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United States v. Sachdeva

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

March 8, 2018




         This criminal matter is before the Court on Defendant Meera Sachdeva's Motion to Vacate [127] filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, her Motion for Transcripts [128], and her Motion to Appeal [134]. For the reasons that follow, the Motion to Vacate [127] is denied in part as to Ground Two. The Court defers ruling on Ground One and will require Sachdeva's former attorneys to respond to her allegations on that claim. The Motion for Transcripts [128] is denied without prejudice, and the Motion to Appeal [134] is considered moot.

         I. Background

         Sachdeva was an oncologist who owned and operated the Rose Cancer Center in Pike County, Mississippi. In that capacity, she engaged in fraudulent billing schemes that resulted in a total loss amount of $8, 168, 524.72. Tr. [138] at 11. The schemes also jeopardized the health of her patients as she attempted to reduce expenses while inflating claims. As just one of many examples, Sachdeva instructed the clinic to reuse syringes. See Pre-Sentence Report (“PSR”) [83] ¶ 87. Then, once under investigation, Sachdeva took steps to conceal her offenses by instructing her workers to destroy records, falsify documents, and lie to the Department of Health. Id. ¶¶ 52, 91, 139.

         On February 11, 2014, Sachdeva pleaded guilty to Counts 2, 7, and 9 of the Indictment, with the understanding that the remaining 12 counts would be dismissed. See Plea Supp. [62] ¶¶ I, 2(a). Count 2 charged Sachdeva with health-care fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1347, and counts 7 and 9 charged her with making false statements relating to health-care matters under 18 U.S.C. § 1035.

         II. Motion to Vacate

         A. Standards

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a prisoner in custody may move under limited circumstances to “vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Here, Sachdeva waived her right to seek collateral relief under § 2255. See Plea Agreement [61] ¶ 7. But an exception exists to this waiver when-as in this case-the defendant asserts ineffective assistance of counsel, and the ineffectiveness “directly affected the validity of that waiver or the plea itself.” United States v. White, 307 F.3d 336, 343 (5th Cir. 2002).

         To establish that an attorney was ineffective, a defendant must prove that counsel's performance was deficient and prejudicial. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). On the performance prong, the defendant must show “that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. The prejudice prong in a plea context requires a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, [the defendant] would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985); see also Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 163 (2012) (“In the context of pleas a defendant must show the outcome of the plea process would have been different with competent advice.”).

         B. Analysis

         Sachdeva says her attorneys were ineffective because they (1) misrepresented that she faced life in prison if she refused to enter a guilty plea and (2) “occasioned a complete breakdown in the attorney/client relationship.” Def.'s Mot. [127] at 1. The first ground requires additional record development, and the second ground should be dismissed without a hearing.

         Sachdedva first says that her attorneys told her she would face life in prison if she did not change her plea because the case “involv[ed] at least one death caused by her medical clinic.” Id. She goes on to say that “this misrepresentation was essential to the decision to decide not to go to trial.” Id. at 3. Sachdeva's Ground-One allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel may implicate the validity of the plea and therefore avoid the waiver contained in the Plea Agreement. Moreover, the Court must hear from counsel before determining whether their performance was ineffective.

         The Government is therefore directed to provide a copy of Sachdeva's motion and this Order to Robert B. McDuff and Sibyl C. Byrd, Sachdeva's former attorneys. Those attorneys are directed to respond within 30 days of this Order, by written affidavits, to the allegations made by Sachdeva in Ground One of her motion. The Government shall file a response to Ground One within 30 days after the submission of the affidavits. The Court further and specifically finds that Sachdeva has waived her right to claim an attorney-client privilege in regard to these proceedings.

         Sachdeva's second argument is that “[c]ounsel occasioned a complete breakdown in the attorney/client relationship.” Id. at 1. In particular, she says her attorneys failed to (1) investigate the charges; (2) hire a handwriting expert that would have rebutted the charges in Counts 7 and 9; (3) hire a billing expert; and (4) share discovery with her. But this claim does not fall ...

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