The October issue of the journal Science features a series of short articles highlighting a database containing a list of more than 18,000 scientific papers and conference abstracts that have been retracted over the past several decades. An analysis of the database shows that nearly 60 percent of retraction notices mentioned fraud or other kinds of misconduct (the balance of which were retracted because of errors, problems with reproducibility and other issues). The Science article, as well as a link to the searchable database, can be accessed here. Not only does research misconduct have significant potential for reputational harm–potentially career ending for the investigator, with ripple effects for the institution–but as described below, when the associated research is federally funded, such misconduct could have significant legal (and liability) implications.

US health care organizations are used to warnings about the potential for exposure under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) resulting from improper claims submitted to federal payors such as Medicare and Medicaid. Less attention has been paid to the potential for FCA liability resulting from research non-compliance. Recipients of federal grant funding are subject to a variety of complex rules (e.g., the National Institute of Health (NIH)  Grants Policy Statement), as well as the terms and conditions of the Notices of Award.  Just as compliance with Medicare rules can lead to questions about potential FCA exposure for Medicare payments, compliance with federal grant funding rules can lead to the same questions for grant funds.

For example, grant recipients should consider the FCA implications of research misconduct. “Research misconduct” is defined by the Public Health Services’ (PHS’s) final rule, effective  June 2005 (the Rule), as the “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.103. The Rule confers upon an organization an affirmative duty to protect PHS funds from misuse by ensuring the integrity of all PHS supported work, and primary responsibility for responding to and reporting allegations of research misconduct. 42 C.F.R. § 93.100(b). The Rule applies to grant funding from a variety of federal agencies, including the Food & Drug Administration, NIH, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to name a few.

Continue Reading Practice Reminder: Research Misconduct can be a Source of False Claims Act Liability

On July 10, 2017, US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a December 3, 2014, district court dismissal of False Claims Act (FCA) claims against Salish Kootenai College (College), a tribal college of the Salish Kootenai Tribes (Tribe).  United States ex rel. Cain v. Salish Kootenai College, Inc. (July 10, 2017). The 9th Circuit directed the district court to reconsider whether the College is subject to liability under the FCA under a different standard than used by the district court.

The district court had entered its order dismissing claims by the qui tam relators that the College filed false progress reports to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service in order to retain grant funding from the agencies, holding that the College was an arm of the Tribe and shared the Tribe’s sovereign immunity, which had not been waived by the Tribe or Congress. (The district court also dismissed claims against the members of the College board of directors and the College foundation. Relators, however, only appealed the dismissal of claims against the College.)

The court of appeals disagreed with the district court’s framing of the question. The central question is not, as the district court found, whether the College enjoyed tribal immunity and whether such immunity had been waived. Rather, the central issue in a FCA case is whether the College is a “person” within the meaning of the FCA, and, thus subject to liability under the FCA. Accordingly, the court undertook a two-part analysis to decide the question: (1) whether the Tribe is a person under the FCA or a sovereign not subject to the FCA, and, if the latter; (2) whether the College is an arm of the Tribe that shares the Tribe’s sovereign status for purposes of the FCA. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Remands False Claims Act Case against Tribal College for Determination of Sovereign Status