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Battle v. Thornton

August 11, 1994

MCKINLEY BATTLE & BATTLE'S TRANSPORTATION, INC., APPELLANTS
v.
WILLIAM M. THORNTON AND VERNON WILLIAMS, APPELLEES



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge)

Before Ferren, Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

FERREN, Associate Judge: McKinley Battle and his non-emergency ambulance company, Battle's Transportation, Inc. (plaintiff-appellants), sued, respectively, their former attorneys, William Thornton and Vernon Williams, (defendant-appellees), alleging malpractice in defending appellants against criminal charges of Medicaid fraud. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Thornton and Williams. Battle and his company filed a timely appeal, advancing two principal contentions: (1) the trial court erred in ruling that the relevant standard of care for representing a criminal defendant charged with Medicaid fraud is the standard attributable to a general practitioner in civil and criminal practice, not to a Medicaid fraud specialist; (2) the court also erred in allowing the defendant lawyer-appellees to present evidence at trial showing the strength of the government's Medicaid fraud case against Battle. We affirm.

I.

In early 1987, as part of a Medicaid fraud investigation, the District of Columbia government served a subpoena on Battle's Transportation, Inc., requiring the company to surrender its records for inspection. Without consulting an attorney, McKinley Battle, the company's president, turned over the requested records. Approximately six months later, the government informed Battle that he was going to be arrested for Medicaid fraud. On the day of his arrest, Battle contacted attorney William Thornton, who told Battle to "turn himself in." Battle spoke with Thornton again the day after Battle's arraignment and, on November 9, 1987, returned to court with Thornton to plead not guilty.

Upon Thornton's recommendation, Battle retained attorney Vernon Williams to provide separate representation for Battle's Transportation, Inc. Battle then paid $1,250 to each attorney for the respective representations. During one of Battle's several meetings with Thornton and Williams, Thornton presented Battle with a list of the government's charges against him. Battle testified at trial that Thornton had explained that the government was charging Battle with seventy-three counts of Medicaid fraud. According to Battle, however, Thornton never explained what Medicaid fraud was, what the government was required to prove against him, or who the government's witnesses might be.

Approximately one week after the meeting when Battle learned of the charges, Thornton informed Battle that the government had offered a plea bargain in which it would agree, in exchange for Battle's guilty plea, to reduce the number of counts from seventy-three to twenty, to recommend no incarceration, and to recommend a modest fine against Battle's Transportation, Inc. plus repayment of $1,885 to the Medicaid program. Battle testified that Thornton explained to him that accepting the government's plea bargain would also result in a six-month suspension from the District's Medicaid program. Battle further testified that he had told Thornton repeatedly that he was not guilty of fraud, but that Thornton nevertheless had encouraged him to accept the government's plea offer to avoid opening up "a keg of nails." Battle added that Thornton had told him he could be sentenced to one year in jail for each of the seventy-three counts against him if he elected to go to trial and lost.

Battle then testified that he had argued with Thornton and Williams for a couple of weeks about the desirability of accepting the plea offer, but that finally he had agreed to do so a few days before his scheduled status conference. On January 14, 1988, Battle appeared before Judge Nunzio, pled guilty to Medicaid fraud, and subsequently paid a $1,000 fine and $1,885 in restitution.

A month after pleading guilty, Battle received a letter from the District government suspending him for six months from the District's Medicaid program. The suspension did not come as a surprise because Thornton and Williams had informed Battle of this expected consequence of the plea. Battle then testified that approximately one year later, he received a letter from the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requesting the reasons for his guilty plea. Battle prepared a response to the letter and showed it to Williams before mailing it. Six months later, after Battle's period of suspension from the District's Medicaid program had ended, Battle received a response from the HHS Inspector General's office, dated August 2, 1989, suspending Battle's Transportation, Inc. from the federal Medicaid program for five years. Battle then testified that, upon receiving the letter, he contacted Thornton "to see what could do about it." Thornton read the letter from the Inspector General and told Battle that he would do some research. Battle testified that when he received no response from Thornton, he contacted Williams, who told Battle that Thornton "was washing his hands of it and that he could do what he wanted to do." Battle then went to the District's Medicaid office, which advised him to seek new counsel. As a result, Battle retained attorney Michael Flanagan.

Flanagan testified that after analyzing the company's records, he became convinced that Battle had not intended to submit false claims but instead "may have made mistakes in his billing" or "might have been somewhat negligent [in his billing]." Flanagan then testified that he had moved the court to withdraw Battle's guilty plea on the ground that the Judge who had accepted the plea had failed sufficiently to explore whether Battle had formed the requisite intent for Medicaid fraud. The court granted the motion to withdraw Battle's plea on the condition that Battle turn over all the company's files to the Medicaid fraud control unit so that the government, in its discretion, could reinstate the charges against him.

Flanagan also testified that soon after Battle had withdrawn his guilty plea, the government had reinstated the charges against Battle and his company, charging sixty counts of Medicaid fraud, including some Medicaid claims that had not been mentioned in the original indictment. Flanagan filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds of vindictive prosecution and of expiration of the statute of limitations. The trial court did not decide the motion because, upon the recommendation of Judge McIntyre, the parties reached an administrative settlement allowing Battle to resume his business as Medicaid transportation provider in the District of Columbia after paying the District $4,000. In addition, HHS had dismissed its charges against Battle and permitted him to resume his federal Medicaid business. Flanagan's law firm billed Battle and his company a total of $89,000 for services rendered.

Battle then filed the present malpractice action against Thornton and Williams, claiming negligent failure to advise him that a guilty plea would result in a five-year suspension from the federal Medicaid program. A six-member jury returned a verdict for the attorney-defendants.

II.

Appellants contend the trial court erred in concluding that the relevant standard of care for judging the attorneys' representation was the standard required of "general practitioners in civil and criminal practice," not a higher standard applicable to Medicaid fraud specialists. Appellants accordingly contend that the trial court erred in permitting appellees' expert witness, Peter Myers, Esq., to testify as to the general practitioner's standard of care, and in ...


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