Government investigation

The False Claims Act (FCA) allows the government to pursue any “alternate remedy available” if the government chooses not to intervene in a qui tam action. See 31 U.S.C. § 3730(c)(5). However, if the government pursues an “alternate remedy,” the FCA gives the qui tam plaintiff the “same rights” in the “alternate” proceeding that the plaintiff would have had if the qui tam action “had continued.” Id. In U.S. v. Couch et al., the question before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit was whether the FCA allows a qui tam plaintiff to intervene in a criminal forfeiture proceeding when the government chooses to prosecute fraud rather than intervene in the qui tam plaintiff’s action. No. 17-13402 (Oct. 17, 2018). The Eleventh Circuit held that criminal forfeiture law bars qui tam plaintiffs from intervening in related forfeiture proceedings.

Background

The suit stemmed from a qui tam action brought by Lori Carver, a former employee of an Alabama-based pain management company. During her employment, Carver allegedly discovered that the two doctors that ran the clinic, John P. Couch and Xiulu Ruan, submitted false claims to federal health care programs. Carver took her information to the US Attorney’s office, which encouraged her to bring a qui tam action against the doctors and the clinic. Carver brought the qui tam action in 2013 and the case remains pending. Carver is litigating the case herself, because the government chose not to intervene.

With Carver’s information, the government began investigating Dr. Couch and Dr. Ruan. Two years after Carver brought her qui tam action, the government criminally charged both doctors with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to commit health care fraud. The charges in the indictment partially overlapped with Carver’s qui tam complaint. Thereafter, more defendants and charges were added to the criminal case in subsequent, superseding indictments. A jury ultimately convicted Couch on all charges and Ruan on all but one charge, which resulted in the judge issuing a preliminary forfeiture order.

Carver moved to intervene in the forfeiture proceedings, asserting a right to some of the forfeited assets. Carver primarily argued that the alternate-remedy provision allows her to intervene to claim a share of the assets she would be entitled to if the government had intervened in her qui tam action.

In response, the government argued that Carver did not have standing to intervene under the alternate-remedy provision because her qui tam case is pending—meaning that Carver has not yet established a right to a relator’s share. The government also argued that the FCA does not permit intervention in criminal cases.

The district court denied Carver’s motion to intervene and ruled that the alternate-remedy provision does not permit intervention in criminal cases.

Appeal Before Eleventh Circuit

The Eleventh Circuit took issue with the government’s jurisdictional arguments. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that Carver had standing to assert that the alternative-remedy provision gives her a right to intervene in criminal forfeiture proceedings and claim an interest in the forfeited property.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the government’s claim that Carver’s potential property interest in the forfeited assets was too “speculative.” While the Eleventh Circuit agreed that no court had yet adjudicated whether Carver was entitled to a relator’s share, it noted that if this were enough to deprive the panel of jurisdiction, “no person claiming a property interest would ever get into federal court.”

Turning to the substantive issues, the Eleventh Circuit noted that whether a criminal fraud prosecution is an “alternate remedy” is an open question. Applying statutory construction to interpret the alternate-remedy provision of the FCA, the Eleventh Circuit held that the three criminal forfeiture statutes at issue each expressly bar third parties from intervening in forfeiture proceedings to claim an interest in property subject to forfeiture: “these criminal forfeiture statutes speak to the precise issue raised in this appeal, and they make plain that [Carver] has no right to intervene.”

The Eleventh Circuit noted that its ruling will not prevent Carver from getting her relator’s share, with the government having provided a related assurance to the court that if Carver is successful in her FCA case, she will be entitled to her share of the judgment, including the restitution already paid, which can be offset against the FCA judgment.

Last month, Insys Therapeutics, Inc. announced that it reached a settlement-in-principle with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to settle claims that it knowingly offered and paid kickbacks to induce physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drug Subsys and that it knowingly caused Medicare and other federal health care programs to pay for non-covered uses of the drug. The drugmaker agreed to pay at least $150 million and up to $75 million more based on “contingent events.” According to a status report filed by DOJ, the tentative agreement is subject to further approval and resolution of related issues. The settlement does not resolve state civil fraud and consumer protection claims against the company.

The consolidated lawsuits subject to the settlement allege that Insys violated the False Claims Act and Anti-Kickback Statute in connection with its marketing of Subsys, a sub-lingual spray form of the powerful opioid fentanyl. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Subsys for, and only for, the treatment of persistent breakthrough pain in adult cancer patients who are already receiving, and tolerant to, around-the-clock opioid therapy. The government’s complaint alleges that Insys provided kickbacks in the form of arrangements disguised as otherwise permissible activities. Specifically, it alleges that Insys instituted a sham speaker program, paying thousands of dollars in fees to practitioners for speeches “attended only by the prescriber’s own office staff, by close friends who attended multiple presentations, or by people who were not medical professionals and had no legitimate reason for attending.” Many of these speeches were held at restaurants and did not include any substantive presentation. Insys also allegedly provided jobs for prescribers’ friends and relatives, visits to strip clubs, and lavish meals and entertainment. Continue Reading Insys Announces Settlement-in-Principle with DOJ Over Alleged Subsys Kickback Scheme

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

Health Care Enforcement Q2 Roundup Webinar
Date: Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Time: 11:00 am PDT | 12:00 pm MDT | 1:00 pm CDT | 2:00 pm EDT

REGISTER NOW

How will recent developments and emerging trends related to health care fraud and abuse impact future investigation targets and litigants?

Our upcoming Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup webinar will address this critical question and discuss trends related to:

  • Continued interpretations of landmark Escobar case
  • Recent guidance from DOJ leadership regarding enforcement priorities
  • Uptick in state and federal efforts to combat the opioid crisis
  • Court guidance on the use of statistical sampling in False Claims Act (FCA) cases
  • Growing Circuit split on key FCA provisions, including the public disclosure bar, statute of limitations and tolling of claims
  • Other trends that are critical to health care business operations and compliance with the ever-changing regulatory landscape

Attendees will also receive an advance copy of McDermott’s Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup report on the day of the webinar and will have the opportunity to ask questions of the panel through the webinar platform.

Earlier this week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a new front in its effort to combat the opioid crisis and explicitly stated that it will deploy the False Claims Act (FCA) as part of its offensive. In a press release and parallel speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on February 28, 2018, DOJ announced the creation of the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force.

According to DOJ, the PIL Task Force will combat the opioid crisis at every level of the distribution system, from manufacturers to distributors (including pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities and individual physicians). DOJ will use all available civil and criminal remedies to hold manufacturers accountable, building on its existing coordination with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure proper labeling and marketing.  Likewise, DOJ will use civil and criminal actions to ensure that distributors and pharmacies are following US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rules implemented to prevent diversion and improper prescribing. Finally, DOJ will use the FCA and other enforcement tools to pursue pain-management clinics, drug testing facilities and physicians that make opioid prescriptions. Continue Reading New DOJ Task Force to Take on Opioid Crisis Using the FCA and Other Enforcement Tools

The government’s focus on the US opioid crisis has been consistently expanding over the past year beyond manufacturers to reach prescribers and health care providers who submit claims to federal health care programs for opioid prescriptions. These efforts increasingly include investigations under the False Claims Act and administrative actions, in addition to the more traditional criminal approach to these issues.

With the Trump administration’s public health emergency orders, it is expected for the government’s enforcement activities, including those instigated by relators and their counsel, to grow in this area.

Continue Reading.

As first reported in the National Law Journal, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Division, recently issued an important memorandum to its lawyers handling qui tam cases filed under the False Claims Act (FCA) outlining circumstances under which the United States should seek to dismiss a case where it has declined intervention and, therefore, is not participating actively in the continued litigation of the case against the defendant by the qui tam relator. Continue Reading DOJ Issues Memorandum Outlining Factors for Evaluating Dismissal of Qui Tam FCA Cases in Which the Government Has Declined to Intervene

On December 21, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained more than $3.7 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud and false claims against the government in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017. Recoveries since 1986, when Congress substantially amended the civil False Claims Act (FCA), now total more than $56 billion.

Of the $3.7 billion in settlements and judgments, $2.4 billion involved the health care industry, including drug companies, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories and physicians. This is the eighth consecutive year that the department’s civil health care fraud settlements and judgments have exceeded $2 billion. In addition to health care, the False Claims Act serves as the government’s primary avenue to civilly pursue government funds and property under other government programs and contracts, such as defense and national security, food safety and inspection, federally insured loans and mortgages, highway funds, small business contracts, agricultural subsidies, disaster assistance and import tariffs. Continue Reading Justice Department Recovers More Than $3.7 Billion from FCA Cases in Fiscal Year 2017

When is a new qui tam lawsuit derivative of a lawsuit in which the government has already intervened? The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit answered that question on December 1, 2017, when it decided United States ex rel. Bennett v. Biotronik, Inc. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit addressed the “government action bar” contained in 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(3), which states that a relator may not bring a qui tam suit “based upon allegations or transactions which are the subject of a civil suit . . . in which the Government is already a party.”  31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(3).

The Ninth Circuit in Bennett was faced with False Claims Act (FCA) claims predicated on facts that had already been the basis of a prior qui tam action against the defendant, Biotronik. The government had since settled and dismissed several (but not all) claims in the prior action. The district court dismissed the relator’s complaint based upon the government action bar. In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the Ninth Circuit reached two relevant conclusions. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Case Provides New Insight into Government Action Bar

On January 19, 2017, another district court ruled that a mere difference of opinion between physicians is not enough to establish falsity under the False Claims Act.  In US ex rel. Polukoff v. St. Mark’s et al., No. 16-cv-00304 (Jan. 17, 2017 D. Utah), the district court dismissed relator’s non-intervened qui tam complaint with prejudice based on a combination of Rule 9(b) and 12(b)(6) deficiencies.  In so doing, the Polukoff court joined US v. AseraCare, Inc., 176 F. Supp. 3d 1282, 1283 (N.D. Ala. 2016) and a variety of other courts in rejecting False Claims Act claims premised on lack of medical necessity or other matters of scientific judgment.  This decision came just days before statements by Tom Price, President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), before the Senate Finance Committee in which he suggested that CMS should focus less on reviewing questions medical necessity and more on ferreting out true fraud.  Price’s statements, as well as decisions like Polukoff, are welcome developments for providers, who often confront both audits and FCA actions premised on alleged lack of medical necessity, even in situations where physicians vigorously disagree about the appropriate course of treatment.

In Polukoff, the relator alleged that the defendant physician, Dr. Sorensen, performed and billed the government for unnecessary medical procedures (patent formen ovale (PFO) closures). The relator also alleged that two defendant hospitals had billed the government for associated costs.  Specifically, the relator alleged that PFO closures were reasonable and medically necessary only in highly limited circumstances, such as where there was a history of stroke.  Medicare had not issued a National Coverage Determination (NCD) for PFO closures or otherwise indicated circumstances under which it would pay for such procedures.  However, the relator held up medical guidelines issued by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA), which, essentially, stated that PFO closures could be considered for patients with “recurring cryptogenic stroke despite taking optimal medical therapy” or other particularized conditions. Continue Reading The FCA and Medical Necessity: An Increasingly Tenuous Relationship