The Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Park Doctrine Case

After a lengthy struggle that began with a major Salmonella outbreak in 2010, Jack and Peter DeCosters’ criminal case came to an end on May 22, 2017 when the U.S. Supreme Court denied their petition for writ of certiorari. We have followed this case with great interest, as it tested the limits (and the very existence) of the Park doctrine, also known as the “responsible corporate officer” doctrine.

In refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court leaves in place a fractured Eighth Circuit Court decision upholding the DeCosters’ three-month prison sentences – one that we previously called the most significant Park doctrine ruling in over four decades. We described the Eighth Circuit’s ruling in some detail here.

Beyond the obvious critical importance of food safety, and the gravity of an outbreak of food-borne illness, the DeCosters’ saga provides useful reminders for all industry executives about potential criminal liability.

Importantly, a supervisory liability conviction may justify a penalty of imprisonment without violating due process only where “blameworthiness” exists, either inherent in the offense, or based on case-specific findings of fact. However, according to at least one judge of the Eighth Circuit, a misdemeanor Park doctrine conviction, implicates sufficient “blameworthiness” to justify a penalty of imprisonment, because the corporate officer in question is being held responsible “for his own failure to prevent or remedy ‘the conditions which gave rise to the charges against him.’” United States v. DeCoster, 828 F.3d 626, 633 (8th Cir. 2016). Even if the Park doctrine itself does not implicate “blameworthiness,” however, the facts of the DeCosters’ case demonstrate that pleading guilty to a Park offense without admitting knowledge or negligence does not preclude the sentencing judge from going on to find facts that support scienter.

Based on its position in this case and subsequent official statements, the DOJ under Jeff Sessions continues to favor aggressive prosecution and sentencing of strict-liability offenses. The government’s brief urged the Supreme Court to refuse to review the DeCosters’ case, and argued that strict Park doctrine liability, without further finding of fact, would justify the prisons sentences imposed on the DeCosters. More generally, Attorney General Sessions has stated that DOJ “will continue to emphasize the importance of holding individuals accountable for corporate misconduct” and that “those who choose to disregard the law will be caught and punished.” See Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Remarks at Ethics and Compliance Initiative Annual Conference (Apr. 24, 2017).

Given the stated importance of individual responsibility to the DOJ, and the unsettled nature of the Eighth Circuit’s seminal ruling, we would not be surprised to see another case testing the limits of Park. When it does, you will read about it here.