TwitterLinkedInShare

Judge Acquits In-House Counsel of Obstruction Charges, Cites Need to Protect Attorney-Client Relationship

05.11.11

This morning at 9:40 am EST, in a stunning development, the federal judge presiding over the trial of former GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Associate General Counsel Lauren Stevens granted the defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal on all counts charged. Ms. Stevens had been charged with making false statements to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and obstruction of justice based on her handling of an FDA inquiry in 2002 regarding the manner in which GSK promoted one of its drugs. Between October 2002 and November 2003, Ms. Stevens sent several letters to the FDA which the government contended contained false and misleading information about GSK's promotional activities.

The case was controversial because throughout the course of 2002 and 2003, Ms. Stevens relied upon advice given by an outside law firm specifically retained by GSK to assist with the response to the FDA. The outside law firm in fact drafted many of the letters that the government later alleged were false and misleading. In late 2009, the government obtained access to all of the privileged communications between GSK and its outside counsel after a magistrate judge in Boston granted a motion by the government to compel the disclosure of these documents under the so-called "crime fraud" exception to the attorney-client privilege. Those documents formed the core of the government's case against Ms. Stevens.

In dismissing the case against Ms. Stevens today, Judge Roger Titus was critical of the magistrate judge's decision to grant the government's crime-fraud motion, noting that "access [to the privileged documents] should not have been granted in the first place." Judge Titus went on to hold that the evidence in the case showed that Ms. Stevens unequivocally "sought and obtained the advice and counsel of numerous lawyers" and that in so doing, she was entitled to rely on that counsel in good faith.

Judge Titus went even further, and openly criticized the prosecutors for bringing the case against Ms. Stevens in the first instance. Judge Titus noted that there were "serious implications for the practice of law generated by this prosecution" and fretted about the "enormous potential for abuse in allowing [the] prosecution of an attorney for the giving of legal advice." While he acknowledged that lawyers can never assist a client in the commission of a crime, he went on to observe that a lawyer "should never fear prosecution because of advice that he or she has given to a client who consults him or her, and a client should never fear that its confidences will be divulged unless its purpose in consulting a lawyer was for the purpose of committing a crime or a fraud." Judge Titus concluded by stating that courts should be "vigilant" about permitting lawyers to practice law and allow lawyers "to do their job of zealously representing the interests of their client."

Waller Lansden represented a number of witnesses in the case, including two witnesses who testified at trial. On cross examination, both witnesses praised Ms. Stevens for her outstanding character and integrity, and confirmed that Ms. Stevens consulted extensively with outside counsel while responding to the FDA inquiry.

For more information, please contact Sheila Sawyer, Richard Westling or any member of Waller Lansden's Government Investigations or White Collar Defense practices at 800-487-6380.

The opinions expressed in this bulletin are intended for general guidance only. They are not intended as recommendations for specific situations. As always, readers should consult a qualified attorney for specific legal guidance.