Overzealous prosecution of doctor: divided court of appeals reverses the Hyde Act attorneys fees and sanctions against the prosecutors in the sad case of Dr. Ali Shaygan

A seemingly overzealous prosecution team went after a medical doctor in a federal criminal prosecution regarding supposed excessive prescriptions for pain medicines. My law partner Carl recently wrote on this same topic. The defense team uncovered the possibly improper prosecution tactics. The jury found the doctor innocent, after which the trial judge ordered that the United States pay the doctor’s legal fees. What really took the case to the next level is that the trial judge issued a public reprimand of the prosecutors and referred them for potential disciplinary action. Nothing is as angry as a prosecutor’s office that not only loses, but is told that its people are acting improperly. The government appealed the attorney fee ruling and the reprimand of the prosecutors. Yesterday, a divided Panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the government. The case is United States v. Hoffman, et. al.

The majority clearly wanted to help the prosecutors, as is shown by the opening lines in the opinion. “The stakes in this appeal are high: they involve the sovereign immunity of the United States, the constitutional separation of powers, and the civil rights and professional reputations of two federal prosecutors.” Rarely does the Eleventh Circuit concern itself with “the civil rights and professional reputations” of lawyers other than prosecutors.

When litigating a motion to suppress before trial, the magistrate found (and the trial judge agreed) that the agents were not being truthful about what happened when they interrogated the doctor. Then, in the middle of trial the defense team discovered that the prosecutors had been taping conversations between witnesses and the defense lawyer. It turns out that this taping was done as part of an effort to remove the very qualified defense team. The trial judge was enraged, and allowed the defense to re-call the witnesses to the stand, with an instruction that told the jury this was being done because of the improper prosecutorial tactics.

After the jury found the doctor not guilty, the trial judge used the Hyde Act to make the government reimburse Dr. Shaygan all the legal fees he had to pay to defend against this case that was “brought vexatiously, in bad faith, or so utterly without foundation in law or fact as to be frivolous.” Next, the judge held a hearing concerning the prosecutors, and took testimony from 6 witnesses. New prosecutors came in to try and minimize the damage, but the trial judge nevertheless issued an order for disciplinary action against the trial prosecutors.

The government convinced two of the three judges on the Panel to reverse both the order of attorneys fees and the disciplinary rulings against the trial prosecutors. The majority ruled that a defendant who is found not guilty can get back his or her attorney fees only if the entire case was vexatious and in bad faith from the very beginning. Additionally, the majority decided that the trial judge violated the constitutional rights of the trial prosecutors by issuing his disciplinary ruling without telling them ahead of time he was considering just such a course of action. In dissent, Judge Edmonson was also troubled by the whole case, and would have found that the order for payment of attorneys fees was proper because the trial prosecutors clearly acted in “bad faith.”

This case is a perfect example of how difficult it is to defend a person against zealous federal prosecutors and agents. Fortunately for Dr. Shaygan, his defense team was up to the task.

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