Jury Must Decide if Retired Pennsylvania Judge was Injured

November 19, 2008

A federal jury considering an insurance fraud case against a since-retired state appellate judge will have to decide if he lied about being injured in a car accident, suffered permanent damage or is a ‘”hypersensitive” patient who truly believed his life would never be the same.

As federal prosecutors see it, former Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce lied about his injuries and should be convicted for fraudulently collecting $440,000 in insurance after a slow-speed fender bender. Joyce’s defense attorney, however, say Joyce either did suffer irrevocable damage or at least believed he did, making him not guilty of the mail fraud and money laundering charges he faces.

U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold and defense attorney Robert Leight spent nearly five hours in closing arguments Monday. The jury was given its instructions before being sent home for the day. Deliberations will begin Tuesday morning.

Trabold said Joyce lied about neck and back injuries after another car rear-ended his Mercedes at 2-3 mph in August 2001.

Joyce badly needed money to repay $39,000 to an old girlfriend and nearly as much to pay his credit card bills before he bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle and made down payments on a $360,000 house and a small airplane, Trabold said.

The centerpiece of Trabold’s case is an 18-page letter Joyce sent to his insurance company months before they settled the larger of his two accident claims for $390,000. In it, Joyce refers to himself as a judge 115 times, which Trabold said was an effort to pressure the company to settle his claim.

In the letter, Joyce claimed life-altering pain would require surgery and led to his dropping a bid for the state Supreme Court in 2001. Joyce claimed to have the Republican endorsement and nomination for the state’s highest court that year, even though J. Michael Eakin was the endorsed GOP nominee, Trabold said.

“Both of those are flat-out lies,” Trabold told the jury. “No one ever told this defendant he needed surgery. And this defendant never had the endorsement or the nomination for the Supreme Court.”

Doctors, except for one pain-management physician, instead told Joyce he suffered a moderate neck strain that would heal in three to six months, Trabold said.

Leight, Joyce’s attorney, contends the judge’s medical claims were made in good faith. As proof, he noted Joyce continued to seek treatment long after he received the Erie Insurance settlement and $50,000 from the other driver’s State Farm policy.

“If he is not injured, if this is some kind of insurance fraud, why is he still getting an epidural two years after this accident?” Leight asked the jury. “Because he’s hurt.”

At the very least, Leight argued, Joyce truly believed that he was hurt.

Stopping just short of calling his client a hypochondriac, Leight said Joyce is “hypersensitive” about his health. Witnesses testified that Joyce, at various times, sought treatment for a brain tumor, Lou Gehrig’s disease and at least four heart attacks — all imagined.

If Joyce was wrong about the extent of his accident injuries, it was sincere and, therefore, not a crime, Leight told the jury.

“For Mr. Joyce, two plus two never added up to four when it came to his medical condition,” Leight said. “It added up to eight, and that’s why he’s not guilty in this case.”

But Trabold said the timing of Joyce’s claims is evidence of his guilt.

Trabold said Joyce sought treatment for hand tremors from one doctor on the same day he filled out a federal application and took a physical to get a pilot’s license. On the application, Joyce listed no medical problems, save for gallbladder surgery.

“You can’t have a genuine belief that you have medical issues and turn it on and off,” Trabold said. “You can’t tell two different doctors two different things on the same day and lay a genuine claim to a legitimate medical problem.”

The jury is deliberating two counts of mail fraud for documents the judge submitted as part of his insurance claims, and six counts of money laundering stemming from expenditures of more than $10,000 each with insurance proceeds he allegedly knew were illegally obtained.

The charges carry a maximum of decades in prison, but a shorter sentence is likely for someone such as Joyce, who has no criminal record. If he’s convicted, he could be forced to forfeit at least part of his state pension.

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