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M. Elias (Eli) Berman focuses his practice on complex civil and criminal litigation and government investigations. Read Eli Berman's full bio.

On June 29, 2018, federal district courts in California and Kentucky issued conflicting decisions over the deference owed to prosecutors in seeking to dismiss frivolous False Claims Act (FCA) claims and the effect of the January 2018 Granston Memo, which recognized dismissal as an “important tool” to advance governmental interests, preserve limited resources and avoid adverse precedent.

In United States et al. v. Academy Mortgage Corporation (N.D. Cal.), the relator, an underwriter at Academy Mortgage Corporation (Academy), claimed that a mortgage loan originator violated the FCA by falsely certifying loans for government housing insurance. The government declined to intervene after the relator filed her initial complaint, which limited the alleged misconduct to a one-year period at the specific branch where the relator was employed. The relator next filed an amended complaint that included additional allegations and identified specific employees allegedly complicit in the fraud. This time, the government moved to dismiss the complaint under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(c)(2)(A), which authorizes the government to move to dismiss an FCA action even though it did not intervene in the litigation, as it remains the real party in interest.

In its motion to dismiss, the government argued that allowing the suit to continue would drain government resources and was not justified by a cost-benefit analysis. The government also argued that its conclusion that dismissal was appropriate was subject to deference. Continue Reading Recent District Court Decisions Highlight Conflicting Stances on Dismissal of Frivolous FCA Claims

On January 11, 2018, a federal court in Florida overturned a $350 million False Claims Act (FCA) jury verdict against a nursing home operator, finding “an entire absence of evidence of the kind a disinterested observer, fully informed and fairly guided by Escobar, would confidently expect on the question of materiality.”

In United States ex. rel. Ruckh v. CMC II LLC et al., the relator claimed that a skilled nursing facility and its management company failed to maintain “comprehensive care plans” ostensibly required by Medicare regulations as well as a “handful of paperwork defects” (for example, unsigned or undated documents). In addition, the relator alleged a corporate-wide scheme to bill Medicare for services that were not provided or needed. Continue Reading Escobar Upends $350 Million FCA Verdict

On October 5, 2017, the State of New Jersey sued Insys Therapeutics, Inc. (Insys), alleging that the company improperly marketed and promoted the opioid-fentanyl painkiller drug, Subsys. The civil complaint (Complaint) follows a series of federal indictments (and in some cases guilty pleas), of several Insys employees and executives, as well as lawsuits and ongoing investigations being conducted by several states.

Like many other suits against drug manufacturers for improper marketing and promotion, the Complaint alleges violations of state consumer protection law (here, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act). However, representative of a growing trend among the states, especially in the context of the country’s opioid epidemic, the Complaint also alleges a violation of state False Claims Acts (here, New Jersey’s False Claims Act). Manufacturers, physicians, pharmacies and others should closely review their compliance practices to anticipate such claims in light of the increased assertion of False Claims Act violations at the state level.

Echoing the allegations in other complaints against the company, the New Jersey complaint alleges that Insys improperly marketed Subsys in several ways. The Complaint alleges that, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Subsys only for the “single use of managing breakthrough cancer pain in patients who are tolerant to around-the-clock opioid therapy,” Insys directed its sales force to “peddle” Subsys to a broader patient population. For example, the Complaint alleges that Insys provided its sales force with “target lists ranking by deciles healthcare providers, including dentists and podiatrists, who could write prescriptions for controlled dangerous substances.” The Complaint alleges that: oncologists appeared at the bottom of these target lists, that a small percentage of the sales force was “oncology-specific,” and that the small group was disbanded shortly after Insys created it.

The Complaint also alleges that Insys “pushed” prescribers to prescribe Subsys on an inappropriate starting dosage above the FDA-mandated starting dose. For example, the Complaint alleges that: Insys’ tactics included emails from Insys executives requesting that members of the sales force explain lower-dose prescriptions, implementation of a “Switch” program designed to convert patients on high levels of competing products to the same high dosage of Subsys, a “Super Voucher” program to provide free Subsys prescriptions to prescribers, and “bribes” to prescribers alleged to be in the form of “speaker fees.”

In addition to three counts of violations of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, the Complaint alleges that Insys’ conduct violated the False Claims Act. The Complaint alleges that Insys caused the submission of false claims for reimbursement of Subsys to several New Jersey state-run programs, including New Jersey’s State Health Benefits Program, School Employees’ Health Benefits Program and State Workers’ Compensation Program. The Complaint alleges that these submissions included allegedly false expressed and/or implied certification of compliance with federal and State law and medical necessity.

The case is Porrino v. Insys Therapeutics, Inc., Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Middlesex Vicinage.

On June 20, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor on all but her retaliation claims in relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) suit against defendants Vista Hospice Care, Inc. and VistaCare, Inc.  The court found that the relator, a former social worker at Defendants’ facility, failed to provide any evidence of a corporate scheme to admit Medicare beneficiaries before they were eligible.  The decision echoed principles announced by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in US ex rel. Paradies v. AseraCare, Inc., which we have been following on this blog (and which is now on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit).

The relator relied on two types of evidence: (1) expert testimony that physicians incorrectly certified certain patients’ eligibility; and (2) Defendants’ implementation of corporate policies designed to incentivize improper admissions.

The relator’s expert identified a population of 12,000 patients who had been discharged in the relevant period and were on hospice for a total of at least 365 days.  The expert then selected a stratified sample of 291 patients for evaluation by a second expert.  The first expert then extrapolated the second expert’s analysis to form an opinion as to the total number of claims submitted for the 12,000 patients that were allegedly false.

The court rejected this approach.  First, the court cast doubt on extrapolation evidence, refusing to find it reliable.  The court stated that “[i]n this context, statistical sampling of the type done by [the expert] . . . cannot establish liability for fraud in submitting claims for ineligible patients, as the underlying determination of eligibility for hospice is inherently subjective, patient-specific, and dependent on the judgment of involved physicians.”  The court concluded that “proof regarding one claim does not meet Relator’s burden of proof regarding other claims involving different patients, different medical conditions, different caregivers, different facilities, different time periods, and different physicians.”

Second, the court found that the manner in which the expert chose the stratified sample of 291 patients was “fundamentally flawed” because the sample the expert relied on was not randomly selected and did not control for variables the expert identified as important, such as geographical differentiation, different clinical staffs and doctors or disease type.  Thus, the court prohibited the relator from presenting evidence beyond the 291 patients.

The court also rejected the evidence the relator presented as to these 291 patients.  The court concluded that the relator’s expert’s mere disagreement with a certifying physician’s assessment of hospice eligibility was insufficient to prove a violation of the FCA.  Rather, “[b]ecause a physician must use his or her clinical judgment to determine hospice eligibility, an FCA claim . . . must be predicated on the presence of an objectively verifiable fact at odds with the exercise of that judgment, not a matter of questioning subjective clinical analysis.”  For example, a relator must show that a physician “never reviewed the patient’s medical condition nor saw the patient, or that the physician did not actually believe that if the patient’s disease ran its normal course, the patient had a prognosis of six months or less.”  Here, the fact that the expert simply reached different conclusions than the certifying physicians as to the necessity of admitting certain patients was insufficient.

As to Defendants’ alleged improper implementation of certain corporate policies, the relator pointed to those policies (1) encouraging admission of patients earlier than competitors and before determining eligibility, (2) requiring multiple layers of review before discharging patients, and (3) instructing staff to document evidence supporting eligibility for eligible patients.  According to the relator, these policies supported an inference that Defendants billed for ineligible patients.  But the court found that making that inference would be improper, finding that “[w]hat Relator is missing here is a causal link between Defendants’ policies, a few instances where medical information was allegedly falsified, and actual false or fraudulent certifications and claims.”

As this case underscores, FCA claims dependent on issues of clinical judgment are met with skepticism by the courts, in recognition of the fact that the FCA is not a tool to arbitrate good faith clinical disputes.  Attempts by FCA plaintiffs to extrapolate to prove broad liability are also being closely scrutinized, particularly where, as here, the unique clinical elements underlying each claim are not generalizable across a broad universe.