Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Ifediba: Affirming Healthcare Fraud Convictions and Sentences

In United States v. Ifediba, No. 20-13218 (Aug. 25, 2022) (Jill Pryor, Branch, Ed Carnes), the Court affirmed the defendants' convictions and sentences.   

Mr. Ifediba, a doctor, operated a clinic called CCMC, and employed his sister, Ms. Ozuligbo, as a nurse there.  Mr. Ifediba was alleged to have been running a "pill mill" to distribute controlled substances to patients who had no medical need for them, as well as running an allergy-fraud scheme.  Mr. Ifediba and Ms. Ozuligbo were indicted on substantive counts of health care fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud, money laundering of the clinic's unlawful proceeds, and conspiracy to money launder.  Mr. Ifediba was also indicted for unlawfully distributing controlled substances for no legitimate medical purpose and for operating CCMC as a "pill mill."  

On appeal, Mr. Ifediba first challenged the district court's exclusion of his evidence of good care he provided his patients to prove that his medical practice was legitimate.  The Court agreed with the district court that such evidence was improper character evidence because evidence of good conduct is not admissible to negate criminal intent.  The Court also held that the exclusion of such evidence did not violate Mr. Ifediba's constitutional right to present a defense.      

Next, he challenged the district court's decision not to question all jurors individually after dismissing an alternate juror upon learning that the alternate had independently researched the case outside of court.  The Court found that the district court acted within its discretion in addressing the juror misconduct and then instructing the jury collectively.  

Third, he challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his substantive health care fraud convictions that were based upon evidence from medical records rather than patient testimony.  The Court held that patient records were sufficient to support Mr. Ifediba's convictions for substantive health care fraud.  Documentary evidence alone can be sufficient to establish the elements of an offense.   

Finally, he challenged his sentence by disputing the district court's drug-quantity calculation on which the sentence was based.  The PSI calculated the quantity of illegal substances attributable to Mr. Ifediba to be between 30,000 and 90,000 kilograms.  The estimate came from an analysis of Alabama's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program ("PDMP") data spanning the charged conspiracy period.  Mr. Ifediba objected, arguing that the court should derive the drug quantity using only the prescriptions admitted into evidence at trial that the jury found to be unlawful--which would have totaled between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms.  The Court disagreed with Mr. Ifediba and found his sentence to be procedurally reasonable.       

Ms. Ozuligbo separately appealed the court's exclusion of her cultural-defense evidence proffered to demonstrate that Nigerian cultural norms required her to obey her older brother.  The Court agreed with the district court that such evidence was irrelevant.    

Monday, August 22, 2022

Utsick: Affirming Sentence and Order of Restitution

In United States v. Utsick, No. 16-16505 (Aug. 22, 2022) (Newsom, Marcus, Covington (M.D. Fla.)), the Court affirmed Mr. Utsick's sentence and order of restitution.   

Mr. Utsick was charged with nine counts of mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341 based upon an earlier civil action brought by the SEC regarding securities fraud.  Before authorities could arrest him, however, he fled to Brazil.  The United States filed an extradition request, which Brazil granted.  Mr. Utsick then returned to the United States on the eve of his trial.  He entered into a plea agreement--agreeing to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud--and the court sentenced him to 220 months' imprisonment and ordered him to pay $169,177,338 in restitution.  On appeal, he challenged his sentence and order of restitution as violative of the extradition treaty between the United States and Brazil as well as the voluntariness of his guilty plea.  

First, Mr. Utsick argued that his sentence and restitution order violated the terms of his extradition order, the extradition treaty between the United States and Brazil, and the international law doctrine known as the "rule of specialty."  He claimed that all three barred the district court from relying on any conduct prior to November 30, 2005 to determine his sentence.  The Court was unpersuaded.  It noted that when sentencing after extradition, the rule of specialty does not restrict the scope of proof of other crimes that may be considered in the sentencing process and does not control the evidentiary procedural rules of American Courts.  While the rule of specialty bars proof of other crimes in order to exact punishment for those other crimes, it does not bar proof of other crimes as a matter germane to the determination of punishment for the extradited crime.  The Court also found no plain error in the restitution order.  

Second, the Court was also unpersuaded by Mr. Utsick's argument that he entered his guilty plea without a clear understanding of the parameters of his conviction and without the requisite mental competence to knowingly enter into the plea.   

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Alvarado-Linares: VICAR Murder and Attempted Murder Crimes of Violence Under § 924(c) Elements Clause

In Alvarado-Linares v. United States, No. 19-14994 (Aug. 16, 2022) (Newsom, Branch, Brasher), the Court affirmed the district court's denial of Mr. Alvarado-Linares's Davis-based § 2255 motion.    

Mr. Alvarado-Linares was convicted of one count of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d); four counts under the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Act ("VICAR"), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)--two for murder and two for attempted murder, in violation of Official Code of Georgia §§ 16-5-1(a) and 16-4-1; and four counts of using a firearm in committing those offenses, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).  He was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences plus eighty-five years.  Mr. Alvarado-Linares filed a motion to vacate his four firearms convictions--which resulted in 85-years of consecutive imprisonment--as unconstitutional in light of Davis

The Court granted a certificate of appealability on one issue: whether Mr. Alvarado-Linares's four firearms convictions are unconstitutional in light of Davis.  To resolve the issue, the Court noted that Mr. Alvarado-Linares must "bear the burden of showing that he is actually entitled to relief on his Davis claim, meaning he will have to show that his § 924(c) convictions[s] resulted from application of solely the [now-unconstitutional] residual clause," citing to In re Hammoud and Beeman.      

The Court, applying the modified categorical approach, and looking through the VICAR statute to the elements of the underlying state predicate--Georgia malice murder--held that Georgia malice murder is a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)'s elements clause.  The Court also noted that a VICAR murder conviction predicated on federal murder would also meet the definition of crime of violence.  The Court then held that VICAR attempted murder--both under Georgia and federal law--is also a crime of violence under the elements clause because a conviction for attempted murder requires the government to prove--as an element of the offense--the use or attempted use of physical force.  Finally, the Court reasserted that aiding and abetting offenses can qualify as crimes of violence under § 924(c).  So, even though Mr. Alvarado-Linares's VICAR murder and attempted murder convictions were premised on an aiding and abetting theory, they nevertheless count as crimes of violence under § 924(c).      

Therefore, because Mr. Alvarado-Linares's VICAR convictions predicated on murder and attempted murder qualify as crimes of violence under § 924(c)'s elements clause, his four § 924(c) convictions remain valid after Davis.  

Judge Newsom filed a concurring opinion, writing separately "to ask whether the 'categorical approach' to identifying 'crime[s] of violence' has, to use a technical term of art, jumped the shark."  In Judge Newsom's view, the VICAR statute itself--where VICAR stands for Violent Crime in Aid of Racketeering--indicates that VICAR offenses are crimes of violence.         

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Pate: § 1521 Applies to Both Current and Former Federal Officers and Employees

In United States v. Pate, No. 20-10545 (Aug. 10, 2022) (Newsom, Branch, Lagoa), the Court affirmed Mr. Pate's convictions predicated on violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1521, which prohibits the filing of a false lien or encumbrance against the property of any officer or employee of the United States on account of the performance of official duties.  

Mr. Pate was accused of filing various false liens against the former Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and the former Secretary of the Treasury for acts they performed as part of their official duties.  He filed these false liens after they had left their positions with the federal government.  On appeal, the Court considered whether § 1521 applies to false liens filed against former federal officers and employees for official actions they performed while in service with the federal government. 

The Court held that the plain language of § 1521 covers both current and former federal officers and employees.  For purposes of § 1521, Congress premised liability on action taken against "an individual described in section 1114," which itself addresses "any officer or employee of the United States or of any agency in any branch of the United States Government." As such, and giving effect to all of § 1521's provisions, the Court reasoned that reading § 1521 to limit its scope only to current officers and employees would fail to give effect to the phrase, "on account of the performance of official duties."  Section 1521 makes it illegal to file a false lien against the property of a federal officer or employee because of something he did as part of his official duties.  Thus, because § 1521’s prohibition depends upon what an individual did while acting as a federal officer or employee, and not simply his employment status at the time of the action at issue, the natural reading of the statute’s language leads to the conclusion that the terms “officer” and “employee” encompass both current and former officers and employees. 

Judge Newsom dissented.  He noted that this case raised a straightforward question of statutory interpretation: Is a former government official an "officer or employee of the United States" within the meaning of § 1114 and, thereby, of § 1521? Affording the quoted language its ordinary meaning, he would answer the question in the negative.  Therefore, because Mr. Pate's filed the liens against individuals when they were no longer officers or employees of the United States, Judge Newsom would have held that Mr. Pate's conduct fell outside the scope of § 1521's prohibition.           

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Witt: Affirming Convictions and Sentence for Livestock Forage Disaster Program Fraud

In United States v. Witt, No. 21-10557 (Aug. 9, 2022) (Newsom, Marcus, Middlebrooks (S.D. Fla.)), the Court affirmed Ms. Witt's convictions and sentence. 

Ms. Witt was convicted for her part in a scheme to defraud the federal government out of relief funds intended for farmers affected by drought and fire (the Livestock Forage Disaster Program).  She was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; two counts of theft of government funds; and one count of aggravated identity theft. 

On appeal, Ms. Witt first challenged the district court's denial of her motion for a new trial, arguing that the weight of the evidence preponderated in favor of a not guilty verdict.  The Court first noted that the government misunderstood Ms. Witt's argument on appeal, and clarified that a challenge to the denial of a motion for a new trial involves a different inquiry from that of a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence.  The Court then rejected Ms. Witt's challenge.     

Next, Ms. Witt challenged the substantive reasonableness of her sentence, arguing that the district court should have sentenced her to house arrest rather than a traditional prison sentence.  The Court disagreed, finding her sentence of 28 months' imprisonment reasonable.  The Court noted that under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a), district courts only "impose a term of imprisonment," but that the implementation of that sentence is left to the discretion of the BOP--that is, district courts do not have the authority to dictate whether a sentence is to be served in prison or in home confinement.  Additionally, though U.S.S.G. § 5C1.1(d)(2) provides that if the applicable guideline range is in Zone C of the Sentencing Table, the minimum term may be satisfied by a sentence of imprisonment that includes a term of supervised release with a condition that substitutes home detention, provided that at least one-half of the minimum term is satisfied by imprisonment, Ms. Witt's guideline range of 28 to 32 months placed her in Zone D, not Zone C.