WLF Asks Supreme Court to Rein In 'Responsible Corporate Officer' Doctrine

Feb. 9, 2017
Public interest law firm says sentences too harsh in 2010 egg salmonella outbreak.

Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) on Feb. 9 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review (and ultimately overturn) a divided Eighth Circuit ruling that upheld prison time for two executives of Quality Egg LLC under the “responsible corporate officer” (RCO) doctrine.

WLF called it a rare instance of strict supervisory liability in criminal law. In a brief filed in United States v. DeCoster, WLF argues that by imprisoning the defendants based on employee misconduct they were unaware of, the court's decision expands the RCO doctrine far beyond what Supreme Court precedent or the Due Process Clause permits.

The case arises from the sentencing appeals of Austin and Peter DeCoster, the former CEO and COO, respectively, of Iowa-based Quality Egg. After a salmonella outbreak at the company’s facilities in 2010, it voluntarily recalled hundreds of millions of shell eggs. Despite their cooperating fully with the FDA investigation, the government charged both DeCosters with criminally violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. They pled guilty to one count each of introducing adulterated foods into interstate commerce, but because they had no knowledge of the statutory violation or the conduct that led to it, they pled guilty based solely on their status as “responsible corporate officers” at the time of the offense.

Urging review, WLF’s brief argues that although the Supreme Court has permitted criminal liability in such cases, penalties imposed have been relatively small and conviction have not gravely damaged offenders’ reputations. If the Eighth Circuit’s holding in this case is allowed to stand, WLF contends, it would expand the RCO doctrine far beyond the constitutional bounds the Supreme Court first articulated when adopting it over 70 years ago.

“FDA officials give every indication they view the draconian penalties imposed here — including the prison terms — as a model for similar cases," said Cory Andrews, WLF's Senior Litigation Counsel. "Either they don’t understand the limits of the ‘responsible corporate officer’ doctrine, or else they are deliberately acting contrary to Supreme Court precedent.”

WLF is a public-interest law firm and policy center fighting "overcriminalization," including prosecutors’ attempts to criminalize ordinary business conduct better left to civil proceedings.

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