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US Stem Cell Case Update: Judge Puts off Pre-Trial Conference for Three Weeks

US Stem Cell Case Update: Judge Puts off Pre-Trial Conference for Three Weeks

Yesterday, May 9th, the Judge in the FDA’s case against US Stem Cell and Kristin Comella entered an order changing the pre-trial conference date from May 17th until June 10th. The trial has been pushed back from June 10th until June 24th.

Why: The obvious reason is that she hasn’t finished her decision on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment, and there’s no point having a pre-trial conference with summary judgment motions pending. So, she’s giving herself another couple weeks to finish. The defense could read into this that at least she’s not going to copy the FDA’s position in toto. But probably more likely, she understands that this case is going up on appeal, either way, so she wants to make sure she gets it right, because it’s a big deal.

Rick Jaffe, Esq.
rickjaffeesquire@gmail.com

Some things in the private stem cell clinic debate are complicated, but some aren’t

Some things in the private stem cell clinic debate are complicated, but some aren’t

I am a believer and advocate that patients should have the freedom to use their own processed and expanded stem cells. That should mean that I support US Stem Cell Clinic’s fight against the FDA’s injunction action.

But I don’t.

I just can’t get past the fact that this Florida stem cell operation allowed a nurse practitioner to inject stem cells into several patients’ eyeballs which resulted in total or partial blindness. A nurse practitioner! Legal though it may have been under Florida law, it is an inexcusable lapse of judgement. Plus, the clinic had already settled several malpractice lawsuits and is facing at least one more lawsuit involving a patient.

I am an advocate for a patient’s right to use his/her own stem cells, but that doesn’t mean that a clinic which continues to cause serious harm to patients has the right to keep injuring them.

In my opinion, US Stem Cells has done serious and irreparable harm to patients, and it needs to be stopped now, not in next few years, which seems like the FDA’s current time table. I don’t often agree with the big dog (aka Paul Knoepfler) but on this issue, I do. See his post at https://twitter.com/pknoepfler.

How the Florida clinic can be stopped sooner rather than later

One of the stem cell luminary thought leaders, Bernie Siegel mentioned to me his hope that the latest big malpractice case against US Stem Cells might shut the place down. I told him I didn’t think so. Here’s why:

Malpractice claims are typically covered by malpractice insurance, and I have to believe given the clinic’s past experience, the first bill it pays after rent is its malpractice policy premium. It’s surely tough being sued, but when you’re not paying to defend and not paying the settlement amount, it’s not quite as tough, and is not a business ending event. So I don’t think any single or even a small number of malpractice lawsuits will do the job.

More effective would be fraud or deceptive practices lawsuits. These most likely won’t be insurance covered, at least not by malpractice insurance. I think there has been at least one such case filed against the clinic by a Miami law firm. I’m rooting for the plaintiff in that case. But these cases take time, and often times, the cases are settled. And insurance or not, I assume these Florida clinic folks have made a ton of money from their stem cell patient business, and they also have a training and franchise operation of sorts, so I wouldn’t expect even a fraud lawsuit or two to put them out of business, not in the short term at least.

So where does that leave those that want to see this clinic gone now?

We have to circle back to the FDA and think about what the agency would need to do to stop this clinic now(ish). And while some parts of the proposed plan may seem harsh, shocking and almost unbelievable, all these tactics have been used against me and my physician/clinic clients in the past by the FDA and other federal agencies.

1. Get the FDA’s OCI (Office of Criminal Investigations) involved

The FDA site inspection which resulted in a form 483 inspectional observations last year establishes what the clinic is doing. The statutes as interpreted by the final guidance documents establish probable cause that the FDA criminal trifecta has been violated (introducing into interstate commerce an unapproved new drug, misbranding and adulteration). The prior warning letter and the injunction complaint establish sufficient knowledge and intent to support a probable cause finding that the crimes are felonies. That should be enough for a federal magistrate to sign-off on a search warrant.

2. Execute the search warrant and take all the clinic’s patient records. If the clinic wants to see the medical records, it will have to come down the local FDA’s office and copy them.

3. Have the warrant search for non-FDA cleared medical devices or any other devices used in connection with the alleged criminal activity. (The latter is not a slam dunk.) That might/would stop the clinic from processing the fat into the stem cell SVF (stromal vascular fraction) product.

4. Invite the Florida medical board to participate in the raid. I don’t know whether the board has taken any action against the nurse practitioner and the supervising doctor yet, but if it hasn’t, there’s probably a decent case for an interim suspension proceeding against both. These proceedings are done ex parte, meaning it’s like a star chamber, done without telling the doctor in advance of the suspension.

5. Start interviewing the clinic’s patients. Many will be supportive of the clinic, including some who have received no benefit, but some won’t be.

6. Interview all the clinic’s employees and vendors/suppliers. OCI has some interesting interviewing techniques which in effect threaten criminal prosecution to people doing business with the target without technically threatening them, but the vendors get the message.

As I said, some or all of this might seem like legal thuggery, but me and my clients have been on the receiving end of all of them (Many of these tactics are discussed in chapters 2 and 9 in my book, Galileo’s Lawyer.). Combined, these tactics will get the clinic’s attention in a way which hasn’t heretofore happened. The other purpose of my discussing this is to show the FDA’s investigative tool box in cases where it really wants someone gone.

Other Government and private actors

US Stem Cells is a public company and that opens up another line of attack. The continued publicity already has and will continue to generate some interest by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) which is looking into the company’s reporting documents (10K’s and 10Q’s). It’s probably a safe bet that the company’s disclosures were inadequate. With all the federal attention, some class action firm might file a shareholder’s suit, and that kind of suit burns a lot of cash for the public company.

The private lawyers who have filed civil malpractice or fraud lawsuits or are contemplating filing will be circling in the air waiting for any government action and especially any agency or judicial decision, which will make the civil fraud or SEC claims easier and faster to resolve favorably. To that end:

FINALLY

The FDA and the US Attorney’s Office should do what they should have done in the beginning, file a preliminary injunction motion, and request a hearing as soon as practical.

That’s going to present some interesting conundrums for the clinic’s principals. Do they testify? If they do, they can’t lie, or they’ll be charged with perjury. Can they say they didn’t know what they were doing is illegal? They can say it, but the judge doesn’t have to believe it. I doubt they’ve been told by an FDA attorney that what they’re doing is legal, so there won’t be an “advice of counsel” defense. Ultimately, they will either be forced to testify and most likely further incriminate themselves, or they’ll fold their tent and go away. (I’d bet on the former.)

If they don’t close down, then the final step is a criminal indictment, and that will put a whole new complexion on things. There’s a saying in criminal law. “You can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride.”

But in this case, once the blinded patients and the other injured patients testify, a preliminary injunction case, the permanent injunction case and a criminal trial are effectively over. No reasonable judge or jury is going to let these people continue.

And that’s why this is such a horrible case for stem cell advocates like myself. The idea that these people are the poster children for patients’ unfettered access to their own stem cells is disconcerting. That this case might set precedent for all same-day surgical procedure clinics should be distressing to all such clinic operators.

Therefore, best case scenario for both sides of the debate would be for the Florida clinic to voluntarily shut its doors now. Since that’s not going to happen, next best case scenario for everyone (including and especially patients) is that the clinic be shut down by the government as soon as possible.

And after that happens, the plaintiffs attorneys circling above will swoop down pick the clinic and its operators clean. If the clinic operators have an asset protection plan involving family members or family trusts, there will be fraudulent conveyance lawsuits.

Government and private action could trigger a voluntary bankruptcy proceeding by the corporate clinic/franchise entity. If so, the bankruptcy trustee will hire an attorney whose main job will be to claw-back all the money paid to the insiders, at least in the year prior to the filing, and probably longer. Ultimately, the lawyers (on both sides) will get it all.

That’s how I see it playing out if the FDA decides to take the case more seriously.

Of course, this is just my opinion and speculation based soley on publicly available information viewed through the lens of my 35 years working my side of the street.

What effect would all of the above have on the other private stem cell clinics?
Probably make them much more careful in what they do, say, and who they do it to. And even for a guy on my side of the street, that’s a good thing.

Post Script: I’ve recently read that these people have a new marketing idea and targeted audience: They’re doing penis stem cell injections.
Here we go again!

Rick Jaffe, Esq.
www.rickjaffe.com
rickjaffeesquire@gmail.com

Further thoughts on the defendants in the FDA’s stem cell injunction actions

Further thoughts on the defendants in the FDA’s stem cell injunction actions

My post about considerations facing the defendants in the FDA’s injunction cases,

http://rickjaffeesq.com/2018/05/17/hard-choices-stem-cell-

defendants-fdas-injunction-cases/

was discussed yesterday in the stem cell field’s big dog, the Niche, by Paul Knoepfler.

https://ipscell.com/2018/05/when-the-fat-stem-cells-hit-the-fire-will-clinics-sued-by-fda-opt-to-stop-soon/.

After reading it, a follow-up is in order.

A correction and follow up:

In my post, I said that both US Stem Cell and California Stem Cell Treatment Center had received warning letters. Knoepfler correctly pointed out that the California company had not received a warning letter from the FDA, just 483 inspection observations. I stand corrected.

BUT what the company did also get was a visit from federal agents who executed a search and seizure warrant, which removed the smallpox vaccine and presumably seized records.

See my original post on this and the warning letter to US Stem Cells.

http://rickjaffeesq.com/2017/09/22/sleeping-giant-awakens-fda-starts-final-push-eliminate-practice-medicine-stem-cell-clinics/

I haven’t reviewed the search warrant, but normally search warrants are issued in the name of a grand jury and is approved by a federal magistrate. As we all now know as a result of the Trump/Michael Cohen legal drama, an affidavit in support of the search warrant would have to establish probable cause that a crime was committed. (Affidavits in support of search warrants are normally sealed until after an indictment.)

So, the lack of a warning letter shouldn’t be all that comforting to the California folks, since it appears that some federal judicial officer has already agreed that the facts alleged in the affidavit constitutes a federal crime.

I think a 483 with a search and seizure warrant is at least the functional equivalent of a 483 plus a warning letter in terms of establishing intent, which is as stated, is the ticket to Felony land.

In fact, it’s arguably worse practically than a warning letter, since the both the OCI (the FDA’s office of Criminal Investigations) and the criminal division of the US Attorneys’ office are likely already involved in the case. These are government employees you definitely don’t want sniffing around your controversial stem cell business. (Again, on the assumption that the warrant was a standard federal criminal warrant.)

Follow-up on US Stem Cell public corporation status

Knoepfler suggested that I didn’t factor in US Stem Cell’s public company status in the decision tree on whether or not it should stop treating patients now.
Interesting point taken. Here’s my quick analysis:

The main difference between private and public companies is that public companies are required to file reports with the SEC, annually, and usually quarterly. The reports (10K’s and 10Q’s) give shareholders and the public at large the company’s financial information as well as disclose other material information which affect the company’s health and future. The information required to be disclosed comes from a variety of sources, including accountants and attorneys who do work for the public company.

As reported by the Knoepfler last month, US Stem Cells issued a press release:

“On or about March 1, 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“Commission”), Miami Regional Office (“Commission Staff”), served a subpoena upon U.S. Stem Cell, Inc., which seeks production of certain documents and communications including, among other things, minutes and other documents relating to the Company’s board and audit committee meetings, financial statements, and press releases. The Commission Staff is conducting a formal non-public, fact-finding inquiry of U.S. Stem Cell, Inc. This investigation is neither an allegation of wrongdoing nor a finding that any violation of law has occurred. The Company is cooperating with the Commission Staff and has provided, and will continue to provide, information and documents to the Commission Staff.***”

Here is the link to Knoepfler’s article about this and other problems the company faces.

https://ipscell.com/2018/04/clinic-biz-us-stem-cell-reports-sec-subpoena-adding-to-uncertainty-on-its-future/

Having started my career in a wall street securities litigation firm, and having represented a few small, thinly capitalized public companies involved in controversial or innovative technologies, I have some experience with the decision-making which is going on right now at the company.

There are two big reasons the SEC would investigate a very small public company like this: The second reason is possible stock price manipulation. That’s not likely since the company’s stock is probably thinly traded.

The first, and more likely reason is disclosure issues in the reporting documents, and more likely still, press releases, and specifically the possible inaccuracy thereof.

Let’s just say that the company’s business model (and future revenue stream) has arguably been in some doubt since at least the issuance of the FDA’s draft stem cell guidance documents, and arguably in serious doubt since the FDA’s warning letter and the final guidance documents.

There is often a battle between the company and its outside lawyers about how much to disclose and how bleak a picture to paint when bad stuff/things with potential negative consequences happen. Usually a compromise is reached, but the compromise is often less than absolute, perfect disclosure that would maximally protect the company (and the lawyer).

This company and its founder have a lot of enemies out there. Something I’ve seen very often is that the enemies of promoters of unapproved medical interventions use government investigating authorities to attack these businesses. The vehicle of choice is the state medical boards, but when the feds have jurisdiction like in this case, it’s a no-brainer. I’d bet someone in the stem cell mafioso filed some kind of complaint with SEC about alleged false and misleading press releases and required filings.

The other shoe that hasn’t dropped yet

My prediction is that the SEC inquiry/investigation and the FDA injunction action are not the end of the story. There’s more to come.
Either agency action alone would be blood in the water. Together it’s like putting a thousand tons of chum in the water and hoping that the sharks won’t show up in shark infested waters.

The sharks being the plaintiffs’ class action securities lawyers. They are like ambulance chasers only worse, in that they tear apart companies, rather than take money from large, greedy insurance companies. (I still hate insurance carriers.)

These lawyers work on a contingency fee, and so they like to do as little work as possible for maximum gain. One of the best techniques to effectuate this maximum payout for the minimum work ratio is to let other people do their work and apply pressure. There’s no better applier of pressure than the federal investigatory agencies. An adverse finding by an agency like the SEC or the FDA does most of the work on a plaintiff’s liability case. I have been in this situation many, many times and it is not pleasant for the company. It feels like the world is closing in on them.

So, my guess is that if the complaint wasn’t filed by or with the support of one of these plaintiffs’ firms, the combination of the SEC and FDA’s actions is going to make the company a target too good to pass-up.

So, what does all that mean for US Stem Cells?

Up until the FDA litigation, I’m guessing that the company’s insurer has paid the freight on its legal fees and payouts in the several settled malpractice actions.

Normally, FDA litigation costs are not insurable. Neither are SEC investigations, and neither are fraud securities claims filed by private parties (directors might be covered under directors’ insurance policies).

The company is facing massive legal fees over the next year or two, at least in the high six figures. That’s an important consideration. And since the company’s principal is not a medical doctor, there’s no falling back to a straight medical practice which is the option that the principals of the California company have.

The even more important consideration is what effect stopping/continuing will have on the SEC investigation and the likelihood of the plaintiffs’ bar going after the company.

It’s a complicated calculation, like playing multidimensional chess (a la Spock). We’ll see what they decide and I’ll have more to say later.

Rick Jaffe, Esq.
www.rickjaffe.com
rickjaffeesquire@gmail.com