Cooperation in the Eye of the Beholder: DOJ Official Bill Baer Elaborates on Cooperation in False Claims Act and Other Civil Enforcement Matters

The law is uncertain. One example of this uncertainty is how the “Yates memo” is to be applied in civil cases — in particular, what constitutes “cooperation” and how cooperation may benefit a company under investigation for False Claims Act violations. On September 29, 2016, DOJ attempted (for a second time) to address the lack of clarity surrounding cooperation in civil matters. While DOJ provided some more detail on what it viewed as “full cooperation,” and indicated that “new guidance” had been issued within DOJ on cooperation in civil enforcement matters, it still failed to give concrete guidance on how such cooperation may benefit a company in a FCA or other civil resolution. In essence, DOJ is saying “Trust Us” to companies considering the potential benefits of cooperation.

Read the full article here.

Third Circuit Revives Reverse False Claims Act Case but Acknowledges Burden on Defendants

On October 5, 2016, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit remanded a “reverse” False Claims Act (FCA) case to the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for further proceedings. The court’s decision in United States ex rel. Custom Fraud Investigations, LLC v. Victaulic Company, Case No. 15-2169 (3d Cir., Oct. 5, 2016), breathes new life into a case that was previously dismissed by the district court in September 2014, and provides extensive discussion about how reverse claims operate in the era of the 2009 Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (FERA) amendments.

The case involves nondiscretionary import regulations—set forth in the Tariff Act of 1930—that apply to the pipe fitting industry. These regulations mandate that pipe fittings manufactured outside the United States must be marked with the country of origin; in contrast, pipe fittings manufactured in the United States are typically unmarked. Failure to properly mark foreign-manufactured pipe fittings results in a 10 percent ad valorem that accrues from the time of importation. Furthermore, if improperly marked goods are discovered by customs officials, the importer has three options: (1) re-export the goods; (2) destroy the goods; or (3) mark them properly to be released for sale in the United States. Since customs officials largely rely on importers to self-report any duties that are owed at the time of import, it is possible for improperly marked pipe fittings to enter the United States’ stream of commerce. To the extent that improperly marked pipe fittings are discovered after they have entered the market, the 10 percent ad valorem is due immediately, retroactive to the date of importation.

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District Court Opinion Analyzes the Impact of the 2010 FCA Amendments on the Public Disclosure Bar

On September 30, 2016, the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued an opinion in United States ex rel. Conroy v. Select Medical Corp., et al. (Case No. 12-cv-000051) regarding the 2010 False Claims Act (FCA) Amendments to the public disclosure bar (31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A)) and the government’s associated right to veto  a public disclosure-based dismissal.

The opinion addresses a motion to dismiss a non-intervened FCA suit based on several grounds, including the public disclosure bar.  Complicating matters was that the allegations involved claims that arose both prior to and after March 23, 2010 – the effective date of the amendments to the public disclosure bar.  In addition, the government, despite not intervening with respect to the FCA claims, filed its own brief opposing a public disclosure bar-based dismissal.  Continue Reading

Sixth Circuit Revives Home Health Qui Tam Based on Pre-Escobar Standards; Dissent Criticizes Majority for Engaging in Rulemaking

On September 30, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed dismissal of a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) claims against providers of home health services in U.S. ex rel. Prather v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc. et al. The relator was a utilization review nurse who alleged that physician certifications of patient need for home health care were not signed until well after the care had been provided, in violation of 42 C.F.R. § 424.22(a)(2), which requires that such certifications be completed at the time a plan of care is established or “as soon thereafter as possible.” While the regulation does not define “as soon thereafter as possible,” the Sixth Circuit held that the relator’s allegations that the requisite certifications were not completed for several months were sufficient to allege violations of both the regulation and the FCA.

The Sixth Circuit reasoned that the phrase “as soon thereafter as possible” “suggests plainly that the analysis of whether a certification complies requires that the reason for any delay be examined.” The court went on to announce the following rule: “Certification of need may be completed after the plan of care is established, but only if an analysis of the length of delay, the reasons for it, and the home health agency’s efforts to overcome whatever obstacles arose suggests that the home health agency obtained the certification ‘as soon thereafter as possible.’” The Sixth Circuit held that the relator’s complaint satisfied this standard, because she alleged that the certifications were not completed for months due solely to a backlog of Medicare claims that arose because of the defendants’ allegedly aggressive solicitation of residents for treatment. Continue Reading

Corporate Outsiders – on the Wrong Side of the Circuit Split on Rule 9(b)

A district court in the Middle District of Florida issued a new decision that will continue to make it challenging for corporate outsiders to successfully pursue a declined qui tam complaint – at least in the Eleventh Circuit. In U.S. ex rel. Chase v. Lifepath Hospice, Inc., et al., No. 10-cv-1061, 2016 WL 5239863 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 22, 2016), the court dismissed a False Claims Act (FCA) complaint based on the heightened pleading requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). The complaint, which alleged that defendants billed Medicare for hospice care that was either never provided or provided to ineligible patients, was dismissed primarily because the plaintiff did not adequately allege that false claims were actually submitted to the government. While the court held that the plaintiff had described a “private scheme in detail, to include facts as to some disturbing medical practices, she has not alleged ‘facts as to time, place, and substance of the defendant’s alleged fraud’ —that is, a fraudulent claim.” Id. at *7.

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One Year Later: The Yates Memo, False Claims Act and Director & Executive Liability

On September 19 and 27, 2016, the US Department of Justice announced two False Claims Act settlements that required corporate executives to make substantial monetary payments to resolve their liability. In the first, announced on September 19, North American Health Care Inc. (NAHC) and two individuals—its chairman of the board and a senior vice president of reimbursement—agreed to settle potential False Claims Act liability for a total of $30 million. The second settlement involves the former CEO of Tuomey Healthcare, who, a year after the $72.4 million corporate FCA resolution and two years after his departure from Tuomey as CEO, is now settling his own liability for $1 million, has been required to release any indemnification claims he may have had against the company, and has agreed to a four-year period of exclusion from participating in federal health care programs. Coinciding with the Tuomey CEO settlement announcement, Bill Baer, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), gave a speech in Chicago discussing company cooperation and “individual accountability” in the context of federal civil enforcement. This new guidance, as well as the two settlements, come a little over a year after DOJ Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, issued what is now known as the “Yates Memo,” which sets forth guidance to be used by DOJ civil and criminal attorneys “in any investigation of corporate misconduct” in order to “hold to account the individuals responsible for illegal corporate conduct.” Since then, corporate resolutions like these have been watched for telltale signs of whether the Yates Memo is really changing the way federal enforcement does business. Given the timing of the speech and the settlements, and the high level of the officers involved, that change may be here.

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The Perils of Parallel Proceedings: To Stay or Not to Stay

One of the more concerning trends for the defense bar in False Claims Act cases is an uptick in parallel criminal and civil proceedings. While the pursuit of parallel proceedings is long-standing DOJ policy, the last few years have seen a “doubling down” by the government on the use of these proceedings — for instance, the 2014 Department of Justice policy requiring an automatic criminal division review of each qui tam complaint and the 2015 Yates Memorandum’s requirement for defendants to identify all culpable individuals to obtain “cooperation” credit in reaching a resolution with the government. From the defense side, parallel proceedings raise important and troublesome issues, including protecting the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights while mounting a robust defense in the civil case. But, as shown in recent decisions from the Eastern District of Kentucky and Southern District of New York, parallel proceedings may also prove challenging to DOJ when a judge is impatient with the progress of case on its docket or when the relator is not on board with how the government would like the case to proceed.

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Fifth Circuit Holds FCA Amendment Does Not Expand Retaliation Liability beyond Employers

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a retaliation claim under the False Claims Act (FCA) as to several individual defendants.

In Howell v. Town of Ball, a Ball, Louisiana police officer, Howell, sued the town and several town officials for employment retaliation in violation of the FCA (among other claims).  The officials moved to dismiss, arguing that the FCA creates a cause of action only against a plaintiff’s employer.  The district court agreed, citing the subsection of the FCA that creates a cause of action for those “discriminated against in the terms and conditions of employment . . .”  31 U.S.C. § 3730(h) (emphasis added).

On appeal, Howell argued that a 2009 amendment to the FCA (which removed the reference to “employer” in § 3730(h)) “indicate[d] a legislative intent to broaden the class of viable defendants.” In a July 1 decision, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit disagreed with Howell, holding that “the reference to an ‘employer’ was deleted to account for the broadening of the class of FCA plaintiffs to include ‘contractors’ and ‘agents,’ not to provide liability for individual, non-employer defendants.”

In sum, FCA plaintiffs can only bring retaliation actions against their actual employers, notwithstanding the role that other non-employer individuals may have had in allegedly retaliatory activity.

Nurse-Relator’s Personal Opinion About Medical Necessity Insufficient To Support FCA Complaint, Holds Seventh Circuit

On September 1, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit largely affirmed dismissal of a relator’s amended complaint pursuant to the particularity requirement of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). In US ex rel. Presser v. Acacia Mental Health Clinic, LLC, the relator, a nurse, alleged that a number of practices at a clinic where she worked were not medically necessary. These were: requiring patients to see multiple practitioners before receiving medication; requiring patients to undergo mandatory drug screenings at each visit; and requiring patients to come to the clinic in-person in order to receive a prescription or speak to a doctor. (The relator also alleged that clinic misused a billing code. This was the only claim the Seventh Circuit permitted to go forward.) In dismissing the majority of the relator’s complaint, the Seventh Circuit began with a robust discussion of the importance of Rule 9(b) in screening out baseless False Claims Act (FCA) claims:

Rule 9 requires heightened pleading standards because of the stigmatic injury that potentially results from allegations of fraud. We have observed, moreover, that fraud is frequently charged irresponsibly by people who have suffered a loss and want to find someone to blame for it. The requirement that fraud be pleaded with particularity compels the plaintiff to provide enough detail to enable the defendant to riposte swiftly and effectively if the claim is groundless. It also forces the plaintiff to conduct a careful pretrial investigation and thus operates as a screen against spurious fraud claims. (Citations and quotations omitted).

The Seventh Circuit held that the relator fell far short of Rule 9(b), because she provided “no medical, technical, or scientific context which would enable a reader of the complaint to understand why Acacia’s alleged actions amount to unnecessary care.” The court further observed that the relator did not offer any reasons why the practices were unnecessary other than her “personal view” — the complaint was devoid of any context, such as a comparison of relator’s clinic’s practices to others in the industry. And while the relator attempted to rely on her 20 years of “experience and training,” this was simply not enough. The court concluded by holding that a relator’s subjective evaluation, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for a fraud claim.

The lesson of this case is clear: where an FCA complaint alleges that care was medically unnecessary (as many FCA complaints do), the relator must provide sufficient reasons, other than relying on his or her personal opinion, experience and training, as to why. A relator cannot simply assert that care was unnecessary and hope to fill in the blanks with discovery.

First 60 Day Rule Overpayment Case Ends with Almost $3 Million Settlement

As part of a settlement agreement reached on August 23, three hospitals and their former parent system agreed to pay $2.95 million to resolve state and federal False Claims Act (FCA) allegations that they failed to investigate and repay overpayments from the New York Medicaid program in a timely manner under the so-called “60 Day Rule.” The allegations were originally made by a former employee via a 2011 qui tam suit, United States of America ex rel. Kane v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc.

Under the 60 Day Rule, enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, providers are required to report and return overpayments within 60 days of identification. When “identification” happens has been the subject of much debate, and was one of the main issues in the decision issued by the US District Court in the Southern District of New York last year, which denied Continuum’s motion to dismiss the government’s complaint. Despite repaying all of the improper claims, the government alleged in Kane that Continuum and the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] repayments” for up to two years after it had identified them. As has become the custom in the Southern District of New York, the settlement agreement contains certain admissions by Continuum concerning the covered conduct, including that beginning in 2009, a software compatibility issue caused them to mistakenly submit improper claims to the New York Medicaid program, the billing errors were brought to their attention over the course of late 2010 and early 2011, and that Continuum began to reimburse Medicaid for the 444 improper claims in February 2011 and concluded repayment in March 2013.

While Kane was the first court to directly grapple with the issue of when a provider had “identified” an overpayment, the Kane court’s interpretation of “identify” has been essentially supplanted by the final rule released by Medicare in February 2016. The final rule makes clear that a provider can conduct “reasonable diligence” into whether it has received an overpayment and can quantify the amount of such overpayment without triggering the 60-day clock. Even with the final rule, there continue to be significant questions about what constitutes “reasonable diligence” and how the rule intersects with the FCA’s reverse false claims cause of action, which only is triggered by knowingly concealing or knowingly and improperly avoiding or decreasing an overpayment retained in violation of the rule.

The Kane case and settlement confirm the interest of the government and relators in examining overpayment and 60 Day Rule issues under the FCA. The potential ramifications can be significant — the settlement amount is more than triple the $844,000 in overpayments Continuum originally received from (and repaid to) Medicaid. It may be advisable for providers to review their policies and procedures for addressing and resolving potential overpayment issues and maintaining documentation of those efforts to defend their actions if questioned by the government.