Doc Gets New Trial For ‘Pants on Fire’ Counsel – Update for August 5, 2016

We’re still doing a weekly newsletter … we’re just starting to post pieces of it every day.  The news is fresher this way …


feelgood160805The government accused Dr. Steve Arny of really being “Doctor Feelgood,” distributing pain meds to his patients willy-nilly, without any legitimate medical basis for doing so. Dr. Arny – a retired military M.D. who had hired on at a pain clinic because he wanted something to do – said while he was not a certified pain management doc, he had followed the practices of the prior pain management physician and made reasonable medical judgments.

A jury disagreed, convicting him of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances “outside the course of ordinary medical practice.” Thinking his defense had been sub-par, Dr. Arny hired new lawyers, who asked for a new trial based on his former lawyer’s ineffectiveness. The district court agreed. The government appealed.

Earlier this week, the 6th Circuit upheld Dr. Arny’s right to a new trial. The Circuit held that ineffective assistance of counsel, an issue usually raised in a post-conviction motion, can provide a basis for a F.R.Crim.P. 33 new trial motion, and it certainly did in Dr Arny’s case.

Before trial, the doc urged his lawyer to call as a witness the Dr. Saxman, the former pain physician, who had not been charged and in fact was still handing out pills at another clinic. His lawyer refused to subpoena her or even talk to her, telling Dr. Arny that Saxman was about to be indicted herself, and her new clinic had been raided.

pantsonfire160805It turned out his lawyer was making it up: Dr. Saxman was not being investigated, had not been raided, was not about to be indicted, and – had the lawyer cared to interview her – would have said she prescribed pills within the normal course of medical practice and Dr. Arny’s following her lead was fully justified. Her testimony would have given Dr. Arny’s case a real boost.

The government called a few of Dr. Arny’s former patients who were addicts, in order to show that he was dispensing painkillers to drug abusers. The doc begged his lawyer to interview other former patients whose stories would have painted a different picture of a caring, careful physician. His lawyer, however, didn’t bother to talk to any of his former patients. Yet after trial, it only took Dr. Arny’s new lawyers four days to come up with six affidavits from former patients whose testimony, the Court found, would have helped his defense.

Dr. Arny’s original lawyer argued that his failure to call Dr. Saxman was sound strategy, because her patient exam practices were better than Dr. Arny’s. The 6th Circuit rejected this. While a lawyer’s reasonable trial strategy will usually not be second-guessed, the Court said, because Arny’s lawyer did not bother to interview Saxman, “Arny was left without her potentially powerful testimony.” It’s true, the Court said, that “strategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable,” but Arny’s trial counsel failed to make a reasonable, thorough investigation of Saxman’s potential testimony. “Therefore, trial counsel’s decision could not constitute a reasonable ‘strategic choice’.”

lie160606Likewise, the Court said, the failure of Arny’s lawyer to interview former patients was not strategic – “rather, it stems from neglect.” An attorney does not have to interview all potential witnesses, but he or she is required to investigate fruitful leads that a reasonable attorney would pursue. “Strategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable,” the Court said, but such choices made after incomplete investigation are reasonable only to the extent that the lawyer’s reasonable judgment supports the limited investigation. The choice by his lawyer not “to investigate and interview some of Arny’s former patients was an unreasonable decision, which led to the uninformed decision not to call any of Arny’s other patients to testify.”

The attorney’s lie to Dr. Arny that Saxman was about to be indicted wasn’t even close. The Court held it is ineffective assistance for a lawyer to lie to a client.

Concluding that testimony from Saxman and Arny’s former patients who had not been interviewed would have had a genuine impact on the jury, the 6th Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of a new trial to Dr. Arny.

United States v. Arny, Case No. 15-6130 (6th Cir. August 1, 2016)


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