Update: In Opioid Liability Ruling for Doctors, SCOTUS Deals Blow to DOJ

June 28, 2022Articles

On June 27, 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled that doctors who act in subjective good faith in prescribing controlled substances to their patients cannot be convicted under the Controlled Substance Act (“CSA”).  The Court’s decision will have broad implications for physicians and patients alike.  Practitioners who sincerely and honestly believe – even if mistakenly – that their prescriptions are within the usual course of professional practice will be shielded from criminal liability. 

The ruling stemmed from the convictions of Dr. Xiulu Ruan and Dr. Shakeel Kahn for unlawfully prescribing opioid painkillers.  At their trials, the district courts rejected any consideration of good faith and instructed the members of the jury that the doctors could be convicted if they prescribed opioids outside the recognized standards of medical practice. The Tenth and Eleventh Circuits affirmed the instructions.  Drs. Ruan and Kahn were sentenced to 21 and 25 years in prison, respectively.

The Court vacated the decisions of the courts of appeals and sent the cases back for further review.

The question before the court concerned the state of mind that the Government must prove to convict a doctor of violating the CSA.  Justice Breyer framed the issue: “To prove that a doctor’s dispensation of drugs via prescription falls within the statute’s prohibition and outside the authorization exception, is it sufficient for the Government to prove that a prescription was in fact not authorized, or must the Government prove that the doctor knew or intended that the prescription was unauthorized?”

The doctors urged the Court to adopt a subjective good-faith standard that would protect practitioners from criminal prosecution if they sincerely and honestly believed their prescriptions were within the usual course of professional practice.  The Government argued for an objective, good-faith standard based on the hypothetical “reasonable” doctor.  The Court took it one step further.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.  He said that for purposes of a criminal conviction under the CSA, “the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner.”  To hold otherwise “would turn a defendant’s criminal liability on the mental state of a hypothetical ‘reasonable’ doctor” and “reduce culpability on the all-important element of the crime to negligence,” he explained.  The Court has “long been reluctant to infer that a negligence standard was intended in criminal statutes,” wrote Justice Breyer.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion, which Justice Clarence Thomas joined and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined in part.  Although Justice Alito would vacate the judgments below and remand for further proceedings, he would hold that the “except as authorized” clause of the CSA creates an affirmative defense that defendant doctors must prove by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Court’s decision will protect patient access to prescriptions written in good faith.  However, for the government, the Court’s decision means prosecutors face an uphill battle in charging, much less convicting, physicians under the CSA.  Indeed, the Court’s decision may have a chilling effect on the recent surge in DOJ prosecutions of medical practitioners and pain clinics. 

As always, Dinsmore attorneys are following this development and remain available for counsel in matters pertaining to SCOTUS’ decision.