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United States v. Rottschaefer

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 11, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
BERNARD ROTTSCHAEFER, M.D., Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

         Bernard L. Rottschaefer (“Rottschaefer”) petitions this court for a writ of error coram nobis. (Doc. 140). He asks that we overturn his convictions for unlawful distribution of controlled substances. We will deny Rottschaefer's petition.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History

         In 2003, a grand jury returned an indictment charging Rottschaefer, a medical doctor, with 208 counts of unlawful distribution of controlled substances in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). A petit jury found Rottschaefer guilty on 153 of the counts after a 7-day trial, and he was sentenced to 78 months' imprisonment. United States v. Rottschaefer, 178 Fed.Appx. 145, 146, 151 (3d Cir. 2006) (“Rottschaefer I”) (nonprecedential).

         Rottschaefer timely filed a notice of appeal. While the appeal was pending, Rottschaefer moved for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. See id. at 148. This evidence included over 500 pages of correspondence between Jennifer Riggle (“Riggle”), one of the government's trial witnesses, and her then-boyfriend. Id. At trial, Riggle had testified that she exchanged sexual favors with Rottschaefer for various controlled-substance prescriptions. Id. Riggle's correspondence with her then-boyfriend indicated that she had fabricated this testimony to receive a mitigated sentence for drug charges pending against her. Id. The trial court denied Rottschaefer's motion for a new trial, finding that this additional evidence was merely cumulative and impeaching. Id. at 148-49. The Third Circuit upheld this ruling on appeal, albeit for different reasons. Id. at 149-51.

         Rottschaefer's direct appeal also challenged the validity of his conviction on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. at 146-47. He argued that by convicting him of prescribing drugs for “no legitimate medical reason, ” the jury had wrongly applied a civil, rather than criminal, standard of liability. Id. The Third Circuit rejected this argument, finding that the trial court provided the proper standard to the jury and that defense counsel was not ineffective for failing to object to its use. Id. at 148. Nonetheless, the Third Circuit vacated Rottschaefer's sentence and remanded the case for resentencing in accordance with United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005). On remand, Rottschaefer was resentenced to 60 months' incarceration and three years of supervised release.

         Meanwhile, the five patient-witnesses who testified against Rottschaefer at his criminal trial had filed civil malpractice claims against him. Rottschaefer used the information obtained during civil discovery to prepare a second motion for a new trial. Rottschaefer advanced two claims: (1) that the deposition testimony in four of the civil cases proved that the patients had lied at Rottschaefer's criminal trial, and (2) that the government knowingly allowed two patients to testify falsely that they had not been promised leniency in exchange for testimony. The district court denied Rottschaefer's second motion. United States v. Rottschaefer, No. 3-CR-162, 2006 WL 3840997, at *1 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 29, 2006) (“Rottschaefer II”). On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed. United States v. Rottschaefer, 264 Fed.Appx. 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (“Rottschaefer III”) (nonprecedential).

         Undeterred, Rottschaefer filed a motion to vacate and set aside sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Rottschaefer claimed that his trial attorneys were ineffective because they “failed to: (1) obtain a medical expert to rebut the government's medical expert; (2) object to improper testimony; (3) obtain medical records; and (4) object to the jury instructions.” United States v. Rottschaefer, No. 3-CR-162, 2009 WL 4114616, at *1 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 25, 2009) (“Rottschaefer IV”). The district court denied Rottschaefer's Section 2255 motion, and the Third Circuit denied his request for certificate of appealability on January 22, 2010. More than seven years later, Rottschaefer filed the instant pro se petition for a writ of error coram nobis.[1] The petition is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         The writ of error coram nobis is an ancient and “extraordinary remedy.” United States v. Stoneman, 870 F.2d 102, 106 (3d Cir. 1989). It is used to attack allegedly invalid federal convictions where the defendant suffers continuing consequences but is no longer in custody. See, e.g., United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502, 512-13 (1954); Stoneman, 870 F.2d at 105-06. Errors that could be remedied by a new trial usually do not fall within the ambit of the writ. United States v. Rhines, 640 F.3d 69, 71 (3d Cir. 2011). Rather, the error must “be fundamental and go to the jurisdiction of the trial court, thus rendering the trial itself invalid.” Id. (quoting Stoneman, 870 F.2d at 106). Earlier proceedings are presumed to be correct, and the petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating otherwise. United States v. Cariola, 323 F.2d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 1963).

         The court's jurisdiction to grant coram nobis relief is extremely limited. Id. Indeed, the Supreme Court has remarked that “it is difficult to conceive of a situation in a federal criminal case today where [a writ of coram nobis] would be necessary or appropriate.” Carlisle v. United States, 517 U.S. 416, 429 (1996) (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Smith, 331 U.S. 469, 475 n.4 (1947)). Due to the interest in finality of judgments, the standard for coram nobis relief is even stricter than the standard for habeas relief. Stoneman, 870 F.2d at 106 (citing United States v. Osser, 864 F.2d 1056, 1059 (3d Cir. 1988)). To obtain such a writ, the petitioner must demonstrate five elements: (1) he is no longer in custody; (2) his trial contained errors of fact “of the most fundamental kind”; (3) no remedy was available at the time of his trial; (4) he suffers continuing consequences of his criminal conviction; and (5) sound reasons exist for his failure to seek relief at an earlier time. Id. at 105-06 (quoting Cariola, 323 F.2d at 184).

         III. Discussion

         The parties agree that Rottschaefer is no longer in custody. Thus, Rottschaefer's petition turns on four issues: whether his trial was fundamentally erroneous, whether there was a remedy available at trial, whether Rottschaefer suffers continuing consequences from his conviction, and whether he has provided sound reasons for his failure to seek relief earlier. Assuming, without deciding, that Rottschaefer suffers continuing consequences, we conclude that he is unable to establish the remaining requirements for coram nobis relief.

         A. Rottschaefer's Trial ...


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