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
In light of the rising civil monetary penalties under the False Claims Act (FCA) and the looming threat of bank-breaking treble damages, avenues to dismissal are paramount to defendants operating in industries vulnerable to FCA claims, including health care. The United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. United States ex rel. Rigsby, issued on December 6, 2016, narrows the path for one such avenue.
In Rigsby, the Supreme Court closed the door on what would have been a powerful tool for defendants facing qui tam complaints brought under the FCA: mandatory dismissal based on a relator’s violation of the 60-day seal requirement. The Court did not, however, foreclose dismissal as a possible sanction against relators who violate the seal‑requirements.
While there are a number of executive policies that will be affected by the presidential election, there are several reasons to expect modest change in the government’s approach to False Claims Act (FCA) actions. The most significant reason for this expectation is that the vast majority of FCA cases are filed by relators on behalf of the government and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has historically viewed itself as obligated to conduct an investigation into those cases. There is little reason to suspect the financial motivations that encourage relators and relators’ counsel to continue to bring cases under the FCA will diminish. That said, the possibility of repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could remove or change some of the ACA’s FCA amendments that enhanced the ability of certain individuals to qualify as a relator. The composition of the Supreme Court may have the most significant impact on the FCA given the Court’s increasing interest in this area.
On November 8, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision in U.S. ex rel. Saldivar v. Fresenius Medical Care Holdings, Inc., remanding the case for entry of an order dismissing the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the False Claims Act’s (FCA) pre-2010 public disclosure bar.
We previously posted about the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia’s October 30, 2015, decision granting Fresenius’ motion for summary judgment. As a reminder, relator Chester Saldivar alleged that Fresenius violated the FCA by billing the government for the “overfill” in medication vials, which is the extra medication included to facilitate the extraction of the amount labeled on the vial.
Fresenius maintained that the action should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to the pre-2010 version of the public disclosure bar in the FCA, which prevents qui tam actions if the allegations in question were publicly disclosed and the relator is not an original source. The district court concluded that Saldivar’s allegations of overfill billing were publicly disclosed to the government in communications between Fresenius and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as well as publicly in a complaint in another matter. But, the district court held that Saldivar was an “original source” and not barred from bringing the action because of his experience in managing the inventory of the medication and his discussions with supervisors and coworkers about overfill use and billing.
On the merits of Saldivar’s allegations, the district court then held that Saldivar could not prove that Fresenius knew that billing for overfill was impermissible. On that basis, the district court granted Fresenius’ motion for summary judgment and Saldivar appealed.
On September 30, 2016, the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued an opinion in United States ex rel. Conroy v. Select Medical Corp., et al. (Case No. 12-cv-000051) regarding the 2010 False Claims Act (FCA) Amendments to the public disclosure bar (31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A)) and the government’s associated right to veto a public disclosure-based dismissal.
The opinion addresses a motion to dismiss a non-intervened FCA suit based on several grounds, including the public disclosure bar. Complicating matters was that the allegations involved claims that arose both prior to and after March 23, 2010 – the effective date of the amendments to the public disclosure bar. In addition, the government, despite not intervening with respect to the FCA claims, filed its own brief opposing a public disclosure bar-based dismissal. Continue Reading District Court Opinion Analyzes the Impact of the 2010 FCA Amendments on the Public Disclosure Bar
On July 27, 2016, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California issued a ruling in United States ex rel. Hastings v. Wells Fargo Bank, NA, Inc., affirming the district court dismissal of a qui tam suit on the grounds that the relator was not an original source.
The relator had sued Wells Fargo and a number of other lending institutions under the Federal Claims Act (FCA), claiming they had falsely certified to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that they were in compliance with a regulation requiring borrowers to make a down payment of at least 3%. Federal regulations allow this down payment to be paid via gift, so long as repayment for the gift is not “expected or implied.” See U.S. ex rel. Hastings v. Wells Fargo Bank, Nat. Ass’n (Inc.), 2014 WL 3519129, at *1 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2014) (summarizing HUD regulations).
The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the gravamen of the allegations (that certain charities were, with the tacit approval the defendants, making “gifts” to borrowers that were ultimately repaid) had already been disclosed in various public documents that predated the qui tam suit. Because of these public disclosures, the suit could only proceed if the relator was an “original source” of the information, per 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A). The district court held that the relator, a real estate agent, was not an original source because his knowledge of the charities and their gift programs was secondhand. The court also held the fact that relator had “offered his view to HUD that [the gift programs] violated HUD standards” to be of no moment, because “[i]dentifying the legal consequences of information already in the public domain does not constitute discovery of fraud.” 2014 WL 3519129, at *11.
On appeal, the relator argued that the district court incorrectly applied the 1986 FCA definition of “original source” (someone who has “direct and independent knowledge of the information on which the allegations are based”) instead of the 2010 definition (someone who “(1) prior to a public disclosure … has voluntarily disclosed to the Government the information on which allegations or transactions in a claim are based, or (2) has knowledge that is independent of and materially adds to the publicly disclosed allegations or transactions”). Compare 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(B) (1986) with 31 USC. § 3730(e)(4)(B) (2010). The Ninth Circuit panel unanimously held that the relator was not an original source under either definition. Regarding the former, it held that his knowledge was not “direct and independent” where it was “assembled from information available to all members of the Multiple State Listing Service.” 2016 WL 4011199, at *1. Regarding the latter, it held that the relator had merely provided the government with information that did not “materially add to [the] public disclosures,” citing the fact that the gift programs in question “were extensively examined in proposed rules, internal audits, a GAO report, and congressional hearings.” Id. at *2.
In sum, the FCA’s original source requirement represents a high bar for qui tam plaintiffs. Suits brought by relators who are not true insider “whistleblowers” with first-hand knowledge of the alleged fraud are remain highly vulnerable to dismissal on the pleadings.
On June 30, 2016, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued a ruling in United States ex rel. Winkelman and Martinsen v. CVS Caremark Corp., affirming the district court dismissal of a qui tam suit (in which the United States had declined to intervene) on public disclosure grounds.
The relators had sued CVS in August 2011 under the FCA and several analogous state statutes, claiming CVS’ “Health Savings Pass” program was designed to defraud Medicare and Medicaid by failing to pass along discounts offered to certain customers. CVS moved to dismiss, arguing that significant publicity in 2010 (during which labor unions and state officials alleged the Health Savings Pass program overcharged the government) was sufficient to bar the suit.
The FCA states, in relevant part, that qui tam actions cannot stand “if substantially the same allegations or transactions as alleged in the action . . . were publicly disclosed.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A). The relators argued that their allegations were not substantially the same as the 2010 allegations because the latter described a “price gouging scheme,” as opposed to fraud. Characterizing this as “quibbling” and an elevation of “form over substance,” the First Circuit noted that the FCA does not require public disclosures to “specifically label disclosed conduct as fraudulent,” adding that a subsequent qui tam complaint is barred “even if it offers greater detail about the underlying conduct.” Responding to the relators’ argument that the public disclosure addressed a different state than the ones addressed in their complaint, the court held:
When it is already clear from the public disclosures that a given requirement common to multiple programs is being violated and that the same potentially fraudulent arrangement operates in other states where the defendant does business, memorializing those easily inferable deductions in a complaint does not suffice to distinguish the relators’ action from the public disclosures.
Similarly, in the context of rejecting the relators’ argument that they were original sources, the court held that “asserting a longer duration for the same allegedly fraudulent practice,” “[o]ffering specific examples of that conduct,” or “add[ing] detail about the precise manner” in which a scheme operated were all insufficient to overcome the public disclosure bar.
The takeaway for practitioners attempting to defeat relators’ complaints on the pleadings is that the FCA’s public disclosure bar does not require allegations to be even close to identical. Because the “ultimate inquiry,” according to the First Circuit, is “whether the government has received fair notice . . . about the potential existence of the fraud,” so long as there has been public disclosure of the general allegation, qui tam FCA suits should fail.
On April 20, 2016, the US District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed a False Claims Act (FCA) case based on 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(3), otherwise known as the FCA’s “government action” bar, in US ex rel. Bennett v. Biotronik, Inc. This bar provides: “In no event may a person bring an action under [the FCA] which is based upon allegations or transactions which are the subject of a civil suit or an administrative civil monetary penalty proceeding in which the Government is already a party.” Compared with the FCA’s public disclosure bar (§ 3730(e)(4)(a)), which serves a similar goal of preventing claims by parasitic relators where the government is already on notice of alleged fraud, the government action bar is invoked relatively infrequently. However, Bennett is reminder that qui tam defendants who face or have faced multiple suits predicated on the same or similar allegations should always consider the availability of a defense based on the government action bar, in addition to other available defenses.
The relator in Bennett alleged that the defendant, Biotronik, paid doctors to enroll patients in studies that lacked scientific and medical value, as a result of which doctors prescribed Biotronik’s cardiac devices. A prior FCA case against Biotronik (the Sant case) contained similar allegations about studies, along with other kickback allegations. The government had intervened and immediately settled the Sant case, but the “covered conduct” in that settlement did not include the allegations relating to studies; instead, it focused on other types of purported payments to physicians.
The court dismissed the Bennett complaint based on the government action bar, in light of the prior Sant case. Drawing on the First Circuit’s opinion in US ex rel. S. Prawer & Co. v. Fleet Bank of Maine, 24 F.3d 320, 324-26 (1st Cir. 1994), the Bennett court observed that the purpose of the government action bar is to “prevent the prosecution of qui tam FCA claims that [stand] to enrich the relator but not to expose fraud.” The court held that this principle applied squarely to preclude the Bennett case, which contained similar study-related kickback allegations as those previously alleged in Sant.
The court rejected the relator’s assertion that the government action bar only applied to the “covered conduct” in the Sant settlement which, according to the relator, was the only piece of Sant as to which the government intervened. The court held that the statute does not support such a narrow and artificial reading, and that the Sant case had put the government on notice of a range of allegations, including both the “covered conduct” and the allegations concerning the studies. The government “investigated all of those claims, and after its investigation, negotiated a joint settlement of the case and complaint.” The court observed that applying the government action bar to these facts “fits the purpose of § 3730(e)(3), to dispense with qui tam claims of wrongdoing the government has already discovered thanks to previous suits or proceedings.”
The court also rejected the relator’s assertion that the government action bar only applies while the prior action remains pending, observing that the bar does not contain the word “pending” (unlike, for example, the FCA’s first-to-file bar). And again, the court noted that the relator’s interpretation “would clash with the widely recognized purpose of § 3730(e)(3): discouraging follow-on lawsuits that provide the government with little or no benefit.”
Given that defendants increasingly face multiple FCA actions brought by different relators alleging the same or similar conduct, defense counsel should assess the viability of a motion to dismiss based on the government action bar, in addition to more frequently invoked defenses like the public disclosure bar. Under the court’s reasoning in Bennett, even where one of those actions settles on a narrow basis, the government action bar may preclude a subsequent suit involving allegations similar to those alleged in, but not part of the settlement of, the prior action.
In a February 29, 2016, decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the public disclosure bar precluded a relator, a government watchdog agency, from successfully bringing a False Claims Act (FCA) suit against the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Cause of Action v. Chicago Transit Authority, No. 15-1143, 2016 U.S. App. Lexis 3628 (7th Cir., Feb. 29, 2016).
The Seventh Circuit found that the activity underlying the alleged fraud (misreporting transportation data to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in an effort to get additional federal funding) was in the public domain for two independent reasons. First, there was governmental disclosure: the government, through FTA itself, knew of the activity, had investigated it, and had issued a report (in the form of a letter to the CTA) on the investigation. Second, the Illinois Auditor General conducted a performance audit of the CTA which uncovered the alleged fraud and issued a report on the same; that audit report was publicly available on the Illinois Auditor General’s website, had been reviewed in a public hearing, and was generally available to the media and the public.
In stating that the governmental disclosure (via the FTA letter) was sufficient for the public disclosure bar to apply, the Seventh Circuit noted that the primary questions were whether the FTA had “actively investigat[ed]” the allegations and reported on that investigation—not, as Relator claimed, whether the FTA had done anything to recover money from the CTA. Here, it was clear from the FTA letter that the FTA had actively investigated the allegations, and the letter itself served as the report. Continue Reading Seventh Circuit Finds Public Disclosure Bar Precludes Jurisdiction in CTA Case
On January 20, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed a complaint based on allegations of Average Wholesale Price (AWP) fraud under the False Claims Act (FCA) against CSL Behring, LLC (Behring) and specialty pharmacies Accredo Health, Inc., (Accredo) and Coram LLC (Coram). See United States ex rel. Lager v. CSL Behring, LLC, et al., No. 4:14-CV-841CEJ, 2016 WL 233245 (E.D. Missouri 2016). The Court found that relator’s allegations were barred by the public disclosure bar and did not satisfy the “original source” exception.
Relator, a former Behring employee, alleged that the company reported inflated AWPs for prescription drugs, Vivaglobin and Hizentra, causing government health programs to reimburse specialty pharmacies much more than they paid for the drugs ($133 v. $65 and $151 v. $70). Vivaglobin and Hizentra are classified as “DME infusion drugs” because they are self-administered by patients through a pump, which is considered durable medical equipment (DME). Unlike most drugs which the government reimburses based on a percentage of the average sales price (ASP), DME infusion drugs are reimbursed based on a percentage of the drug’s AWP. Unlike ASP, AWP is not defined by law or regulation and is not based on actual sales data. AWP is based on figures the drug manufacturer reports to third-party publishers and is substantially higher than ASP. In addition to allegations that Behring reported inflated AWPs, relator claimed that Behring used the “spread” between the actual cost and the AWP-based reimbursement rates to induce their customers, including Accredo and Coram, to buy their products.
Citing multiple government sources and media outlets “[that] have long disclosed that AWP does not represent the actual prices of drugs,” as well as “multiple disclosures that manufacturers used the difference between actual costs and AWPs to influence sales,” the court dismissed the complaint under the public disclosure bar, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A). Id. at *3-*6 (commenting that “[t]his state of affairs has been labeled as a scam and fraud by the press and in multiple civil lawsuits”). The court was unpersuaded by relator’s argument that the public disclosure bar did not apply because the public disclosures did not “contain all of the elements of the alleged fraudulent transactions” (emphasis added), including the defendants and drugs at issue. The court noted that the prior public disclosures “need not contain every fact or legal consequence to trigger the public disclosure bar” (citation omitted) and explained:
In 2007, the court overseeing the multidistrict litigation found that pharmaceutical companies submitted “false, inflated AWPs” that “caused real injuries.” In re Pharm. Indus. Average Wholesale Price Litig., 491 . Supp. 2d at 31. In 2013 the OIG disclosed the extreme spread between AWP and ASPs for DME infusion drugs, generally, while publications by the third-party publishers and CMS showed the spread for Viaglobin and Hizentra in particular. These disclosures are sufficient to identify both the defendants and the drugs.
Relator also failed to adequately allege that he was an “original source” pursuant to 31 U.S.C. §3730(e)(4)(B). Relator claimed that he qualified as an original source because he had “knowledge that [wa]s independent of and materially add[ed] to the publicly disclosed allegations” and he disclosed that information to the Government “before filing [this] action.” The court rejected this claim for two reasons. First, the court found that relator’s mandatory pre-filing disclosure in compliance with §3730(b)(2) did not satisfy the pre-filing disclosure requirement of §3730(e)(4)(B). Id. at *7 (noting that the purpose of the §3730(e)(4)(B) is to encourage “private individuals to come forward with their information of fraud at the earliest possible time and…discourage persons with relevant information from remaining silent.” (citations omitted)). Second, putting the timing issues aside, the court found that relator’s information did not materially add to the vast amounts of information available in public disclosures. Relator’s knowledge simply wasn’t “qualitatively different” from information already discovered.
This case suggests that future AWP fraud-based FCA cases will face a steep uphill battle, and may be foreclosed by the public disclosure bar. The government is and has been on notice that AWPs do not represent the actual sales price and that some manufacturers have used the “spread” between the AWP-based cost and the actual price to induce sales. In this regard, it may be difficult for a future relator to bring enough “qualitatively different” information to the table to qualify as an original source.