US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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

On September 1, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit largely affirmed dismissal of a relator’s amended complaint pursuant to the particularity requirement of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). In US ex rel. Presser v. Acacia Mental Health Clinic, LLC, the relator, a nurse, alleged that a number of practices at a clinic where she worked were not medically necessary. These were: requiring patients to see multiple practitioners before receiving medication; requiring patients to undergo mandatory drug screenings at each visit; and requiring patients to come to the clinic in-person in order to receive a prescription or speak to a doctor. (The relator also alleged that clinic misused a billing code. This was the only claim the Seventh Circuit permitted to go forward.) In dismissing the majority of the relator’s complaint, the Seventh Circuit began with a robust discussion of the importance of Rule 9(b) in screening out baseless False Claims Act (FCA) claims:

Rule 9 requires heightened pleading standards because of the stigmatic injury that potentially results from allegations of fraud. We have observed, moreover, that fraud is frequently charged irresponsibly by people who have suffered a loss and want to find someone to blame for it. The requirement that fraud be pleaded with particularity compels the plaintiff to provide enough detail to enable the defendant to riposte swiftly and effectively if the claim is groundless. It also forces the plaintiff to conduct a careful pretrial investigation and thus operates as a screen against spurious fraud claims. (Citations and quotations omitted).

The Seventh Circuit held that the relator fell far short of Rule 9(b), because she provided “no medical, technical, or scientific context which would enable a reader of the complaint to understand why Acacia’s alleged actions amount to unnecessary care.” The court further observed that the relator did not offer any reasons why the practices were unnecessary other than her “personal view” — the complaint was devoid of any context, such as a comparison of relator’s clinic’s practices to others in the industry. And while the relator attempted to rely on her 20 years of “experience and training,” this was simply not enough. The court concluded by holding that a relator’s subjective evaluation, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for a fraud claim.

The lesson of this case is clear: where an FCA complaint alleges that care was medically unnecessary (as many FCA complaints do), the relator must provide sufficient reasons, other than relying on his or her personal opinion, experience and training, as to why. A relator cannot simply assert that care was unnecessary and hope to fill in the blanks with discovery.

On July 7, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a federal subcontractor defendant facing False Claims Act (FCA) allegations. Notably, the Seventh Circuit rejected the district court’s original grounds for summary judgment, an “advice-of-accountant” defense, instead finding that applicable regulations and the trial record created ambiguity making it impossible to demonstrate the defendant’s knowing submission of false claims.

The relator’s FCA claims were premised on alleged violations of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that federal construction contractors pay their workers the “prevailing wage.” 40 U.S.C. § 3142(a). US Department of Labor regulations provide further specifics on base wage rates and fringe benefits (i.e., life, dental, vision and health insurance) for varied types of workers. The relator, a union comprised of workers who performed work for the defendant, alleged that its workers had not been paid the prevailing wage under Davis-Bacon due to the defendant’s deduction of $5.00 per hour from each employee to cover fringe benefits. These withholdings were deposited into a trust created by the defendant for its employee insurance benefits, and were withheld from employees whether or not they were eligible for fringe benefits. In the lawsuit, the defendant subcontractor was alleged to have submitted false Certified Payroll Reports to the government including statements attesting compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act, despite the $5.00/per hour withholding which allegedly resulted in payments to workers below the “prevailing wage.”

While upholding the grant of summary judgment for the defendant, the Seventh Circuit based its ruling on different grounds than the district court. The district court had ruled that the defendant’s reliance on the advice of its accountants with respect to withholdings negated any potential showing of knowing submission of false statements. The Seventh Circuit rejected this conclusion, finding that the defendant had failed to demonstrate the facts necessary to provide a basis for an “advice-of-accountant” defense, noting “[w]e do not know precisely what it told its accountants, whether they provided all necessary details, or what exactly the accountants recommended.”

Rather, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for defendant subcontractor on the basis of the “ambiguity” surrounding regulations regarding employer accounting of fringe benefit contributions and absence of evidence as to any withholding requirements contained in the contract. Walking through applicable DoL regulations, the Seventh Circuit found that it was unclear whether the withholdings made by the defendant necessarily violated the Davis-Bacon Act and, further, that the record was unclear as to whether the defendant was contractually obligated to make contributions to the fringe benefit trust for ineligible employees. The Court held, therefore, that it could not be inferred that the defendant “either knew or must have known that it was violating the Davis-Bacon Act.”

In short, the Seventh Circuit embraced the logical premise that contractors cannot reasonably be subjected to multiple damages and penalties under the FCA – which the Supreme Court has characterized as an essentially punitive statute – where the claim is based on alleged violation of an ambiguous statute or regulation.

In a decision released yesterday in U.S. ex rel. Bogina v. Medline Industries, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) complaint, holding that the complaint’s allegations had been publicly disclosed in a prior, settled lawsuit and the relator was not an original source. The opinion, authored by Judge Richard Posner, described FCA relators as “bounty hunters” and observed that the FCA imposes obstacles on parasitic bounty-hunting relators who seek to “be handsomely compensated if the[ir] suit succeeds.” Among those obstacles is the FCA’s public disclosure bar, which Judge Posner’s opinion ensures has sharp teeth in the Seventh Circuit.

First, the court held that the 2010 amendments to the original source exception the public disclosure bar, requiring a relator to “materially add” to publicly disclosed allegations in order to surmount the bar, could be applied retroactively because the amendments merely clarified the prior version of the exception. Accordingly, parties litigating in courts within the Seventh Circuit can expect that the current version of the public disclosure bar’s original source requirement will apply, regardless of when the relator acquired his or her knowledge.

Second, the court rejected the argument of the relator, August Bogina, that he had materially added to the allegations made by a prior relator, Sean Mason, in a prior FCA case that the government had settled. Both suits alleged that defendant Medline had made kickbacks to induce purchases of medical equipment. Bogina’s subsequent suit before the Seventh Circuit added a defendant (the Tutera Group, a nursing home chain that allegedly accepted kickbacks) that had not been mentioned in Mason’s prior, settled suit. Bogina also argued that the release provided by the government in the prior suit only concerned false claims submitted to Medicare Part A and Medicaid, but not to other government healthcare programs such as Medicare Part B and Tricare. The Seventh Circuit held that these differences were “unimpressive” from an original source standpoint, observing:

The government was thus on notice of the possibility of a broader bribe-kickback scheme before Bogina sued. Had it wanted to broaden the case against Medline beyond the Mason settlement, it could have gone after, among other Medline customers, nursing home companies such as the Tutera Group that received (if Bogina is correct) Medline kickbacks. …. Moreover, a settlement is a compromise; and it is notable that among the claims the government released as part of the Mason settlement were some of the very claims alleged in Bogina’s complaint.

The Seventh Circuit’s focus on the extent to which the prior suit put the government on notice of the alleged fraud is of crucial importance for defendants faced with copycat claims based on allegations that are similar to allegations they previously settled. Adding defendants or payors not involved in the prior suit is not a material addition sufficient to survive the public disclosure bar, where the prior suit put the government on notice of the allegations. Future defendants should thus focus their public disclosure and original source arguments on the concept of government notice; under the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit, the overlap between the two suits need not be even close to identical.

The Seventh Circuit also rejected Bogina’s assertion that his allegation that the fraud was continuing to the present (versus through 2009 as alleged in the prior suit) was sufficient to give him original source status, because Bogina made such allegation merely on “information and belief.”  Such allegations do not satisfy Rule 9(b), and the court observed that “a public accusation of fraud can do great damage to a firm before the firm is exonerated in litigation.”

The moral of the story is that relators seeking to establish original source status in the Seventh Circuit must truly be original.