Since the 2016 Supreme Court decision in Universal Services Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, courts have wrestled with exactly how to apply the unanimous decision. This post highlights developments across the country in numerous substantive areas addressed in the Escobar decision. If you need a refresher on the Escobar decision, see our previous post explaining the major elements of the case.
On August 24, 2018, the Ninth Circuit addressed the Supreme Court’s decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar, holding that Escobar sets forth the exclusive test for establishing FCA liability under the theory of implied false certification. In that case, U.S. ex rel. Rose v. Stephens Institute, the Ninth Circuit also grappled with Escobar’s materiality requirement, providing further guidance on how the past government action factor of the materiality analysis should be applied.
Following the recent high-stakes trial in U.S. ex rel. Ruckh v. Salus Rehabilitation, LLC, a federal district court overturned the $350 million verdict handed down against the owners and operators of 53 skilled nursing facilities who were accused of “upcoding” patient Resource Utilization Group scores, “ramping up” treatment during assessment periods and failing to maintain comprehensive plans of care for their patients.
As set out in a previous post, in overturning the verdict, the district court held that the relator failed to offer sufficient evidence at trial to satisfy the “rigorous and demanding” requirements of materiality and scienter as set forth in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar.
As highlighted in a previous post, the $348 million judgment against the owners and operators of skilled nursing facilities in U.S. ex rel. Ruckh v. Genoa Healthcare, LLC, made serious waves in the FCA world. The judgment, which included a trebling of the jury’s damages verdict and fines of $5,500 for each of over 400 claims, far surpassed any settlement or judgment previously entered in a long-term care or skilled nursing case. However, on January 11, 2018, nearly a year after entering the landmark judgment, the Middle District of Florida overturned it. In doing so, the court reiterated some of the more stringent requirements a relator must meet in order to prevail on an FCA claim.
U.S. ex rel. Badr v. Triple Canopy, Inc., an intervened case arising out of the Fourth Circuit, has been one of the more closely-watched recent FCA cases. Previously, the Fourth Circuit held that the government’s complaint properly alleged an FCA claim and could survive Triple Canopy’s motion to dismiss. That ruling was subsequently vacated by the Supreme Court following its decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar, which we covered here and here. On May 16, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion on remand, finding that the complaint satisfied the pleading standards set forth in Escobar and re-affirming its conclusion that the complaint adequately stated an FCA claim.
In June, the Supreme Court issued Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar, a landmark opinion in which the Supreme Court addressed the standard for pleading materiality in FCA implied certification cases. The Supreme Court ultimately remanded the case to the First Circuit to resolve in the first instance whether the alleged violations met that standard, and last week, the First Circuit gave its answer: the violations were material.
The United State District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently dismissed an FCA complaint for failing to plead materiality under the standard announced in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar, the Supreme Court’s landmark FCA opinion issued in June of this year. The case, U.S. ex rel. Lee v. Northern Adult Daily Health Care Center, 13-cv-4933, 2016 WL 4703653 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 7, 2016), becomes one of the first to substantively apply Escobar and highlights the barrier the FCA’s materiality requirement poses to FCA relators in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. It also suggests ways in which courts already are divided in their interpretation of Escobar.
On July 18, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued one of the first post-Escobar decisions addressing a motion to dismiss FCA allegations on grounds that the complaint did not satisfy Rule 9(b)’s pleading standard. In the intervened case, the United States alleged that diagnostic sleep studies were performed in locations that violated federal law and/or were performed by technicians who were not licensed or certified. The United States proceeded on multiple FCA theories (including factual falsity, express false certification, fraud in the inducement, and implied false certification).
The Seventh Circuit’s rejection of the implied certification theory of liability gave rise, in part, to the circuit split resolved by the Supreme Court’s opinion in Escobar. In its first FCA decision since the Supreme Court’s opinion – U.S. ex rel. Sheet Metal Workers International Association v. Horning Investments, LLC, the Seventh Circuit sidestepped the question of whether the relator’s allegations that a government contractor’s certification of compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act amounted to an implied false certification sufficient to give rise to FCA liability. Rather than tackle the implications of Escobar, the Seventh Circuit affirmed entry of summary judgment in favor of the contractor, explaining that the defendant’s conduct amounted to certifying compliance with an ambiguous statutory obligation and, therefore, did not constitute a “knowing” violation of the FCA.
On June 16, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated opinion in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar regarding the implied certification theory of False Claims Act (FCA) liability. The Court’s unanimous opinion, drafted by Justice Clarence Thomas, is significant in three respects, detailed further below: (1) the Court ruled that, in certain circumstances, the implied certification theory can be a basis for FCA liability; (2) the Court held that an express condition of payment in a statutory, regulatory or contractual requirement is relevant—but “not automatically dispositive”—in determining FCA liability; and (3) the Court clarified how the FCA’s materiality requirement should be enforced by lower courts addressing FCA suits premised on an implied false certification theory.