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.