Former in-house counsel for GlaxoSmithKline acquitted

May 13, 2011   

In another stunning and surprising ruling to come out of the prosecution of Lauren Stevens, a former in-house counsel for GlaxoSmithKline, for obstructing an FDA investigation into off-label marketing, the Court granted Ms. Stevens motion for a judgment of acquittal after the end of the presentation of the governments case at trial. Essentially, the Court found the evidence legally insufficient to have a jury consider it. The transcript of that decision can be found here. We previously blogged about the Stevens prosecution here and here.

What is notable about the Courts decision to acquit Ms. Stevens is not only the rarity of such acquittals before a jury gets to deliberate, but what the Court stated about the importance of the attorney-client privilege. Ms. Stevens was prosecuted for conduct during the course of her work responding to an FDA investigation as an in-house lawyer for a major pharmaceutical company. The Court found that many of the documents used as evidence by the government should never have been provided to it under the attorney-client privilege. Those documents were provided by GlaxoSmithKline under an exception to the attorney-client privilege involving cases where a lawyer is retained specifically to assist a client to commit a crime or a fraud. The Court found that Ms. Stevens was never retained or appointed for that purpose, but to provide representation to the corporation and to gather information. Therefore, the exception to the attorney-client privilege was inapplicable, and the government should never have had access to otherwise privileged documentation.

The Court also expressed a concern regarding possible abuses in permitting the prosecution of a lawyer for providing legal guidance. The Court stated that it had sentenced a number of lawyers who actually committed crimes or assisted others in committing crimes. This was not one of those cases. The Court stated that lawyers, “should never fear prosecution because of the advice that he or she has given to a client”, and that “a client should never fear that its confidences will be divulged unless its purpose in consulting the lawyer was for the purpose of committing a crime or a fraud”. This decision is important to businesses and individuals alike, in that it reaffirms that the government cannot invade the space between a lawyer and his or her client except under very narrow circumstances, none of which were applicable in the case of Ms. Stevens.

The Court also clearly rejected the governments theory of prosecution”that Ms. Stevens acted to obstruct justice. Instead, the Court reviewed Ms. Stevens conduct in zealously representing her client and placed it in the most favorable light in the investigation. Also, the Court found that the allegedly false statements to the FDA attributed to Ms. Stevens were taken out of context and were made under the advice of numerous lawyers for the company. The Court stated that “only with a jaundiced eye and with an inference of guilt thats inconsistent with the presumption of innocence could a reasonable jury ever convict this defendant”.

The government, including the FDA, has made it a priority to prosecute not just corporations, but also individuals in regard to the commission of strict liability criminal violations of regulatory laws. These so-called “Park” prosecutions have been discussed in our blogs here and here. The Stevens prosecution was not a “Park” prosecution because it alleged intentional, willful conduct, but it highlights the governments goal of prosecuting and convicting more individuals, not just companies, of criminal violations of regulatory laws. Our White Collar Criminal Practice group continues to monitor these cases in our effort to keep our clients informed and out of harms way.