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 April 28, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed a relator’s qui tam complaint in United States ex rel. Leysock v. Forest Laboratories, Inc. after concluding that the complaint relied on information obtained resulting from deceptive conduct by the relator’s counsel.

In Leysock, the relator alleged that the defendant caused the submission of false claims to Medicare by promoting Forest’s dementia drug, Namenda, for off-label label use. After the United States declined to intervene, Forest filed a motion to dismiss, which the Court denied, largely based upon detailed allegations about eight prescribing physicians who prescribed Namenda for off-label use by Medicare beneficiaries. These allegations, the Court reasoned, were sufficient to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b), which in False Claims Act cases typically requires plaintiffs to plead specific allegations regarding the alleged fraud, tying alleged misconduct to the submission of false claims to a government payor.

Through discovery, Forest subsequently learned that relators’ counsel had obtained the information underlying these detailed allegations from a survey conducted by an individual whom relators’ counsel had contracted. This contractor misled the physicians about why he was conducting the survey (not disclosing that he had been retained by the relators in a False Claims Act action) and coaxed the physicians into turning over detailed patient information to the contractor.

In response, the Court concluded that this deception violated Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 4.1(a), which prohibits a lawyer or his agent from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third person. Consequently, the court concluded, this conduct violated Local Rule 83.6.1 of the United States District Court. As a remedy, the Court struck these allegations, noting that “[the contractor’s] study was conducted solely for the purpose of ensuring that the complaint survived a motion to dismiss,” i.e., to ensure that the complaint satisfied Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement.

Although the relators’ conduct in this case is unlikely to be repeated in future cases, this case underscores the challenges relators can face in meeting Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement. These challenges are particularly acute in non-intervened qui tam cases, where the government fails to provide the relator with information about specific false claims that the defendant allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted. Imposing these challenges will continue to chill would-be relators, without firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing, from bringing meritless qui tam cases.

We reported back in March on the US District Court for the District of Columbia’s summary judgment decision in the Lance Armstrong/Floyd Landis/US Postal Service (USPS) False Claims Act (FCA) litigation, centered on Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) while he was leading a professional cycling team sponsored by the USPS. A pack of motions in limine (MILs) filed by the parties over the past few weeks suggest that the case may well be headed to trial this fall, and raise some notable legal issues to watch as it continues to unfold, including: Continue Reading Motions in Limine Filed in Lance Armstrong/US Postal Service Litigation Raise FCA Damages, Government Knowledge and Relator Character Issues on Which Court’s Rulings May Have Widespread Impact

This April, providers cheered when a federal district court in the Middle District of Florida found insufficient evidence to support a relator’s theory that a hospital had provided free parking to physicians, in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). In the Report and Recommendation for United States ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health Systems, 2017 WL 126597, M.D. Fla., No. 8:14-cv-73, Judge Steven D. Merryday of the Middle District of Florida endorsed magistrate judge Julie Sneed’s recommendation that Plaintiff Thomas Bingham’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment be denied and that Defendant BayCare Health System’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted. However, as we discussed in a previous FCA blog post regarding these allegations, this type of case encapsulates a worrying and costly trend where courts allow thinly pleaded relator claims in which the government opted not to intervene, to survive past the motion to dismiss stage into the discovery phase of the litigation.

Bingham is a serial relator who practices as a certified real estate appraiser in Tennessee and was unaffiliated with BayCare. In his latest attempt, Bingham alleged that BayCare Health System had violated the Stark Law and the AKS by providing affiliated physicians free parking, valet services and tax benefits to induce physicians to refer patients to the health system. Continue Reading A Hospital’s Deserving Stark and AKS Victory—But At What Cost?

On April 11, 2017, the US District Court for the District of Oregon sided with the Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), finding that as an arm of the state, OHSU is not subject to liability under the False Claims Act (FCA) even when the claim is brought by the federal government. In United States ex rel. Doughty v. Oregon Health and Sciences University, No. 3:13-CV-1306-BR (April 11, 2017 D. Or.), the district court dismissed the qui tam FCA claims, in which the federal government intervened, but granted leave to file an amended complaint on other grounds.

The United States asserted, among other claims, that after relocating its Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI) to its Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), OHSU wrongly applied to VGTI the higher billing rates applicable to ONPRC, allegedly resulting in inflated reimbursement through a National Institutes of Health grant. OHSU filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds it is an arm of the state and not a “person” subject to FCA liability. The United States argued that OHSU is a not an arm of the state for purposes of the FCA, and, even if it were, the bar against FCA liability is limited to cases brought by private individuals. Continue Reading District Court Finds Oregon University Immune to FCA Suit Brought by Federal Government

Last month, a bill (The False Claims Amendment Act of 2017, B22-0166) was introduced by District of Columbia Councilmember Mary Cheh that would allow tax-related false claims against large taxpayers. Co-sponsors of the bill include Chairman Jack Evans and Councilmember Anita Bonds.

Specifically, the bill would amend the existing false claims statute to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against persons that reported net income, sales, or revenue totaling $1 million or more in the tax filing to which the claim pertained, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more.

The bill was referred to the Committee of the Whole upon introduction, but has not advanced or been taken up since then. Nearly identical bills were introduced by Councilmember Cheh in 2013 and 2016. Continue Reading DC Council Introduces False Claims Expansion – Taxpayers Beware!

On January 26, 2017, the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia rejected a defendant’s attempt to invoke collateral estoppel principles to dismiss an indictment for fraud.  In United States v. Whyte, the defendant, Whyte, argued that the indictment should be thrown out because a jury had previously found in his favor after trial of a relator’s civil qui tam claims under the False Claims Act (U.S. ex rel. Skinner v. Armet Armored Vehicles and William Whyte, W.D. Va. June 4, 2015), based on allegations of fraud that overlapped with those in the indictment.  Whyte argued that the jury’s verdict established that no fraud was committed, and that the government, as real party in interest in the qui tam case, had the full opportunity to litigate the issues.  Accordingly, Whyte contended that collateral estoppel mandated dismissal.

The district court disagreed, and its opinion rested on the fact that the government did not intervene in the qui tam action.  The court found that the government’s declination meant that the collateral estoppel doctrine’s requirement that the parties to the prior case and the case at bar be identical was absent.  The court acknowledged that party identicality for estoppel purposes can exist where there where “there is such a degree of affinity of interests of the person who was not a formal party to the prior proceeding, as to render the doctrine of collateral estoppel applicable.”  In re Goldschein, 241 B.R. 370, 374 (D. Md. 1999) (citing Va. Hosp. Assoc. v. Baliles, 830 F.2d 1308, 1312 (4th Cir. 1967)).  But it held that in such cases, the non-party must have had the ability to control the prior proceedings.  While the government is a “real party in interest” in a declined qui tam, the court determined that it lacks the ability to control the litigation.  The court reasoned:

By statute, if the government elects not to intervene, it retains no right to control the litigation in any meaningful way.  It may not issues subpoenas, conduct depositions, propound discovery, call witnesses, or cross-examine the defendant’s witnesses. It is entitled to receive pleadings and deposition transcripts, but no more. In instances in which the government elects not to intervene, it cannot reasonably be argued that the government had a ‘full and fair opportunity to litigate’ the issues.

The court further opined that any contrary holding would render meaningless the government’s statutory election decision.  “If the government were bound by private actors prosecuting FCA cases in its name, there would be no purpose to Congress’s decision to permit the government to elect to intervene, or to decline to intervene.  Under Whyte’s proposed interpretation, the government would be forced to be a party regardless of its intervention decision.”

The court’s characterization of the government’s lack of control over a declined qui tam case fails to address the  statutory tools available to the government. Among other things, the government can seek a stay of discovery if the discovery being conducted by the relator is interfering with a parallel criminal investigation or prosecution; it frequently files statements of interest in declined qui tams espousing its views on the legal issues in play in the case; it can object to a settlement between the relator and the defendant and must consent to any dismissal of the action by the relator; the government can settle a case over the objection of the relator and has a broad right to dismiss any FCA case.  Further, a declination decision is not final–the government can later seek to intervene for “good cause” as the case progresses.  Whether these examples suffice to establish “control” for collateral estoppel principles is a question that the Whyte court would presumably answer in the negative, but the notion that the government lacks any control over an FCA case in which it has declined to intervene ignores the many avenues pursuant to which the government can (and does) exert control.  And the irony here is that while the defendant escaped civil fraud liability notwithstanding the lower preponderance of the evidence standard of proof applicable to such claims, he now must face criminal fraud charges which the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

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.

Continue Reading A Closer Look at Rigsby and the Supreme Court’s Rejection of Mandatory Dismissal for Seal Violations

On November 15, the US District Court for the Northern District of California granted Scottsdale Insurance Company’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in Hotchalk, Inc. v. Scottsdale Insurance Co. (Case No. 4:16-CV-03883), ruling that Scottsdale is not required to defend or indemnify Hotchalk from a 2014 False Claims Act (FCA) suit (and subsequent settlement). Hotchalk, an education technology company, was a Scottsdale policyholder and sought coverage related to a qui tam suit that alleged improper employee incentives for student recruitment. The court ultimately found that the underlying allegations related directly to the company’s professional services, and thus were barred from coverage based on a professional services exclusion in Hotchalk’s policy.

Continue Reading District Court Lets Insurer off the Hook from Defending FCA Suit