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

The materiality test articulated in Escobar has become one of the most litigated issues in False Claims Act (FCA) practice. Most courts have taken to heart the Supreme Court’s direction that materiality is a “demanding” and “rigorous” test in which “minor or insubstantial” non-compliance would not qualify as material. However, a recent Sixth Circuit two-to-one decision found that noncompliance with a physician signature timing requirement sufficiently alleged materiality under Escobar, reversing the district court’s dismissal of the case. United States ex rel. Prather v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc., 892 F.3d 822 (6th Cir. 2018). This opinion arguably is inconsistent with Escobar. The better analysis of Relator’s complaint would conclude that the Relator pled insufficient facts, under the Rule 9(b) particularity standard, to suggest that the untimely physician signature somehow resulted in the government paying for home health services for which it otherwise would not have paid.

Case Summary

This decision was Relator’s second time before the Sixth Circuit litigating the complaint she filed in 2012 against Brookdale Senior Living, Inc., and related entities (Brookdale) after the government declined to intervene. The dispute centers around compliance with the regulation, 42 C.F.R. §424.22(a), which pertains to home health services. Section 424.22(a) provides that a “physician must certify the patient’s eligibility for the home health benefit,” including that the individual is home bound and eligible for home care under Medicare’s coverage rules. Subsection (a)(2) has a timing requirement for this certification; “the certification of need for home health services must be obtained at the time the plan of care is established or as soon thereafter as possible and must be signed and dated by the physician who establishes the plan.” Relator alleged that she was engaged to help Brookdale deal with a large backlog of Medicare claims, including obtaining physician certifications months after a patient’s treatment began. She argued that claims with these “late” certifications violated § 424.22(a)(2) and rendered those claims false under an implied certification theory. Continue Reading Timing is Everything: The Sixth Circuit’s Application of the Materiality Test

On June 8, 2018, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted in part a motion for summary judgement filed by a government contractor in an implied false certification case under the False Claims Act (FCA), holding that the relator failed to satisfy the Supreme Court’s materiality standard put forth in the historic Escobar case.

The defendant, Triple Canopy, is a government contractor that provides security services to government agencies overseas. As a result of its overseas services, Triple Canopy was the target of at least two qui tam complaints alleging FCA violations under an implied certification theory. As we previously reported, on May 16, 2017, after a years-long battle, the Fourth Circuit upheld FCA allegations against Triple Canopy, finding that that specific complaint met Escobar’s materiality standard (in part due to Triple Canopy’s attempts to conceal its wrongdoing and the government’s decision not to renew Triple Canopy’s contract once learning of the deficiencies).

The claims in this FCA complaint arose from a different government contract to provide security services at the US Embassy in Baghdad. While employed at Triple Canopy in 2015, the relator Bachert raised concerns about one employee’s routine weapons inspections and records related to those inspections, alleging they were falsified. An internal investigation and a State Department investigation did not substantiate all of Bachert’s claims, but Triple Canopy nevertheless cooperated in the investigation and took corrective actions in response to the allegations. The State Department did not withhold any payment or seek any repayment in connection with the relator’s allegations.

The relator then filed this qui tam action under the FCA on April 22, 2016, in which the government declined to intervene.  The relator asserted that Triple Canopy was liable under the FCA because it submitted claims for payment to federal agencies without disclosing its alleged inspection irregularities and records issues. In moving for summary judgment, Triple Canopy argued that the relator had not demonstrated these alleged issues were material to its payment under the State Department contract. The court agreed with Triple Canopy, finding that it “strains credulity to believe that those inspection reports were a factor in the government’s decision to make payment on the contract.” The court then squarely addressed the materiality standard under Escobar, holding that the “alleged falsehoods at issue . . . are the kind of ‘minor or insubstantial’ noncompliance that Escobar advises are not material.” The court went on to emphasize that the allegations were “insubstantial in relation to the overall size of the [contract],” pointing out that even if the allegations were true, the records involved accounted for only 0.3 percent of the total labor invoice to the government. Finally, the court noted that the State Department had considered the allegations raised by the relator, found them to be immaterial, and continued payment under the contract, which it described as “important factor(s)” in assessing materiality under Escobar and as “uniformly recognized” by circuit courts post-Escobar to substantially increase the relator’s burden in establishing materiality.

This court’s decision joins the litany of other cases holding, based on Escobar, that the government’s actions after learning of alleged violations are critical to the materiality analysis and the relator’s burden in establishing materiality. It is distinct from the pack, however, in that it also considered the nature and value of the breach in proportion to the total value of the contract. This additional factor in the materiality analysis may prove helpful for future litigants.

The case is United States ex rel. Bachert v. Triple Canopy, Inc., Case No. 1:16-cv-456, before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

On April 6, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted a motion for summary judgment filed by a waste company in an implied certification case under the False Claims Act (FCA), holding that the relator failed to satisfy the Supreme Court’s materiality standard announced in the landmark Escobar case.

The claims in U.S. ex rel. Cressman v. Solid Waste Services, Inc. arose from waste company employees discharging leachate, a liquid that passes through or is generated by trash, onto a grassy area at a transfer station, rather than sending the leachate to a treatment plant.  The relator reported the leachate discharge to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which conducted an investigation.  The waste company cooperated in the investigation, conducted its own investigation, and took corrective steps in response to the allegations.  The company also entered into a consent decree in connection with which it paid a civil penalty.

The relator then filed his qui tam action under the FCA, in which the government declined to intervene.  The relator asserted that the defendant waste company was liable under the FCA because it submitted claims for payment to federal agencies without disclosing its violation of environmental regulations arising from the leachate discharge incident. Continue Reading Another Court Grants Summary Judgment to FCA Defendant Based on Escobar’s Materiality Standard

On January 23, 2018, the same judge who two weeks ago set aside a $350 million jury verdict against a nursing home operator denied a new emergency motion by relator to freeze the defendant’s assets pending the relator’s appeal of the court’s order granting judgment as a matter of law.

The relator argued that the defendant should be enjoined from engaging in transactions outside the ordinary course of business during the pendency of the appeal to protect “Relator’s, the United States’, and the State of Florida’s interests during the time the appeal is pending.”  Relator asserted that she has a “strong likelihood of success” on appeal and that the defendant could attempt to “thwart judgment” by transferring assets to related parties while the appeal is pending. Continue Reading Update: Judge Denies Relator’s Attempt to Freeze Nursing Home’s Assets Pending Appeal

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 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 November 8, 2017, the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed a relator’s non-intervened claims in United States ex rel. Stepe v. RS Compounding LLC for failure to satisfy the particularity requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). Relator originally filed her complaint under seal on December 16, 2013, under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) and Florida’s analogous statute. Over three years after the complaint was filed, the government elected to partially intervene as to fraudulent pricing allegations relating to TRICARE. Relator amended her complaint in July 2017 and added state false claims counts under the laws of 16 additional states. All 17 states declined to intervene in the case in September 2017.

The complaint alleges that Relator, through her work as a sales representative for defendant RS Compounding, became aware of Defendants’ purported schemes to defraud the government on prescription compound and gel products. The relator alleged that prescription pads were prepopulated for physicians, with RS Compounding’s most expensive compounds pre-checked on the pads and six refills listed by default. Relator further alleged that this scheme involved sales representatives “coaching” physicians to number three different products on the pads, with priority given to products containing ketamine because those products had a higher reimbursement rate from the government. Continue Reading Dismissed in Florida: Former Compounding Pharmacy Sales Representative’s FCA Whistleblower Suit

Attendees at the Health Care Compliance Association’s Health Care Enforcement Compliance Institute are reporting that, Michael Granston, Director, Civil Frauds, Commercial Litigation Branch of the Civil Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), announced a significant shift in policy for the DOJ in dealing with False Claims Act (FCA) complaints that are deemed “frivolous” on the merits. Acknowledging the burden on the resources of all parties caused by the litigation of frivolous FCA matters, Mr. Granston reportedly stated that, going forward, once it has determined that the allegations of a qui tam complaint lack merit, the DOJ will more aggressively exercise its discretion to move to dismiss the case rather than leave to the qui tam relator in every instance the option of whether to continue the litigation. Senior management—including boards of directors, in-house corporate counsel and chief compliance officers—should take notice of this new, potentially meaningful, opportunity to extricate FCA defendants from burdensome qui tams pursued by relators purely for settlement value. Continue Reading DOJ Announces Significant Shift Towards Affirmative Dismissal Of “Frivolous” Qui Tam Complaints: A New Exit Strategy For Defendants?

On October 23, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed itself by determining that proximate cause—and not the “but-for” causation test that the court adopted 25 years ago—is the appropriate standard to determine causation in a claim under the False Claims Act (FCA). United States v. Luce, No. 16-4093 (7th Cir. Oct. 23, 2017).

The United States brought suit against defendant Robert S. Luce under the FCA and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) in 2011 based upon Fair Housing Act (FHA) certifications included in annual verification reports that Luce and his subordinates signed on behalf of the mortgage company he owned and operated. Although Luce had been indicted in 2005 for an unrelated matter, the mortgage company continued to submit certifications stating that no officers of the company were then subject to criminal proceedings. Only in February 2008, after almost three years had passed since the defendant’s indictment, did the company notify an inspector with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of the indictment. HUD issued a Referral for Suspension/Disbarment of the company shortly thereafter. Continue Reading Seventh Circuit Reevaluates and Adopts More Stringent FCA Causation Standard