The Fourth Circuit in U.S. ex rel. Michaels v. Agape Senior Community (Agape) has been asked to decide two important issues in False Claims Act lawsuits: (1) whether the Government can veto a settlement reached between the relator and defendant in a non-intervened case, and (2) whether statistical sampling can be used to prove damages. The case was certified for interlocutory appeal following the lower court’s June 2015 decision.
Last week, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Kellogg Brown & Root Services v. U.S. ex rel. Carter, adding another appeal involving a whistleblower to its schedule in the fall. The petition initiated by KBR asked the Court to review the appropriate statute of limitations and the application of the first to file bar in False Claims Act litigation.
The history of the case is a bit unusual. Benjamin Carter, the relator who worked for the defendant in Iraq, filed a qui tam complaint in 2006. The complaint was amended in 2008 to include allegations of false billing for labor costs. This complaint was dismissed by the district court because of similar allegations in a pending relator complaint filed prior to Carter’s allegations.
As those familiar with the False Claims Act are aware, the statute bars a person from bringing a “related action based on the facts underlying the pending action.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5). This is commonly known as the “first to file” bar.
While on appeal, the complaint by the other relator was dismissed. Carter filed a new complaint in 2010. However, since his 2008 appeal was still pending, the new complaint was dismissed because of his own pending appeal. Strategically, Carter dismissed the appeal of the 2008 complaint.
By the time Carter refiled his complaint, another relator had filed against the company with similar allegations. The district court held that this pending complaint barred Carter’s latest complaint. Because a significant amount of time had passed since the events underlying this litigation, the district court also held that most of the allegations were now barred by the statute of limitations of the False Claims Act, set forth in § 3731(b).
Carter appealed successfully to the Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit held that the statute of limitations in the case was tolled by the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA). It also authorized him to refile his complaint because there were no other pending actions.
The defendant now contests those issues on appeal.
It contends that the WSLA applies solely to criminal cases brought by the government. It makes three key arguments:
1. The WSLA does not apply to civil fraud cases where the U.S. government is not a party;
2. The WSLA does not apply when the government has not formally declared war; and
3. The WSLA does not modify the ten year statute of repose in the False Claims Act. In other words, the WSLA does not indefinitely toll the statute of limitations.
The Supreme Court will also review whether a previous lawsuit, not dismissed on the merits, bars a subsequent relator from filing a qui tam lawsuit because of the “first to file” requirement of the False Claims Act. The defendant contends dismissal is appropriate because the government has already been put on notice of the fraud.
KBR is the second case involving a whistleblower to be scheduled by the Supreme Court. In May, it agreed to hear the appeal of Homeland Security in the case of TSA air marshall Robert MacLean, Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean. MacLean informed the media that the TSA had discontinued posting air marshals on certain overnight flights because of budget concerns despite an alert about a plot to hijack airlines. He was terminated when the TSA learned of his role blowing the whistle. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals sided with MacLean in his retaliation claim under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The Supreme Court has already weighed in on two cases involving whistleblowers this year.
A few weeks ago in June, the Supreme Court decided Lane v. Franks. Lane, in his capacity as director of a statewide program for underprivileged youth, terminated an individual on the payroll that had not been reporting to her office. Subsequently, Lane was compelled to testify in the ex-employee’s criminal trial. He alleged that he was terminated in retaliation for the testimony. In a 9-0 opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that the First Amendment protects a public employee providing truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of the employee’s ordinary job duties.
In March, it extended SOX protections against retaliation to whistleblowers who work at private contractors to public companies in Lawson v. FMR LLC. The decision reversed the First Circuit decision denying protection to two employees of a privately held financial institution providing services to mutual fund clients.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing on Saturday has been the talk of the political and legal community over the past 48 hours. Justice Scalia joined the Supreme Court in 1986 after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Now, President Obama will have the opportunity to appoint a successor and alter the conservative majority on the Court. President Obama has already appointed two Justices to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayer and Justice Elena Kagan.
If you’re thinking about blowing the whistle on your corrupt little local government after you heard about their having misspent funds from a state audit, think again. The Supreme Court has just handed down a decision which holds that the provision of the False Claims Act prohibiting whistleblower lawsuits when the information was obtained through an administrative report or audit applies to reports prepared by all governments—not just the feds. Whistleblower suits based on public disclosure of fraud through news reports, court hearings, and congressional/administrative audits were already prohibited against the federal government, but the law regarding local/state governments was murky.
The case is Graham County Soil and Water Conservation District v. U.S ex rel. Wilson, 08-304.
A variety of interested parties filed amicus briefs in the case, and it would have been quite a scene if all of them had ended up in the same room, considering some of them are usually fighting each other. Parties filing amicus briefs in support of the Petitioner (Graham County Soil and Water Conservation District) included good ol’ boys (State of Alabama), Green Mountain Boys (State of Vermont), several other states, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and the American Hospital Association. Hopefully the states got to share some litigation pointers with each other before they went home to file their latest False Claims Act cases against the hospitals and drug makers! But seriously, we’re sure a good time was had by all.
Unfortunately for the amici brief writers (and certain fragile Supreme Court egos) the decision is not likely to remain law for very long. In the new health care reform legislation, an amendment to the FCA was included which clarifies that private lawsuits under the FCA are barred only if the public disclosure was federal in nature, i.e., from a proceeding in which the federal government is a party or from a federal report, etc. This amendment appears to overrule the decision in the Graham County case, and Justice Stevens acknowledged the law in a footnote. A fight may still loom over whether the new law is retroactive to pending cases or state reports/audits made publicly available prior to the health care bill’s passage.
The upshot of all this is that there is movement on the part of legislators to bar whistleblower lawsuits that are deemed “parasitic” and are based essentially on a relator’s luck of the draw in hearing about the misspending of funds. Until the issue of whether Graham County applies to pending cases involving state/local reports/audits, it may be wise to avoid getting entangled in this tricky area.
For assistance determining whether a reward would be barred under the False Claims Act, please contact one of our FCA whistleblower attorneys.
The Supreme Court denied the cert petition in Nathan v. Takeda today. The petition questioned the Court of Appeals decision with regard to the Rule 9(b) heightened pleading requirement for fraud.
False Claims Act Against Bankrupt Companies – WSJ:Judge Gives $2.3 Billion Hawker Whistleblower Suit New Life
Whistleblowers can pursue their False Claims Act lawsuit against Hawker Beechcraft despite its bankruptcy, according to a ruling in federal court in New York. The whistleblowers alleged that the U.S. Navy and Air Force purchased more than 300 aircraft with defective parts from the company. They argued that the lawsuit was an intentional fraud and a debt to a domestic government unit that should not have been discharged. Last year, a bankruptcy judge ruled that liability from the lawsuit was extinguished by the Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan. Beechcraft was purchased by Textron following bankruptcy.
Currency Manipulation – Bloomberg: Swiss Antitrust Regulator Probes Eight Banks Over Alleged FX-Rigging
The Swiss Competition Commission, known as Weko, says it is investigating foreign exchange rate manipulation at UBS, Credit Suisse, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Barclays and a few other banks. At least a dozen regulators are now investigating collusion in currency trading.
Securities Fraud – CNBC: Years later, SEC fraud trial over Texas tycoons to start:
The Securities and Exchange Commission will start jury selection in New York today for the $550 million fraud trial of Samuel Wyly and the estate of his late brother, Charles Wyly. They are accused of committing securities fraud and insider trading. The SEC started investigating the Wyly brothers in 2005.
Medicaid Fraud – New York Times: Settlement in Medicaid Fraud Case Worries Health Providers
A New York Times article expresses concern that increased enforcement efforts against Medicaid providers might cause more doctors and medical practices to stop accepting Medicaid patients. The article cites a recent enforcement action against Carousel Pediatrics by the Office of Inspector General in the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The percentage of physicians in Texas accepting Medicaid have declined substantially in the past ten years because of Medicaid rate cuts.
IRS Whistleblower Program – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Telling for Dollars: Tipsters get few payments in IRS program
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on the lack of rewards coming out of the IRS Whistleblower program. There have only been 38 recoveries from the 33,000 whistleblower tips the IRS received in the past five years. The IRS paid out $50 million in Fiscal Year 2013 according to the head of the IRS Whistleblower Office, although the majority of the payout went one whistleblower receiving a $38 million dollar award.
The Supreme Court upheld a verdict for two whistleblowers in its opinion today in State Farm v. U.S. ex rel. Rigsby despite a violation of the False Claims Act seal requirement by their former lawyer in the case. The Supreme Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit and District Court that the text of the False Claims Act does not require mandatory dismissal and the question of whether dismissal is appropriate is left to the District Court. Our previous discussion of the facts and issue in Rigsby is here.
The Securities and Exchange Commission defended its ability to disgorge illegal profits from wrongdoers before the Supreme Court yesterday in Kokesh v. SEC. It was Justice Neil Gorsuch’s second day of oral arguments. An opinion is expected by the end of the term in July.
The Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision in Kokesh v. SEC published at the beginning of June, held that a five year statute of limitations applies to any claim for disgorgement. The decision could limit the amount of fines issued by the SEC and will be an important one to follow as it could ultimately impact the size of whistleblower rewards.
The Supreme Court will undertake review of another False Claims Act case after accepting the petition of State Farm to reconsider the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in U.S. ex rel. Rigsby v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.
The Supreme Court will next term review a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit, Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, Inc., to determine whether the anti-retaliation protections of the Dodd-Frank Act protects employees who report misconduct internally. The Ninth Circuit, in a split decision, determined that the Dodd-Frank Act protected the employee from retaliation as a whistleblower in spite of the fact that he did not file a Form TCR with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.