Insurance Fraud Case Set for Ex-Pennsylvania Judge

October 20, 2008

After a fender-bender in 2001, a Pennsylvania appellate judge claimed he was left in constant pain, unable to golf or swim or even at times hold a cup of coffee steady.

Yet the following year, prosecutors say, he was golfing regularly enough to keep up his handicap, piloted a plane at least 50 times and renewed his membership in an association of professional scuba divers.

Former state Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce, 59, goes on trial in federal court this week on fraud charges for allegedly exaggerating or faking neck and back injuries that netted him $440,000 from insurers.

Prosecutors say the proceeds helped him support a lifestyle he could not sustain on his $165,343-a-year salary, enabling him to buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a hot tub, $6,000 worth of plastic surgery for the woman who would become his wife, and make big down payments on a new home in 2003 and Cessna airplane in 2004.

His attorneys said in court filings that just because he spent “his funds on items that some might consider lavish or unnecessary does not establish a motive to commit insurance fraud.”

They also say he was in fact hurt when a car going about 5 mph rear-ended his vehicle in August 2001, and that neck and back injuries can be real without being readily apparent to others.

A Republican from Erie County, Joyce was elected to the Superior Court in 1997. After a federal grand jury indicted him in 2007, he retired in January rather than seek another 10-year term on the state’s second-highest appellate court.

He faces three counts of mail fraud, which each carry a sentence of up to 20 years, and six counts of money laundering, which each carry a sentence of up to 10 years. Each charge also carries a fine of up to $250,000.

In addition, Joyce could be forced to forfeit all but his own contribution to his state pension if convicted.

His attorneys, Philip Friedman and Robert Leight, did not return calls for comment.

The lawyers had unsuccessfully sought to have evidence about how he spent his money kept out of the trial. They called it “nothing but a thinly veiled attack on Mr. Joyce’s character.”

But the defense did keep out testimony about an accident Joyce had in 2003 in which the judge later pleaded guilty and was fined for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Police determined both cars were traveling more than 25 mph yet Joyce escaped injury, despite his spinal fusion surgery in the early 1990s.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold argued that the crash showed Joyce wasn’t an “eggshell claimant” _ that is, someone likely to be injured in a crash given his pre-existing condition _ as he claimed when collecting on the 2001 accident.

But Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill, who is presiding at the jury trial, agreed with defense attorneys that there was no way to know why Joyce was not injured in the later accident.

The prosecution faces other challenges in a case of this kind.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz it’s often hard to get an insurance fraud conviction, in part because there’s a sense that everybody does it.

“It’s like tax evasion,” Ledewitz said. “You might expect that a couple of the 12 people on the jury have actually done it, though perhaps not to the extent charged here.”

Dennis Jay, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, said a bigger challenge for prosecutors can be overcoming negative perceptions of insurance companies.

“I had lunch with a judge the other day and he told me that when an insurance company goes into a courtroom, they immediately probably have a third of the jury against them,” Jay said.

According to the indictment, Joyce said he experienced constant neck and back pain, excruciating headaches, and could no longer golf, swim or job as a result of the 2001 accident.

Yet, the indictment said, Joyce completed nine full rounds of golf from May to July 2002, and traveled to Jamaica, Florida and New York for golf trips in the months after the accident. It said he also renewed his scuba diving membership with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors after the crash.

Joyce submitted a pilot’s medical certificate in April 2002 to the Federal Aviation Administration that stated he had “no injuries, physical problems or physical limitations” — going on to pilot a plane at least 50 times over the next seven months, the indictment also said.

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