In a prior post, I discussed the Seventh Circuit’s decision in United States v. Nayak, one of the first major “honest services” mail and wire fraud cases to arise since the Supreme Court decidedSkilling v. United States in 2010. In Skilling, the Court found clear Congressional intent to limit honest services prosecutions to “offenders who, in violation of a fiduciary duty, participated in bribery or kickback schemes.” (Skilling at 407, emphasis added) As I warned in a 2012 article, the Court’s focus on bribery and kickback activity within the context of a fiduciary duty might have wide-ranging consequences in the health care field given the nature of the physician-patient relationship.
The structure of honest services cases differs from that of more traditional forms of mail and wire fraud, which usually involve perpetrators who defraud victims of money or property. In contrast, these “intangible rights” cases eliminate the requirement that the victim suffer a financial loss to the perpetrator. Nonetheless, such fraud is actionable only when the perpetrator in fact owes a heightened duty to provide “honest services” to the victim. While Skilling grounded that duty in a fiduciary relationship, the majority offered little guidance as to which aspects of the relationship were most important. As Justice Scalia noted in his concurrence: “None of the ‘honest services’ cases . . . defined the nature and content of the fiduciary duty central to the ‘fraud’ offense. There was not even universal agreement concerning the source of the fiduciary obligation – whether it must be positive state or federal law . . . or merely general principles, such as the ‘obligations of loyalty and fidelity’ that inhere in the ‘employment relationship.’” (Skillingat 416-17)
The indeterminacy of the fiduciary requirement has particular relevance in the medical context. While the physician-patient relationship is commonly described as a fiduciary one, the characterization is far more complex than may first appear. The disparities in medical knowledge, as well as the inability of patients to access many services (such as prescription drugs) without physician involvement, give physicians a great deal of power over their patients – a characteristic fiduciary responsibility. Yet the relationship lacks other fiduciary hallmarks; the physician, for example, lacks the fiduciary’s traditional control over the beneficiary-patient’s money. Skilling offered little guidance as to which of these characteristics is most relevant to the honest services duty. Continue reading