Protecting Animals with the FCA

A fascinating False Claims Act case that began back in 2001 has met another procedural roadblock, although it may not be over yet. The case highlights the fact that the FCA covers seemingly limitless subjects due to the sheer variety of things on which the government spends our money.

The case,United States ex rel. Patricia Haight, et al., v. Catholic Healthcare West, et al., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 2381 (9th Cir. 2010), stems from a very touchy and controversial subject: brain tumor research…on beagle puppies. Dr. Michael Berens was a research scientist attempting to replicate brain tumors by injecting cancer cells into beagle pups in utero. To top that off, he euthanized healthy dogs which did not develop tumors, drawing a great deal of criticism. Dr. Berens received federal funding for his work from the National Institutes of Health, and this is where the False Claims Act comes in.

According to the plaintiffs in the case, Dr. Berens submitted inaccurate information to obtain grants, thereby defrauding the government. The plaintiffs, Dr. Patricia Haight, an animal rights activist and experimental psychologist with animal research experience, and In Defense of Animals, a California-based organization, claimed that Dr. Berens made his research out to be far more fruitful than it actually was in order to obtain over $700,000 in grant money.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in this case, the government decided not to intervene. The relators forged ahead with their case, but after many tortuous procedural twists and turns, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ultimately dismissed the case based on the plaintiffs’ failure to file a notice of appeal within a specified time period.  Haight v. Catholic Healthcare West, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 2381 (9th Cir. 2010). The court stated that “We sympathize with Plaintiffs, who complied with our precedent in filing their notice of appeal 51 days after the entry of judgment.” Id. at *14. This surely came as cold comfort to the plaintiffs, who had been involved in  a decade of litigation over what seems to be an ingenious–and valid–application of the FCA.

It will be interesting to see what moves the plaintiffs make next. Hopefully they won’t go without a fight. It takes a lot of courage and perseverance to pursue litigation for this long, but the plaintiffs obviously believe deeply in their cause.