it wasn't a mistake.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
In United States v. Russell, the First Circuit pays lip service to the materiality requirement in 18 U.S.C. Section 1035 (a) (2), prohibiting false statements in connection with the payment of health care benefits, but in reality reads this element out of the statute. After losing his job, appellant applied for and received health care benefits under a state-subsidized health care program in Maine. He was charged with making false statements/omissions to Dirigo Health Care Agency in order to obtain these benefits, by omitting the extra cash income he earned through work he performed at a friend's business. Appellant argued, to the jury and on appeal, that the government failed to prove the materiality of his statements/omissions, since he would have qualified for the subsidy even if he had accurately reported his income. In rejecting appellant's argument, the First Circuit correctly stated the standard materiality definition. But in describing the evidence presented by the government as to materiality, the Court stated the following:
None of this establishes that the amount of unreported income omitted by Russell could have affected the subsidy he received. The trial judge, though rejecting appellant's Rule 29 argument, assessed zero amount of loss and refused to order restitution, because appellant's unreported cash earnings could not be determined and there was no evidence that he earned enough to be disqualified from the subsidy program. As the trial judge put it, "if he had told the truth, the result would have been the same."
"At trial, the jury heard testimony from Dirigo's director that there was a limit on the income an applicant could earn in 2008 and 2009 to be eligible for an 80% health care subsidy like the one Russell was awarded. The jury learned that Dirigo does not employ investigators to verify statements made by applicants on subsidy applications and that the agency therefore has to rely on applicants' statements in determining eligibility. The agency requires the applicant to sign a certification to help it ensure that all the representations made by the applicant are true. Russell was awarded a $7,500 subsidy in 2008, and a $4,100 subsidy in October 2009, based on his representation in his application that he was neither employed nor receiving income. He signed the accompanying certifications attesting to the truthfulness of his statements in those applications."
The First Circuit analyzed the issue this way:
The Court's analysis seems to shift the burden of proof. The evidence, at least as specifically described in the Court's own opinion, fails to show what the unreported income was and whether it could have affected the subsidy amount. This is the government's burden to prove, not Russell's. If the unreported income did not reach a certain threshold, it simply was not capable of influencing the decision to grant Russell a subsidy. Russell is under no legal burden to prove the precise amount of unreported income he earned. If the evidence was there, the First Circuit should have clearly set it out in its opinion. The materiality element is easy enough to prove as it is. There is no reason to read it out of the statute entirely.
"Whether Russell's statements were material was ultimately a question for the jury. But the record clearly supports a finding that Russell received income in the amount he reported, plus some additional sums that he did not disclose. Had he forthrightly stated on his application that he had unspecified amounts of undocumented cash income above the precise amounts he reported, it is reasonable to believe that Dirigo might well have determined that he failed to meet his burden of proving eligibility. As we said, the government need only prove that the false statement had a 'natural tendency to influence, or [is] capable of influencing, the decision.' Neder, 527 U.S. at 16 (quoting Gaudin, 515 U.S. at 509) (alteration in original). Given the evidence presented at trial, we believe that a rational fact finder could conclude that they were material."
Monday, September 2, 2013
In United States v. Vilar, the Second Circuit examined a post-Morrison decision with an issue of whether Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 applies to extraterritorial criminal conduct. The government had argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Bowman allowed for an extraterritorial application and that civil and criminal conduct should be treated differently and thus Morrison should not apply. The Second Circuit disagreed with the government saying that the Bowman decision was limited to conduct that was "aimed at protecting 'the right of the government to defend itself.'" In contrast, statutes such as 10(b) have as its "purpose [ ] to prohibit 'crimes against private individuals or their property,'" and therefore "the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to criminal statutes, and Section 10(b) is no exception."
The court also noted that "[a] statute either applies extraterritorially or it does not, and once it is determined that a statute does not apply extraterritorially, the only question we must answer in the individual case is whether the relevant conduct occurred in the territory of a foreign sovereign." Despite this legal analysis and ruling, the court found that there was no plain error with respect to territoriality on the counts here and thus no need to reverse on this issue.
Other issues raised by the defendants, such as those relating to a search warrant, jury instructions, and the admission of statements were found not to be in error. The court did, however, remand the sentence.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
United States v. Orthofix, Inc was an important decision for several reasons. First, the Memorandum Opinion issued by Judge Young (D. Mass), on July 26, 2013, takes a turn in what typically happens when there is a corporate plea arrangement. Second, the judge explains at length policy considerations for sentencing corporations. The case also raises questions for the future of corporate plea agreements.
This decision involves two cases involving corporate pleas where the court rejected the pleas. The court notes the importance of considering the "public interest" in accepting pleas. Hon. Young states:
"Just as the Court must take account of the public interest when it exercises its discretion to fashion its own sentence, so too the Court must take account of the public interest when called upon to review a sentencing recommendation attached to a plea bargain."
The court considers the history behind plea bargains and contract law and notes the problem of considering it as a prosecution-defense relationship as opposed to a triadic relationship. Hon. Young states, that "this Court makes no attempt to question the policy choices of executive administrative agencies; it merely seeks to ensure that the sentence imposed upon Orthofix fosters (1) the protection of the public, (2) specific and general deterence, and (3) respect for the law."
The court states that "[o]rganizational criminals pose greater concerns than natural persons for two important reasons." One of the concerns raised in the case of Orthofix, by the court, was that the plea of five years failed to impose the Corporate Integrity Agreement as part of the probation.
This Memorandum decision raises other interesting questions that were not discussed here, and perhaps not relevant to these matters. But one has to wonder whether courts should also be examining plea agreements that place undue pressure on corporations and individuals to plea because the risk of going to trial is too severe? In a post-Arthur Andersen world do corporations have the choice of risking a trial or is the necessity of entering a plea too great to avoid the repercussions of an indictment and possible conviction? Should oversight of pleas go beyond the sentencing aspect to also scrutinze the bargaining position of the parties and the fairness of the general bargain?
See also Doug Berman's Sentencing Law & Policy Blog here, Jef Feeley & Janelle Lawrence, Bloomberg's, Orthofix’s Settlement of Medicare Probe Rejected by Judge
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The Fourth Circuit has issued a rare and stern rebuke to the Eastern District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney's Office, for what the panel describes as repeated failures to disclose exculpatory evidence on the part of some of the office's prosecutors. Judge Floyd also directed that the opinion be sent to AG Holder and DOJ's OPR. This is remarkable. EDVA District Court Judge Henry Hudson was on the panel, sitting by designation, and concurred in the opinion. The Raleigh News & Observor has the story here. The opinion, U.S. v. Bartko, is here. The pertinent pages are 24-30.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
In an unpublished opinion by the 11th Circuit, the court in United States v. Reddy reversed and remanded a conviction coming out of a 7 day trial that started with a 37 count Indictment and had convictions for all but five wire fraud counts. This health care case included counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, health care fraud, and falsifying records in a federal investigation. At the heart of the reversal is a Daubert claim. Looking at the proposed expert's qualifications, reliability of the methodology, and relevance, the cout found that the error was not harmless in that what the expert "had to say about his peer review and accuracy of the work performed by" the accused "was highly probative and would have likely been helpful to the jury."
The court did note that the Indictment should not have been dismissed premised upon another argument made by the defendant. The court said that Section 1347 is a federal offense and "the underlying conduct must have an interstate nexus or other 'jurisdictional hook.'" But the court noted that the "Indictment's language generally tracks the statutory language" and therefore "is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss."
The defense in this case was handled by the Altanta, Georgia law firm of Kish and Lietz.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Lawyers frequently talk about which judges are pro-defense and pro-prosecution but, perhaps out of fear of upsetting the judiciary, few have made any statistical effort to determine which judges fit where.
Richard Levitt, the imaginative Renaissance man of the criminal defense bar, and Peter Schmidt, the dedicated publisher of the illuminating Punch & Jurists newsletter, did a painstaking analysis of the complete reversal rates of those judges currently sitting in the Second Circuit. The result, while enlightening, was not particularly surprising. The complete reversal rates (determined by the percentages of cases in which the judge voted to reverse all counts of conviction after trial) of the court's sitting judges who heard over fifty cases ranged from 0% (Judge Gerard Lynch) to 8.79% (Judge Barrington Parker). (The article, entitled "What Are the Odds of Complete Reversal After Conviction in the Second Circuit?," appeared in the New York Law Journal on June 27, 2013, and is available online at www.newyorklawjournal.com but only to those with premium access.)
The authors concluded, "The results of our survey strongly suggest that an appellant's odds of winning a complete reversal in a close case brought in the Second Circuit are largely determined by which three-judge panel hears the appeal. By any yardstick this seems random and unfair."
I broke down the complete reversal rates of the judges by party line, depending whether the judges were appointed by Democratic or Republican presidents. Contrary to what many would expect, the reversal rates for those judges appointed by Republican presidents (4.26%) exceeded the reversal rates by those appointed by Democratic presidents (3.55%). While there are several explanations for this finding, including that Judge Lynch is a Democratic appointee and Judge Parker a Republican appointee, it tends to indicate that one cannot reliably predict, at least in a Second Circuit criminal trial appeal, how a judge will rule based on her political party background.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
In a major blow to the government, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has reversed the convictions of each and every defendant in U.S. v. Douglas C. Adams, et al. This was a high-profile RICO public corruption prosecution (premised on an alleged vote-buying scheme) brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The Sixth Circuit vacated and remanded based on the following evidentiary errors: 1) admitting testimony from three cooperators regarding their drug-dealing activities with some of the defendants, which activities occurred 10 years prior to the alleged vote-buying scheme; 2) admitting an Inside Edition video that also discussed drug-dealing activities in the community; 3) admitting evidence of witness intimidation that could not be tied to any of the defendants; 4) the trial court's making of unprompted, substantive changes to the government's tape transcripts; 5) permitting use before the jury of the inaccurate transcripts that resulted from the unprompted changes; 6) admitting un-redacted, and highly prejudicial, versions of state election records which contained statements implicating the defendants in vote-buying schemes. This appears to be a case of government overkill in the presentation of its evidence, as the Sixth Circuit had no problem affirming the sufficiency of the evidence. The unanimous panel opinion was written by Judge Karen Nelson Moore. John Kline, Trevor Wells, and Jason Barclay argued the case for Appellants. With them on the various briefs were: Larry Mackey, Marty Pinales, Candace Crouse, Kent Westberry, Elizabeth Hughes, Jerry Gilbert, Robert Abell, Scott White, and Russ Baldani. Congratulations to all.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
White Eagle: Ninth Circuit Strictly Construes 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 Criminal Liability For Material Omissions
In an important decision handed down on July 5th, the Ninth Circuit, following the DC Circuit's lead in United States v. Safavian, 528 F.3d 957 (DC Cir. 2008), held that the federal government cannot sustain a fraudulent concealment conviction under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 (a) (1), unless "a statute or government regulation requires the defendant to disclose specific information to a particular person or entity" and the defendant submits a report, or makes a statement, that fails to do so. In these situations, "the defendant's silence is akin to an affirmative misrepresentation, and therefore logically falls within the scope of [Section] 1001's prohibition on false and fraudulent statements." But it is not enough that the defendant violates a general ethical/regulatory duty to report fraud, waste, and abuse. Any relationship between such duties and Section 1001 is too tenuous. The case is United States v. White Eagle. Although several other counts were reversed, this was largely because "the crimes charged did not fit the facts." The discussion of Section 1001 material concealment is by far the most critical part of the opinion.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Yesterday, in United States v. Goffer, an insider trading/securities fraud criminal appeal, the Second Circuit again refused to alter a standard conscious avoidance jury instruction to comport more fully with the Supreme Court's opinion in Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 131 S.Ct. 2060, 2068-72 (2011). According to Judge Wesley, Global-Tech was not "designed to alter the substantive law. Global-Tech simply describes existing case law." The instruction given by the trial court "properly imposed the two requirements imposed by the Global-Tech decision." Moreover, Appellant Kimelman's request "that the district court insert the word 'reckless' into a list of mental states that were insufficient" was unnecessary, because "Global-Tech makes clear that instructions (such as those in this case) that require a defendant to take 'deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing' are inherently inconsistent 'with a reckless defendant...who merely knows of a substantial and unjustified risk of such wrongdoing."
I don't know. Sounds a little circular to me. According to Global-Tech, willful blindness has "an appropriately limited scope that surpasses recklessness and negligence." Why not just say it squarely in a jury instruction? The problem here is that district courts are generally afraid to alter standard jury instructions in light of emerging case law. And appellate courts are generally reluctant to vacate major securities fraud convictions unless the jury instructions are blatantly improper. The Goffer opinion can be found here.
Monday, July 1, 2013
Posted by Solomon Wisenberg -
Professor Podgor's concise and outstanding analysis of the Supreme Court's opinion in Sekhar v. United States can be found here.
From the majority opinion:
"It may well be proper under the Hobbs Act for the Government to charge a person who obtains money by threatening a third party, who obtains funds belonging to a corporate or governmental entity by threatening the entity’s agent, see 2 J. Bishop, Criminal Law §408, p. 334, and n. 3 (9th ed. 1923) (citing State v. Moore, 1 Ind. 548 (1849)), or who obtains 'goodwill and customer revenues' by threatening a market competitor, see, e.g., United States v. Zemek, 634 F. 2d 1159, 1173 (CA9 1980). Each of these might be considered 'obtaining property from another.' We need not consider those situations, however, because the Government did not charge any of them here."
From the concurrence:
"To recognize that an internal recommendation regarding a government decision is not property does not foreclose the possibility that threatening a government employee,as the government’s agent, in order to secure government property could qualify as Hobbs Act extortion. Here, after all, petitioner’s ultimate goal was to secure an investment of money from the government. But the jury found only that petitioner had attempted to obtain the general counsel’s recommendation, so I have no occasion to consider whether a Hobbs Act conviction could have been sustained on a different legal theory."
Translation: Note to the Government. Charge the case more intelligently next time.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
The mark of the beast is fading a little, at least in the First Circuit. Amidst the hubbub of the Supreme Court's Wednesday rulings, the First Circuit quietly decided that 18 U.S.C. Section 666 can't be read to prohibit gratuities. This sets up a circuit split. The opinion in United States v. Fernandez & Maldanado is here.
Congratulations to Martin Weinberg, David Chesnoff, Kimberly Homan and Jose Pagan, who were on the brief for Appellant Bravo Fernandez. Congratulations to Abbe Lowell and Christopher Man, who were on the brief for Appellant Martinez Maldonado.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
In Sekhar v. United States, the Supreme Court looked at the question of "whether attempting to compel a person to recommend that his employer approve an investment constitutes 'the obtaining of property from another' under 18 U.S.C. s 1951(b)(2)," the Hobbs Act. The Hobbs Act has been a statute of choice for federal prosecutors in many white collar cases. Its heavy penalty provisions offer increased sentence posibilities when the defendant knowingly and willfully induced someone to part with property by extorionate means and there has been interstate commerce.
In Sekhar, the issue arose from an alleged threat to disclose an alleged affair following a general counsel's written recommendation to a state comptroller not to invest in a fund. Although the jury form offered three options of the possible property of the attempted extortion, the jury selected only the third option - "the General Counsel's recommendation to approve the Commitment." The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit finding that this was not extortion.
The Court issued an unanimous holding with three concurrences. Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, stated that:
"As far as is known, no case predating the Hobbs Act - English, federal, or state - ever identified conduct such as that charged here as extiotionate. Extortion required the obtaining of items of value, typically cash, from the victim."
The opinion provides a wonderful history of the Hobbs Act, and highlights how "extortion" requires "obtaining property from another." The Court holds that "[t]he property extorted must therefore be transferable - that is, capable of passing from one person to another." Finding that the alleged property fails here, the Court reverses the convictions. The Court also goes on to say that you need "something of value." The Court states:
"The principle announced there [referencing its prior opinion in Scheidler] - that a defendant must pursue something of value from the victim that can be exercised, transferred, or sold - applies with equal force here. Whether one considers the personal right at issue to be property in a broad sense or not, it certainly was not obtainable property under the Hobbs Act." (footnotes omitted).
Citing to the prior decision in Cleveland, the Court holds that "an employee's yet-to-be-issued recommendation" is not obtainable property. Intangible property is not enough, it must be "obtainable property."
The Court emphasizes that coercion is not extortion, and Congress has not criminalized coercion in the Hobbs Act.
The three-person concurrence (Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Sotomayor), focuses on property and tries to limit the decision by saying that this case is an "outlier and that the jury's verdict stretches the concept of property beyond the breaking point." They reference the rule of lenity and although this concurrence agrees that Congress did not "classify internal recommendations pertaining to government decisions as property," they leave open the possibility that the government could perhaps have prosecuted "under some other theory."
My Commentary -
Bottom line - the government stretched the statute and they were caught.
This decision offers defense counsel strong arguments and requests for instructions in Hobbs Act cases. Limiting the definition of property to "obtainable property" and requiring a clear definition of when "something is of value" are likely to be requests coming from defense counsel in the future.
My advice to the government - - there is real crime out there, please put our valuable resources into prosecuting it!