Brief Amici Curiae of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Reason Foundation, and Five Criminal and Health Law Scholars in Support of Defendants-Appellants Urging Reversal
United States v. Clay
At its core, this case is based on a disagreement about the interpretation of a state Medicaid statute. WellCare, the company where the Defendants-Appellants were executives, took an informed, reasonable position on what that statute meant. But the federal government, after the fact, thought it found a better interpretation of the statute and brought this case based on its view that its interpretation rendered the Plans’ contract compliance, and certain statements made by WellCare, criminally false.
This Court held in United States v. Whiteside, 285 F.3d 1345, 1351 (11th Cir. 2002), that a false statement charge cannot succeed when the statement is true under an objectively reasonable interpretation of the law. Under Whiteside, a statement is knowingly false only when its falsity is clear. In an age where many statutes are deliberately vague pending implementation by an administrative agency, that rule makes eminent sense and should be strictly enforced. The holding in Whiteside is an important doctrine to deter illegitimate prosecutions based on legal interpretations that, though disfavored by a prosecutor, are nonetheless reasonable. Without it, much ordinary business conduct is at risk of potential criminalization, with little notice of what conduct is criminal. That risk is amply demonstrated by this case, where WellCare executives were essentially convicted for unintentionally breaching a contract-even though intentionally breaching a contract is not a crime. See U.S. v. Blankenship, 382 F.3d 1110, 1133-34 (11th Cir. 2004). The convictions of the Defendants-Appellants cannot be squared with Whiteside.
The troubling result in this case extends far beyond these executives, however. The district court dramatically weakened Whiteside by submitting the complicated question of how to interpret an ambiguous technical statute to the jury-in effect, treating the legal determination at the core of the Whiteside analysis as a purely factual question. The district court punted on the legal question-whether WellCare’s interpretation of this statute was reasonable–and called upon a lay jury to resolve that complicated question of law. This is clearly not an appropriate function for a jury. Moreover, deferring such legal questions to a jury creates an untenable amount of uncertainty about the appropriate scope and operation of the criminal law. The amici are gravely concerned about these effects of the district court’s application of Whiteside.