Health Law Daily No abuse of discretion where district court denied severance and mistrial motion
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Friday, October 2, 2020

No abuse of discretion where district court denied severance and mistrial motion

By Susan L. Smith, JD, MA

The eleventh circuit court affirmed the decision of the district court denying the motion for severance and mistrial based on abuse of discretion of a health care provider’s office manager who was convicted of health care fraud.

The District Court of Northern Florida did not abuse its discretion when it denied a motion for severance and mistrial entered by the former office manager of a health care provider who was convicted of health care fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud, and money laundering. The office manager and her former husband, who were tried together, operated a family practice in Florida. The office manager argued that the district court abused its discretion denying her motions for severance and mistrial because her and the physician’s defenses were antagonistic to the point of being mutually exclusive. The appellate court concluded that her mutually antagonistic and exclusive defenses were not necessarily prejudicial and were not enough to require severance (US v. Harris, September 29, 2020, per curiam).

The elements of the health care fraud. The office manager and her former husband, a physician, were charged with falsifying medical records to indicate that patients qualified for medically necessary treatments and submitted bills for services to insurance carriers that were either medically unnecessary or never provided. As a result, the insurance carriers paid the family practice over $4.4 million. The office manager transferred those payments to her and the physician’s personal bank accounts. The two were charged with health care fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud, and the office manager was charged with money laundering.

Procedural history. Prior to the trial the office manager requested the district court to sever her case from the physician’s case arguing that each of them would adopt antagonistic defenses. The district court denied her motion finding that the office manager "had not demonstrated the compelling prejudice required for severance" and "did not indicate how it would undermine the reliability of the jury’s determination." Both individuals renewed the motion for severance after opening statements. Construing the motion as a motion for mistrial, the district court denied the motion concluding that neither party showed the prejudice necessary to grant a mistrial. During the trial the office manager moved for a mistrial on severance-related grounds a third and fourth time. The court denied the motions stating that the office manager did not show sufficient grounds for a mistrial. The court instructed the jury to consider the case of each defendant separately and individually. The jury found the office manager and physician guilty. After the trial the office manager filed a motion seeking acquittal or a new trial. The court denied the motion. The office manager appealed.

The appellate court’s reasoning. The appellate court concluded that the office manager’s mutually antagonistic and exclusive defenses were not necessarily prejudicial and were not enough to require severance. The court explained that to determine whether a defendant is entitled to a new trial due to a district court’s refusal to sever prior to trial or grant a mistrial once a trial has commenced the defendant must show that: (1) the joint trial prejudiced her, and (2) severance was the proper remedy for that prejudice. The court added that severance is only permissible when: (1) there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or (2) prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence. The court noted that even if prejudice is demonstrated measures like limiting jury instructions will cure the risk of prejudice. In this case, the office manager had not contended that she was denied a constitutional right or argue that anything prevented the jury from making a reliable judgement. Further, the district court cured any prejudice with its jury instruction.

The case is No.: 20-10430.

Attorneys: Jordane E. Learn, U.S. Attorney's Office, for the United States. James E. Felman (Kynes Markman & Felman, PA) for Mika Kamissa Harris.

Companies: Reliant Family Practice

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