Is there a new leniency in federal sentencing for prescription drug crimes?
In an effort to follow Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) prosecutions, convictions, and sentencings around the country, I read Google alerts weekly, sometimes daily. In recent months, I have been struck by relatively lenient sentences handed down by several different District Courts when sentencing physicians pleading to multiple counts of drug diversion (i.e., prescription drug crimes). I have defended physicians and pharmacists facing prescription drug charges long enough to recognize trends. Thus far, I haven’t commented, but today I am prompted to do so because I sense there may be a new trend, or new opportunities, for those that are paying attention. Here is one recent example:
West Virginia physician was sentenced in Federal District Court to a year and a day in jail after pleading guilty to seven felonies for illegal distribution of oxycodone. The sentence included an $18,200 penalty, and required the physician surrender her medical license, but for those who are unaware of typical sentences for federal drug charges, this sentence is lenient! According to news reports, this physician had both prior legal and disciplinary history, was charged with a 100-count indictment alleging that she and two coworkers wrote 157 illegal prescriptions for oxycodone, oxymorphone, methadone, and methylphenidate, and the physician authorized pre-signed, blank prescription forms, for use by her staff. I am aware of much harsher sentences on what would appear to be much “cleaner” records.
A new trend or opportunity?
I haven’t done the research, and do not presently have the case to justify the time and expense, but for those physicians (and their lawyers) currently preparing to plead and be sentenced,a six-month review of recent federal District Court sentences involving drug diversion pleas around the country may be a worthy endeavor. A little research may turn up other similar news reports of relatively lenient sentences, suggesting better results for physicians sentenced for prescription drug crimes than I have seen for a while. There is perhaps something to be learned.
To report or not report: Discipline versus a Letter of Appreciation
Reporting troubling information to your licensing Board and navigating the subsequent investigation is seldom one’s first choice, but it can be done well, and it may spare you from discipline later. You might even discover that your licensing Board is your friend and ally. To illustrate this discussion, I am using two cases involving pharmacists and the Oregon Board of Pharmacy, but the same principle can apply to nurses before the Oregon State Board of Nursing and physicians before the Oregon Medical Board.
Two pharmacy cases that make the point
In one case, the pharmacist in charge (PIC) was managing a pharmacy technician whose qualifications to hold her technician’s license were suspect. The PIC did not report the technician, believing the Board of Pharmacy “would not have done anything” to help, since the Board licensed her in the first place. As he would later learn, however, had he made an appropriate report to the Board, he would have satisfied his professional obligation to report, while simultaneously gaining the Board’s participation in the problem, relieving him of much responsibility. A simple report to the Board would have spared him the grief that followed as he sought to manage a problem he could not manage, and should have instead reported. In the end, his failure to report the technician, and to work collaboratively with his licensing Board, proved a costly lesson: discipline.
By way of comparison, in an another case, the PIC discovered an ongoing drug theft that occurred on his watch, a drug theft that perhaps should have been discovered sooner. Nonetheless, his drug inventory reconciliations uncovered the drug loss and, through his extraordinary efforts, he identified the technician responsible for the drug theft. His reports to the Oregon Board of Pharmacy and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were timely, and his participation with the Board during the investigation was exemplary. In the end, he was not disciplined, but instead received a letter of appreciation from the Oregon Board of Pharmacy.
The moral of the story
The crucial point not to be missed is that these two pharmacists could have reversed their fortunes (good or bad) by simply reversing their decisions to report to the Board (or not to report). I can assure you that the pharmacist that reported to the Board in the second example above (involving the drug theft), and then experienced the benefit of reporting, will do so again, should the need arise. As for the other pharmacist, the one that chose not to report his technician’s lack of qualifications, and faced the consequences, next time, he too will report to the Board.
This is a case I took up on appeal for another lawyer, and won. In this case, the Oregon Medical Board revoked a physician’s medical license by missapplication of complex procedural rules. In a unanimous decision, however, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the Oregon Medical Board in my client’s favor. See Yankee v. Oregon Medical Board, 280 Or App 1 (August 3, 2016) (remanding for further proceedings).
Appeals against the Oregon Medical Board are difficult to win
On appeal to the Oregon Court of Appeals, I argued that the Oregon Medical Board erred when it denied my client’s motion to reschedule his hearing, and revoked his medical license, without first holding a hearing on his motion before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), as required by administrative rule. The Oregon Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed the Oregon Medical Board, remanding the case for further proceedings.
This appeal was won on procedural grounds and, as experienced appellate lawyers know, this type of appeal can be difficult to win. I argued this case to the Oregon Court of Appeals in February of 2015, but the court did not decide the case until August of 2016, 18 months later, suggesting that the Court of Appeals needed significant time to decide this troubling case.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling: The Oregon Medical Board must follow prescribed procedure
The holding in this case is simple: The Oregon Medical Board must follow “prescribed procedure” when seeking to revoke a physician’s license:
“Having concluded that the [Oregon Medical] board procedurally erred when it did not provide [Dr. Yankee] with a hearing before the ALJ, we must remand this matter for further proceedings if “the fairness of the proceedings or the correctness of the action may have been impaired” by that “failure to follow prescribed procedure.” ORS 183.482(7). Here, the fairness of the proceedings may have been impaired. [Dr. Yankee] was entitled to have a hearing before a neutral ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] on the reasons for his not appearing once the [Oregon Medical] board disputed the facts articulated by [Dr. Yankee]. Instead, the [Oregon Medical] board resolved those disputed factual issues in its own favor. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.”
See Yankee v. Oregon Medical Board, 280 Or App 1, 6 (August 3, 2016) (underscore added).