Advocacy is a two way street

Young lawyers learning about advocacy need to understand how judges think if they are to master the skill, says Reuben Guttman.

Young advocates or trial lawyers often labour under the conception that communication is a one size fits all effort.  Be smooth, don’t be nervous, be flamboyant, and engage in fanfare.  Really?  For my trial advocacy students at Emory Law School, this is sometimes their vision of a trial lawyer.  Yet advocacy is a two way street.  Before an advocate formulates the content and form of his or her message, the most important question to ask is “Who is receiving the message?” Advocates, or trial lawyers, are teachers.  Judges and juries are their students.  How does the trial lawyer, as a teacher, deliver a message that resonates with each particular student?

Insight

Last year at Emory Law School,  I convened a panel of four judges with the hope of giving students an insight into their lives.  It was enlightening for the students to learn that these judges had dockets ranging from a couple hundred to several thousand cases.  The students learned that these judges were tasked with deciding matters that they had never studied in law school.  Their support ranged from one to several law clerks and the law clerks themselves were all recent law school graduates.  This group of judges ranged from civil cases to criminal matters with divorces, large scale securities class actions, business disputes, discrimination cases, and maritime matters in the mix.

Breaking the monotony

There is a saying that justice is blind.  And of course there is a perception that judges are powerful – which they of course are – and that they know everything.  While sitting in federal court a couple of weeks ago, I was watching a judge hear a dozen motions before it was my turn to argue. He was jovial.  He was witty. He engaged the litigants with humour.  I liked him. I had seen this behavior before with jurists.  I realised of course that some judges usually do this to break the monotony of the job.  They are human beings.  As I sat and watched this particular judge, I thought about him sitting high on his bench in a courtroom with 35 foot ceilings and the walls adorned with paintings of judges who had preceded him. I thought about why the US government spends so much on these ornate courtrooms.  I realised that without these accoutrements, judges would seem like mere mortals.  And of course, the proceeding itself would not be cloaked in the same solemnity.

Lifetime experiences

For the advocate, it is important to understand that at the end of the day, their messages will be evaluated by humans; whether they are judges or jurists.  They will have lifetime experiences, families that they go home to, perhaps pets that they feed, and like other humans, they will have had their successes and failures.  They will have fears and concerns.

If there is a takeaway from all of this, it is that advocacy is a two way street.  What you may think is the right message, or form of message to deliver to the decision maker, may not necessarily be the one that resonates.  What you may think is the right style may not be appropriate for a particular audience.  This is just something to think about; communication is a two way street.

Tort Reform: A Lion in Sheep’s Clothing

Tort reformers cite a range of cases as frivolous litigation. But, says Reuben Guttman, many of these lawsuits raise fundamental issues.

The United States Chamber of Commerce, a few academics and some media pundits have their lists of cases arguably supporting the proposition that people will sue over anything and hence the need for tort reform to prevent so called ‘frivolous litigation.’  Out of the countless number of cases filed each year in United States federal and state courts, the tort reformers love to harp on the suit brought by the woman against McDonalds for serving hot coffee and the class action now pending against Subway for allegedly misrepresenting the size of its advertised foot-long sandwiches.

Golden oldies

Since the tort reformers seem to keep dwelling on the same few cases, it might be worth mentioning a few oldies but goodies which have eluded their attention. First, there is the “classroom kick case” where an elementary school child was sued for kicking another student on the knee.  This heinous event occurred in a classroom. The court allowed the case to go forward, holding that if the offending kicker had made his offensive contact on the playground, the kick might have been permissible.

Then there is the “falling scale case” involving a man on a railroad platform; running to jump on a train, he was pulled on board by a conductor.  Struggling to board the moving rail car, the man dropped a package containing fireworks; the fireworks exploded, knocking a scale down at the end of the platform.  The scale fell on another man who sued the railroad!

Finally, there is the case brought by parents who allowed their child to play on railroad tracks.  The child wandered onto a railyard and was injured by a turntable used to reposition rail cars.  The parents sued the railroad!

These are real cases; Vosberg v. Putney, 80 Wis. 523 (Wisc. 1891), Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, 248 N.Y. 339 (N.Y. 1928) and Sioux City & Pacific Railroad Co. v. Stout, 84 U.S. 657 (1873).  The thing is that they are not new.  I found them in a casebook on torts belonging to my dad.  While the casebook was published in 1934, I too had studied them in law school.  Back in law school, I actually read a lot of cases that made me wonder why courts spend so much time on matters that are small or that by some lights should not exist at all. Yet from seemingly small cases, judges have for years extrapolated important legal doctrine. The holding and dissent in Palsgraf, written by Justices Cardozo and Andrews respectively, are well studied and cited works. These writings are at the heart of the common law of negligence.  The doctrine of “attractive nuisance,” or at least variations of it, flow from Stout and similar cases.

It is cases like Vosberg, Palsgraf and Stout —  actually landmark decisions studied for decades by laws students —  that today’s tort reformers might cite in support of their claim that frivolous litigation clogs the courts and burdens business. Yet it is these matters – cases with simple sets of facts – that allow judges to articulate important rules that can be applied to weightier cases.

The lion and the zoo

In his closing argument to the jury in Silkwood v. Kerr McGee, 464 U.S. 238 (1984), lawyer Gerry Spence talks about the case in “Old England” where the lion escaped from the zoo and the zoo was responsible for the damage caused by the lion even if it exercised due care in caging the animal.  Of course the Silkwoodcase involved the escape of plutonium from a Kerr McGee plant.  From the simple case of the lion, Spence explains the law of strict liability, telling the jury “if the lion got away, Kerr McGee must pay.”

The truth is that the common law is replete with small cases; some that others would never bring; some that tort reformers might argue are completely frivolous and some that appear at the time to be small yet provide critical insight into the application of the rule of law and the expectation for compliance.  And so do we really want to be in the business of telling that family whose kid was kicked in the knee that there is no place for that suit in a court of law?

Now, about the cases involving coffee and that other one about the foot-long Subway sandwich?  Well, it turns out that the woman who brought suit against McDonald’s sustained serious burns when a scalding cup of coffee, purchased at a drive-in, spilled on her lap.  And, while the tort reformers may consider her case frivolous, have you ever noticed that most coffee shops now check the temperature of their coffee before serving it?

Fundamental issues

I reached out to the lawyer who is bringing that foot-long Subway sandwich case.  He asked me what the difference was between a fast food enterprise serving a smaller quantity than advertised and a bank charging each depositor a few extra cents in interest each month?   Small damages for each consumer?  Perhaps.  Large damages across the board for a class?  Undoubtedly.  But does the case raise fundamental and perhaps important issues about truth in advertising which may create precedent for more weighty matters?  Absolutely.  And this is what our common law tradition is all about.

For more insight into the Tort Reform movement, I recommend this video, Debate on Tort Reform After Viewing of Documentary ‘Hot Coffee’

“Hot Coffee” is an HBO documentary about the Tort Reform Movement and who is really behind it.  More information and the trailer is available here.

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Arbitrary application of law in a global economy

by Reuben A. GuttmanGuttman practices law with Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC 

There are more than 3,000 drug trials being conducted in China. Indeed, data from these trials is almost certain to find its way into applications filed back in the United States with the Food and Drug Administration.

Do large drug companies – which trade on U.S. domestic securities exchanges – accurately report complete information about drug trials conducted in China? Or do language barriers and cultural differences make it difficult – if not impossible – to secure unbiased results from these trials? Understanding that concepts imbedded in the western rule of law, including “conflict of interest,” “kick back,” and “independence,” may have different meanings elsewhere is crucial to understanding the magnitude of the problem, and we have no way of answering these questions with complete certainty.

The scary part is that our regulators – including the SEC, the FDA and the EPA – are so woefully understaffed that they lack the resources to fully enforce compliance in the United States, let alone on a global scale.

In a global economy, understanding and investigating conduct abroad is essential to domestic compliance enforcement. But triple the staff of domestic compliance enforcement agencies, and there still would not be enough government officials to enforce compliance in a global economy.

The truth is that since the founding of our republic, we have recognized that compliance enforcement cannot be left solely in the hands of government regulators. Compliance with our most fundamental constitutional protections, including the landmark decisions in Brown v Board of Education and New York Times v. Sullivan, have been accomplished through private party litigation — not government enforcement actions.
Our environmental, antitrust, and civil rights laws have specific provisions allowing private citizens to bring enforcement actions. Our laws are constructed this way because we as a nation understand that substantive law absent an ability to enforce compliance is meaningless. To have an enumerated right or privilege that cannot be protected or secured is the same as having no right or privilege at all. To ensure compliance enforcement, we have created mechanisms that leverage our abilities so that culprits understand that being caught and sanctioned is more than a mere theoretical possibility.  Indeed, Congress has passed laws, including the False Claims Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, that reward whistleblowers who bring to the government information about conduct that causes the wrongful payment of government monies and that lead to a recovery.
These laws tap the technical, cultural, and even language expertise of whistleblowers on both a domestic and global scale. In 2001, a German citizen named Kurt Bunk brought suit under the False Claims Act in a federal court in Virginia against freight companies engaging in a conspiracy – conceived in Europe – to elevate the cost of shipping services sold to the U.S. military.  The case resulted in the recovery of millions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury.  While not a U.S. citizen, Bunk’s expertise in the shipping industry, his knowledge of the German language, his ability to review thousands of documents written in German, and his account of facts necessary to prove the wrongful conduct were essential to a domestic compliance effort.

It would seem obvious that individuals who participate in compliance enforcement that benefits U.S. citizens or U.S. regulatory agencies should minimally receive protection in our courts. At a time when our State Department spends millions of dollars abroad extolling the virtues of U.S. “rule of law,” it would be ironic that a foreign citizen who aids in the enforcement of our laws would not be extended protection by our courts against retaliation. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently to Liu Meng-Lin, a citizen of Taiwan and a compliance officer for the healthcare division of Siemens China, Ltd.
According to a lawsuit Liu filed in a New York federal court, he discovered that Siemens employees were indirectly making improper payments to officials in North Korea and China in connection with the sale of medical equipment to those countries. Liu complained internally, and was terminated, whereupon he reported to the SEC that Siemens had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – an Act that prohibits companies that trade stock on U.S. exchanges from making payments to foreign officials to secure business. Liu also alleged that Siemens had violated Dodd Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions.
The federal court dismissed Liu’s case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently sustained that decision, refusing “extraterritorial” enforcement of the Dodd Frank anti-retaliation proscriptions. The Second Circuit found it of no consequence that Siemens trades its stock on U.S. exchanges – and presumably to U.S. purchasers – or that Liu may be entitled to a bounty from the SEC if the agency successfully pursues Siemens for FCPA violations.  The Court justified its holding by maintaining that there is a presumption against extraterritorial application of a law where there is no clear congressional intent to do so.
Really? In a global economy where the court conceded that Liu might actually be entitled to a monetary award from the SEC?
There’s another irony: At a time when large corporations through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are maintaining that whistleblowers should report their grievances to internal compliance personnel before going to regulatory bodies, a big publicly traded company has established – at least in one court – that foreigners have no rights of redress in U.S. courts if their internal disclosure results in retaliation.

Regardless of whether the Second Circuit is correct in its analysis, its decision is a blow to whistleblower programs essential to enforcement of laws that, at the very least, protect those who reside within our domestic boundaries.  If the Second Circuit is correct that Congress was not clear in its intent to protect foreigners who help in the enforcement of domestic laws, it is time for Congress to speak up.

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Do We Really Trust Corporations To Investigate Their Own Profitable Impropriety?

by Reuben A. Guttman. Guttman practices law with Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC.

Can a corporation really investigate its own behavior? Do internal compliance programs really work, or does their mere existence give well-compensated employees plausible rationale not to question conduct that would otherwise be questionable?

Answering these questions must begin with the age-old concern about conflicts of interest. The Book of Matthew counsels that “no man can serve two masters.” Our democracy itself is founded out of concern for the evils of self-interest, a form of conflict of interest. We abandoned a monarchy in favor of elected officials and then, fearing their self-interest, we created a system of checks and balances.

As our democracy emerged, scrutiny of conflicts of interest that might taint decision making – or at least the decision itself – has become ingrained in our processes. Corporations that are engaged in litigation must file disclosure statements identifying their affiliated entities so that judges can disqualify themselves – or be subject to disqualification – where they perhaps maintain a stock ownership interest associated with a litigant. Attorneys are schooled early on about the pitfalls of bringing a client into a business deal where the attorney has an interest. When our labor laws were promulgated in 1935, there were proscriptions against company dominated unions. Why? Because an employer has an inherent conflict of interest between steering a course toward maximizing shareholder returns and maximizing employee pay and benefits.

Given that the concern about conflicts of interest is so ingrained in our way of thinking, rejection of proposals to allow corporations to investigate themselves as a predicate to government regulatory agency involvement should be logical. Can we count on a corporation to investigate itself, to fully and accurately disclose its conduct so that victims may take recourse, and at the same time take action to prevent recurring wrongdoing – all of which may cause the business to lose money? And if a corporation were able to fulfill these tasks, would the reported result have sufficient integrity to withstand public scrutiny? Do we really trust the reports of corporations that investigate their own improprieties?

Representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – actually not just mere representatives, but lawyers supposedly versed in the doctrine of conflicts of interest – recently testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee that whistleblowers ready to pursue relief under the False Claims Act should be incentivized or required to allow a corporation to investigate its own alleged wrongful conduct before any concern is raised to an independent government authority.

The False Claims Act – dating back to 1864 – allows private citizens to bring suit on behalf of the United States Government where they have knowledge that wrongful or fraudulent conduct has caused the expenditure of government monies. Civil penalties under the statute may also be assessed when a “false claim” for payment “is submitted or caused to be submitted.” All cases filed under the False Claims Act are filed under seal allowing the government to investigate the case before public litigation actually proceeds. Sometimes civil litigation initiated by whistleblowers under the False Claims Act has resulted in parallel criminal proceedings. Examples include cases against Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Abbott Laboratories. Civil and criminal sanctions exceeding $6 billion in total were imposed against these companies for unlawfully marketing drugs that caused the expenditure of Medicare/Medicaid dollars. And in each of these cases the defendants or their subsidiaries pleaded guilty to a criminal infraction because – as the plea agreements made clear – they were guilty.

Each of these companies had internal compliance programs, and yet in each case the wrongful conduct was pervasive, brought billions of dollars of revenue to the Defendant, and persisted for years. These are not isolated examples. Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom all had internal compliance programs that proved incapable of addressing pervasive and, at least initially, profitable wrongdoing.

Where wrongful conduct actually results in increased revenue that rewards corporate officers and employees, is it plausible that a corporation’s internal compliance mechanism can freely and fully investigate and right wrongful behavior? Do corporations, and those individuals that guide them, really have an incentive to fully address wrongful conduct that generates significant revenue? These are important questions particularly at a time when civil and criminal penalties are merely part of the cost of doing business; they are as much “a part of the game” as is a calculated tripping penalty in an ice hockey contest where a goal is imminent. The truth is that even after Pfizer, GSK, and Abbott collectively paid billions of dollars to settle charges of unlawful marketing, these pharmaceutical giants still walked away with billions of dollars in profits from their unlawful conduct. Even the public announcement of settlements and guilty pleas had little or no impact on their market capitalization!

The point is that companies and corporate officials that make money off of wrongful conduct have a conflict of interest when it comes to self-investigation of profitable impropriety. There is a real danger – and not just an economic one – in requiring whistleblowers to utilize internal compliance reporting mechanisms before voicing concerns to independent government regulators. In the False Claims cases against Pfizer, GSK and Abbott, the underlying allegations involved marketing derelictions that potentially placed patients in harm’s way or perhaps even caused personal injury or death. Do we really want to encourage matters of health and safety to be kept from independent government regulators and perhaps injured victims? Do we really a trust a company that placed revenue over patient safety to investigate its own impropriety and come clean?

If internal compliance programs are not effective in addressing pervasive wrong doing, the question remains as to whether they are – at worst – merely benign. Should we be legitimately concerned that the existence of these programs may cause employees not to question corporate behavior? In the cases involving Pfizer, GSK, and Abbott, the alleged wrongful conduct was not any secret to the hundreds of sales representatives who dallied from doctor to doctor hawking drugs. Yet only a few insiders stepped forward to blow the whistle. Did there exist corporate cultures leading employees to believe that giant corporations with internal rules and compliance programs could do no wrong? Why, for example, in the case General Motors’ faulty ignition switches, did the revelation of the wrongdoing not come from a GM employee but from an outside expert working for a plaintiff’s lawyer?

While these are all important questions, their answer is perhaps age-old and embedded in biblical wisdom. Unfortunately creating the illusion that a corporation can investigate its own alleged impropriety may very well lull the diligence of those who would otherwise raise concern.

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Another Reminder of Why Corporations Cannot Police Themselves

This article, written by Reuben Guttman and Traci Buschner who practice law with Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC. Published in the McClatchy-Tribune News Service on August 13, 2014.

What kind of people would knowingly expose someone to the risk of infection just to make a buck?

Read carefully the allegations underlying the recent $97 million settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Community Health Systems and that question may be answered.

Responding to lawsuits brought under the False Claims Act by multiple whistleblowers, the government investigated and came to terms with the Nashville-based hospital giant resolving allegations that patients were admitted from emergency rooms to overnight stays not for medical necessity but for the purpose of racking up Medicare and Medicaid revenue and bilking private payers.

No harm, no foul. Right? Just skimming a few dollars off the government with no potential harm to patients? Right? Wrong on both counts!

While hospitals are places to get well, staying in a hospital is – these days – a place to acquire a hospital infection. According to allegations brought by three of the whistleblowers, including a physician at a CHS-owned Philadelphia hospital, overnight admission to a hospital absent medical necessity is not prudent medical practice. And, the rationale behind that conclusion is not just about saving dollars. It is a question of health and safety.

So, according to the allegations spanning multiple whistleblower law suits – as the publicly traded CHS was gobbling up community hospitals across the country, it was supporting its buying fling by admitting patients who allegedly did not need hospitalization.

And so the story goes; once again whistleblower lawsuits brought under the False Claims Act – a law allowing private citizens with knowledge of wrongdoing to bring suit in behalf of the government – was being used to recover taxpayer dollars and expose conduct placing citizens at risk. Technically these suits are about the submission of false claims for government payment or approval. In reality they are about much more.

In recent years, whistleblower litigation under the False Claims Act has uncovered conduct by giant pharmaceutical manufacturers including Abbott, GlaxoSmithKline, Amgen and Pfizer that has resulted in criminal convictions and billions of dollars in recovery for hard-pressed government payers. In each case the Government paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursement for prescriptions that were the resulted of marketing tactics that violated the law. Patients were given medicine for reasons not solely grounded in medical necessity or rationale.

To be clear where companies including Abbott and Glaxo pleaded guilty to marketing schemes that placed patients at risk, they did so knowingly and in each case told the court they were pleading guilty because they were indeed guilty.

The tragedy is that the CHS settlement – a civil settlement – is yet another reminder that people captured by a corporate culture have willingly placed countless unwitting citizens at health risk all for the purpose of making additional profit. That is indeed the tragedy. The travesty is that even after the health care providers we once trusted have plead guilty to conduct that places people at risk, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – or at least a few lawyers speaking on its behalf – still claim that these purportedly outstanding companies need to be cut some slack. Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice on July 30, lawyers for the Chamber attacked the False Claims Act, arguing that corporations should police themselves with whistleblowers being required to first report their concerns to corporate internal compliance personnel before alerting government officials.

Of course, these mouthpieces for the Chamber neglected to mention that every pharmacy giant that has pleaded guilty over the last five years had internal compliance programs that did not work so well. Actually, come to think of it, CHS also had an internal compliance program.

So what kind of people would knowingly expose someone to the risk of infection just to make a buck? One quick answer is definitely not the kind of people we want policing themselves for good behavior.

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