Government investigation

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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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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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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On July 12, 2016, the US Senate Finance Committee held a hearing to “examine ways to improve and reform the Stark Law” as a follow up to releasing a white paper on June 30 titled Why Stark, Why Now? Suggestions to Improve the Stark Law to Encourage Innovative Payment Models. The white paper summarizes

On June 9, 2016, Acting Associate Attorney General Bill Baer delivered a speech regarding the impact of the Yates Memorandum’s focus on individual accountability and corporate cooperation at the American Bar Association’s 11th National Institute on Civil False Claims Act and Qui Tam Enforcement.  The focus of the speech was on the interplay between the Yates Memorandum and investigations and litigation under the False Claims Act (FCA), underscoring the fact that the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) focus on individuals is not limited to the criminal context.
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