The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently joined the ranks of every other circuit court of appeal to have considered the issue in holding that the False Claims Act (FCA) requires an objective scienter standard. Under this standard, defendants who act under an incorrect interpretation of the relevant statute or regulation do not act “knowingly” under the FCA if both of the following are true:
- The interpretation was objectively reasonable.
- “Authoritative guidance” did not warn the defendant away from their interpretation.
Background on Objective Scienter Standard
The FCA imposes liability on those who “knowingly” submit false claims to the government. The term “knowingly” is statutorily defined to cover defendants who act with “actual knowledge,” “deliberate ignorance,” or “reckless disregard.”
In construing the scienter requirement of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in Safeco Insurance Co. of Am. v. Burr, which punishes “willful” violations, the Supreme Court analyzed the common-law definition of that term and noted that willfulness as a statutory condition of civil liability has generally been understood to cover both knowing and reckless violations of a standard. The Court then held that a defendant interpreting an ambiguous statute or regulation did not act with “reckless disregard” where their interpretation was objectively reasonable and no authoritative guidance warned them away from their interpretation.