Federal court confirms broad reading of “willfully” in health care false statements cases: Ignorance of the law is no defense

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

In Brief

  • The First Circuit recently confirmed that in prosecutions for false statements in health care matters, a defendant does not have to know that making the statement is illegal to be found to have acted “willfully” under the statute.
  • This ruling is consistent with other courts’ recent broad interpretations of “willfully” under the statute.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has joined in an emerging trend of federal courts broadly interpreting what constitutes willful conduct in health care matters with its decision in United States v. Russell.

In upholding the conviction of a laid-off stockbroker who had failed to report his income from working under the table in an application for government-subsidized health care, the First Circuit made clear that ignorance of the law was no excuse. After submitting renewal forms for three years to continue his coverage, the stockbroker, Rodney Russell, was charged and convicted under 18 U.S.C. 1035, “Making False Statements in Relation to Health Care Matters.”

On appeal, Russell relied on the theory that the prosecution did not prove his knowledge of the illegality of his actions (i.e., that lying on the application for health care coverage would run afoul of the law). Russell challenged the trial court’s jury instructions, claiming that in order to show that he acted “willfully” under the statue, the prosecution would have to “not only prove that Russell’s statements were false and that he knew they were false, but that he also knew that making those false statements was illegal.” In making this argument, Russell relied on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bryan v. United States, which defined “willful” in a different criminal context as “acting with a bad purpose.”

The First Circuit rejected this argument in its August decision, ruling that the same Supreme Court opinion noted that the term “willfully” is “a word with many meanings.” As such, the only “willful” act that Russell had to commit for conviction under §1035 was making a false statement while knowing it was false.

In the context of false statements in relation to health care matters, this broad definition of “willful” is consistent with other recent appellate decisions in federal courts. In June, the Ninth Circuit held in United States v. Ajoku that the “willfulness” requirement of §1035 simply means “deliberately and with knowledge; proving the defendant knew making the false statement was illegal is not required.”

Similarly, in July, the White Collar Watch reported on the Seventh Circuit decision in United States v. Natale, in which the court upheld another conviction under §1035. The defendant had argued on appeal that the term “willful” should equate to “specific intent” – in other words, that the defendant had the specific intent to deceive a health care benefit program. The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument, noting that it had “refused to find an ‘intent to deceive’ requirement in ‘willfulness’ language from other, similarly worded statutes.”

Rodney Russell was sentenced to five months in prison and three years of supervised release. Although the Russell defendant was a consumer of health care, not a provider, three takeaways are clear from his conviction. First, accurate reporting is crucial when participating in health care benefit programs. Second, providers should pay attention to the continuing trend of federal prosecutions for making false statements in relation to health care matters. Third, Courts of Appeals are narrowing the scope of potential defenses to a charge under §1035. Saul Ewing’s White Collar practice will continue to monitor this area closely and will provide updates.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.