Ninth Circuit Remands False Claims Act Case against Tribal College for Determination of Sovereign Status

On July 10, 2017, US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a December 3, 2014, district court dismissal of False Claims Act (FCA) claims against Salish Kootenai College (College), a tribal college of the Salish Kootenai Tribes (Tribe).  United States ex rel. Cain v. Salish Kootenai College, Inc. (July 10, 2017). The 9th Circuit directed the district court to reconsider whether the College is subject to liability under the FCA under a different standard than used by the district court.

The district court had entered its order dismissing claims by the qui tam relators that the College filed false progress reports to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service in order to retain grant funding from the agencies, holding that the College was an arm of the Tribe and shared the Tribe’s sovereign immunity, which had not been waived by the Tribe or Congress. (The district court also dismissed claims against the members of the College board of directors and the College foundation. Relators, however, only appealed the dismissal of claims against the College.)

The court of appeals disagreed with the district court’s framing of the question. The central question is not, as the district court found, whether the College enjoyed tribal immunity and whether such immunity had been waived. Rather, the central issue in a FCA case is whether the College is a “person” within the meaning of the FCA, and, thus subject to liability under the FCA. Accordingly, the court undertook a two-part analysis to decide the question: (1) whether the Tribe is a person under the FCA or a sovereign not subject to the FCA, and, if the latter; (2) whether the College is an arm of the Tribe that shares the Tribe’s sovereign status for purposes of the FCA.

The court first found that the Tribe is not a person for purposes of FCA liability under Vermont Agency Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 US 765 (2000), which found that sovereign states are excluded from the term “person” under the FCA. The ruling in Stevens drew upon the Supreme Court’s “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign.” The 9th Circuit noted that while tribal sovereignty is no longer considered absolute, “[n]othing in the FCA’s text or legislative history overcomes this presumption.”

Under the second prong of the analysis, the court of appeals determined that the district court incorrectly relied upon Smith v. Salish Kootenai College, 434 F.3d 1127 (9th Cir. 2006) to determine whether the College is an “arm” of the Tribe. The appeals court observed that Smith had considered whether the tribal court had jurisdiction over claims brought by non-tribal members against the College. The court acknowledged that Smith drew upon cases discussing tribal sovereign immunity, but held that Smith was not controlling authority for determining whether the College was a sovereign entity. Instead, the court held that the proper standard was provided by White v. University of California, 765 F.3d 1010 (9th Cir. 2014), which addressed whether a tribe’s sovereign immunity extended to the tribe’s repatriation committee in a context outside of the FCA. The plaintiffs argued that rather than applying White, which was not an FCA case, the court should apply its “arm of the state” analysis from Stoner v. Santa Clara County Office of Education, 502 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 2007). The 9th Circuit disagreed, noting that the Stoner analysis was based in Eleventh Amendment case law and the Eleventh Amendment does not apply to Indian tribes. The 9th Circuit consequently remanded the case to the district court for analysis under White.

Cain follows a recent district court decision in the 9th Circuit, addressing tribal immunity FCA liability. In March, a district court dismissed FCA claims against the Sauk-Suiattle Indian tribe on the basis of its sovereign immunity but found that such immunity did not extend either to the defendant health clinic under the “arm-of-the-state test” articulated in White or to the individual defendants who were employees, agents or officials of the tribe, applying Stoner’s analysis of individual liability of state employees. Dahlstrom v. Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe (W.D. Wash. March 21, 2017). The court of appeals decision in Cain should serve to clarify the appropriate standard under which to analyze “arm of the state” defenses in a tribal and other FCA contexts.

District Court Tosses Complaint After Finding of Misconduct

On April 28, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed a relator’s qui tam complaint in United States ex rel. Leysock v. Forest Laboratories, Inc. after concluding that the complaint relied on information obtained resulting from deceptive conduct by the relator’s counsel.

In Leysock, the relator alleged that the defendant caused the submission of false claims to Medicare by promoting Forest’s dementia drug, Namenda, for off-label label use. After the United States declined to intervene, Forest filed a motion to dismiss, which the Court denied, largely based upon detailed allegations about eight prescribing physicians who prescribed Namenda for off-label use by Medicare beneficiaries. These allegations, the Court reasoned, were sufficient to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b), which in False Claims Act cases typically requires plaintiffs to plead specific allegations regarding the alleged fraud, tying alleged misconduct to the submission of false claims to a government payor.

Through discovery, Forest subsequently learned that relators’ counsel had obtained the information underlying these detailed allegations from a survey conducted by an individual whom relators’ counsel had contracted. This contractor misled the physicians about why he was conducting the survey (not disclosing that he had been retained by the relators in a False Claims Act action) and coaxed the physicians into turning over detailed patient information to the contractor.

In response, the Court concluded that this deception violated Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 4.1(a), which prohibits a lawyer or his agent from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third person. Consequently, the court concluded, this conduct violated Local Rule 83.6.1 of the United States District Court. As a remedy, the Court struck these allegations, noting that “[the contractor’s] study was conducted solely for the purpose of ensuring that the complaint survived a motion to dismiss,” i.e., to ensure that the complaint satisfied Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement.

Although the relators’ conduct in this case is unlikely to be repeated in future cases, this case underscores the challenges relators can face in meeting Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement. These challenges are particularly acute in non-intervened qui tam cases, where the government fails to provide the relator with information about specific false claims that the defendant allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted. Imposing these challenges will continue to chill would-be relators, without firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing, from bringing meritless qui tam cases.

Motions in Limine Filed in Lance Armstrong/US Postal Service Litigation Raise FCA Damages, Government Knowledge and Relator Character Issues on Which Court’s Rulings May Have Widespread Impact

We reported back in March on the US District Court for the District of Columbia’s summary judgment decision in the Lance Armstrong/Floyd Landis/US Postal Service (USPS) False Claims Act (FCA) litigation, centered on Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) while he was leading a professional cycling team sponsored by the USPS. A pack of motions in limine (MILs) filed by the parties over the past few weeks suggest that the case may well be headed to trial this fall, and raise some notable legal issues to watch as it continues to unfold, including: Continue Reading

Physician Compensation Scrutiny Continues in Recent FCA Settlement

A hospital system in Missouri recently agreed to settle with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for $34 million to resolve claims related to alleged violations of the Stark Law. On May 18, 2017, DOJ announced a settlement agreement with Mercy Hospital Springfield (Hospital) and its affiliate, Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities (Clinic). The Hospital and Clinic are both located in Springfield, Missouri. The relator’s complaint was filed in the Western District of Missouri’s Southern Division on June 30, 2015.

The complaint’s allegations center on compensation arrangements with physicians who provided services in an infusion center. According to the complaint, until 2009 the infusion center was operated as part of the Clinic, and the physicians who practiced at the infusion center shared in its profits under a collection compensation model. In 2009, ownership of the infusion center was transferred to Mercy Hospital so that it could participate in the 340B drug pricing program, substantially reducing the cost of chemotherapy drugs. The complaint alleges that the physicians “expressed concern about losing a substantial portion of the income they had received under the collection compensation model as a result of the loss of ownership of the Infusion Center.” In response, the Hospital allegedly assured them that they would be “made whole” for any such losses. While it doesn’t provide precise details, the complaint alleges that the Hospital addressed the shortfall by establishing a new work Relative Value Unit (wRVU) for drug administration in the infusion center, which now operated as part of the Hospital. The value of this new wRVU was allegedly calculated by “solving for” the amount of the physician’s loss and “working backwards from a desired level of overall compensation.” Physicians were able to earn the wRVU for the patients they referred to the infusion center. The complaint alleges that the drug administration wRVU rate was 500 percent of the comparable wRVU for in-clinic work. In its announcement of the settlement agreement, DOJ characterized the compensation arrangement as being “based in part on a formula that improperly took into account the value of [the physicians’] referrals of patients to the infusion center operated by [the Hospital].” Continue Reading

False Claims Act Settlement with eClinicalWorks Raises Questions for Electronic Health Record Software Vendors

On May 31, 2017, the US Department of Justice announced a Settlement Agreement under which eClinicalWorks, a vendor of electronic health record software, agreed to pay $155 million and enter into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement to resolve allegations that it caused its customers to submit false claims for Medicare and Medicaid meaningful use payments in violation of the False Claims Act.

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Fourth Circuit Decision in Triple Canopy Sets up Another Implied Certification Circuit Split

On May 16, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision in US ex rel. Badr v. Triple Canopy, Inc. In this case, the government had contracted with a private security company to provide guards at a military airbase in Iraq. Although the applicable contract required the guards to have certain marksmanship scores, the defendant (as alleged by the relator and the government) failed to employ guards with the requisite qualifications.

The Fourth Circuit’s recent decision is the continuation of a years-long battle between the plaintiffs and Triple Canopy over whether the operative complaint adequately pleads violations of the False Claims Act. The Fourth Circuit previously held that the complaint had done so, but after Triple Canopy petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to Fourth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the high court’s recent Escobar decision.

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A Hospital’s Deserving Stark and AKS Victory—But At What Cost?

This April, providers cheered when a federal district court in the Middle District of Florida found insufficient evidence to support a relator’s theory that a hospital had provided free parking to physicians, in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). In the Report and Recommendation for United States ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health Systems, 2017 WL 126597, M.D. Fla., No. 8:14-cv-73, Judge Steven D. Merryday of the Middle District of Florida endorsed magistrate judge Julie Sneed’s recommendation that Plaintiff Thomas Bingham’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment be denied and that Defendant BayCare Health System’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted. However, as we discussed in a previous FCA blog post regarding these allegations, this type of case encapsulates a worrying and costly trend where courts allow thinly pleaded relator claims in which the government opted not to intervene, to survive past the motion to dismiss stage into the discovery phase of the litigation.

Bingham is a serial relator who practices as a certified real estate appraiser in Tennessee and was unaffiliated with BayCare. In his latest attempt, Bingham alleged that BayCare Health System had violated the Stark Law and the AKS by providing affiliated physicians free parking, valet services and tax benefits to induce physicians to refer patients to the health system. Continue Reading

Is the Stark Law’s “Signed Writing” Requirement Material to Payment: One Federal Court Says Yes

In a case of first impression, a federal court found that the federal physician self-referral law’s (Stark Law) requirement that financial arrangements with physicians be memorialized in a signed writing could be material to the government’s payment decision. This case raises troubling questions about applying the False Claims Act (FCA) to what many in the industry consider “technical” Stark issues, especially given the Supreme Court’s description of the materiality test as “demanding” and not satisfied by “minor or insubstantial” regulatory noncompliance.

United States ex rel. Tullio Emanuele v. Medicor Associates (Emanuele), in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, involves Medicor Associates, Inc., a private medical group practice (Medicor), and Hamot Medical Center’s (Hamot) exclusive provider of cardiology coverage. Tullio Emanuele, a qui tam relator and former physician member of Medicor, alleged that Hamot, Medicor, and four of Medicor’s shareholder-employee cardiologists (the Physicians) violated the FCA and Stark Law because Hamot’s multiple medical director compensation arrangements with Medicor failed to satisfy the signed writing requirement in the Stark Law’s personal services or fair market value exceptions during various periods of time. The US Department of Justice declined to intervene in the case, but filed a statement of interest in the summary judgment stage supporting the relator’s position. Continue Reading

Third Circuit Affirms Dismissal of FCA Suit against Genentech Based on Supreme Court’s Materiality Standard

On May 1, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of United States ex rel. Petratos, et al. v. Genentech, Inc., et al., No. 15-3801 (3d. Cir. May 1, 2017). On appeal from the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, the Third Circuit reinforced the applicability of the materiality standard set forth by the US Supreme Court in Universal Health Services v. Escobar. Per the Court, the relator’s claims implicate “three interlocking federal schemes:” the False Claims Act (FCA), Medicare reimbursement, and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

The relator, Gerasimos Petratos, was the former head of health care data analytics at Genentech.  He alleged that Genentech suppressed data related to the cancer drug Avastin, thereby causing physicians to certify incorrectly that the drug was “reasonable and necessary” for certain Medicare patients. This standard is drawn from Medicare’s statutory framework: “no payment may be made” for items and services that “are not reasonable and necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395y(a)(1)(A) (emphasis added).  In turn, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) consider whether a drug has received FDA approval in determining, for its part, whether a drug is “reasonable and necessary.” Petratos claimed that Genentech “ignored and suppressed data that would have shown that Avastin’s side effects for certain patients were more common and severe than reported.” Petratos further asserted that analyses of these data would have required the company to file adverse-event reports with the FDA and could have triggered the need to change Avastin’s FDA label.

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Another District Court Dismisses Improperly Pled Implied Certification Claims

On March 27, 2017, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a False Claims Act (FCA) complaint due to failure to satisfy the Supreme Court’s pleading standards for implied certification claims.

In U.S. ex rel. Schimelpfenig v. Dr. Reddy’s Labs. Ltd., the relators alleged that defendant Dr. Reddy’s Labs violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by causing the submission of claims for prescription drugs, which allegedly did not comply with two federal statutes; the Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970 (PPPA) and Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). As alleged by the relators, the defendants that manufactured the drugs failed to issue general conformity certificates for the prescription drugs imported and distributed in the United States, in violation of the CPSIA, and failed to test the packaging of the drugs for child-resistance in violation of the PPPA. The relators alleged that as a result of the noncompliance, drug retailers (also joined as defendants) submitted claims to government payers for federal reimbursement of noncompliant drugs. Continue Reading

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