This is the first post of a two-part discussion of recent developments related to the materiality standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. EscobarOur second post will cover government intervention decisions, the “essence of the bargain” test, and the materiality of Anti-Kickback Statute violations.

The Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar continues to play a significant role in FCA litigation, particularly with respect to courts’ analyses of the FCA’s materiality element.  In Escobar, the Supreme Court described the materiality element as “rigorous” and “demanding” and set forth a number of non-exclusive considerations to guide the materiality inquiry, which primarily focus on the government’s actual conduct and its payment (or non-payment) of purportedly false claims.  In 2019, courts continued to grapple with specific applications of Escobar’s directives, with some courts appearing to apply its materiality guidance less “rigorously” than others.

Some Appellate Courts Appear to Apply Escobar Less Rigorously Than Others

As we have previously discussed, the seemingly irreconcilable decisions issued by the nation’s circuit courts about how Escobar’s non-exclusive factors should apply in particular cases led parties in at least three such cases to seek further clarity from the Supreme Court.  But last year the Supreme Court denied review in each of those three cases, perhaps signaling that – at least for now – it is content to allow the various issues raised in Escobar to continue to percolate in the lower courts.


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The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released its report detailing the settlements and judgments obtained in 2019 from civil cases involving fraud and abuse claims.  As in years past, the substantial majority of these settlements and judgments—$2.1 billion of the $3 billion total—were the result of qui tam whistleblower lawsuits filed under the False Claims Act (FCA).

Following the government’s intervention decision, the first test for many of these qui tam lawsuits is surviving a motion to dismiss.  Because FCA suits allege fraud against the government, they must be pleaded with particularity as required by Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  This post discusses recent developments to those standards from 2019.

Courts have held that to satisfy Rule 9(b), FCA complaints must include a detailed description of the alleged fraud scheme and facts to show the scheme resulted in a request for reimbursement from the government.  A failure on either account will result in dismissal.


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On December 20, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit granted in part a petition for rehearing filed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in a False Claims Act (FCA) case that has generated considerable attention among hospitals and health systems due to its treatment of commonplace, productivity-based physician compensation models.  Ultimately, the Third Circuit vacated its original September 17, 2019 decision and issued a revised opinion reversing its holding that the relators could establish a problematic indirect compensation arrangement simply by alleging the employed neurosurgeons’ pay for personally performed services correlated with the volume or value of their referrals to UPMC’s facilities for the corresponding hospital services.

As discussed in our October 14 post, U.S. ex rel. Bookwalter v. UPMC involved employment arrangements between UPMC’s subsidiary physician practice entities and various neurosurgeons pursuant to which the physicians earned base salaries and potential incentive bonuses tied to their personally performed work relative value units (wRVUs).  The Third Circuit previously held – in reliance on a controversial construction of the Stark Law’s “volume or value” test – that the relators pleaded facts sufficient to demonstrate the surgeons’ compensation both varied with and took into account the volume or value of their designated health service referrals to UPMC’s hospitals, thereby creating an impermissible indirect compensation arrangement.


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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently issued a False Claims Act (FCA) decision calling into question productivity-based physician compensation structures under the Stark Law, in reliance on a controversial interpretation of the Stark Law’s “volume or value” standard.

The case, U.S. ex rel. Bookwalter v. UPMC, involved employment arrangements between the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) subsidiary physician practice entities and neurosurgeons who performed procedures at UPMC’s affiliated hospitals.  The decision is significant for hospitals and health systems in that the Third Circuit’s holding is contrary to guidance promulgated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) and appears to call into question a common compensation methodology used by health systems to compensate physicians.


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This is the second post of a two-part discussion of FCA pleading standards and discusses the pleading requirements for connecting a fraudulent scheme to the submission of false claims.  Read our previous post on the requirements for pleading the details of a fraudulent scheme.

Pleading Submission of False Claims

Most courts require FCA plaintiffs to round out their FCA pleadings with allegations that false claims were submitted to the government as a result of the alleged fraud scheme.  Some courts require plaintiffs to identify specific representative examples, while others permit the pleading of “reliable indicia” leading to a “strong inference” that claims were actually submitted.

Pleading Actual Claims  

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently laid out the level of detail generally expected for pleading the submission of actual false claims.  In U.S. ex rel. Wollman v. General Hospital Corporation, it held the relator made insufficient allegations of actual claims submitted as part of a fraudulent billing scheme involving overlapping surgeries when the complaint included “no dates, identification numbers, amounts, services, individuals involved, or length of time” for any of the surgeries at issue.


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This is the first post of a two-part discussion of FCA pleading standards and discusses the requirements for pleading the details of a fraudulent scheme. Read our post on the pleading requirements for connecting a fraudulent scheme to the submission of false claims.

The False Claims Act (FCA) continues to be the federal government’s primary civil enforcement tool for imposing liability on healthcare providers who defraud federal healthcare programs.  A significant portion of FCA litigation is initiated through the filing of sealed qui tam complaints by relators on behalf of the United States.  When these complaints are unsealed, whether the government intervenes or not, their first hurdle is often surviving a motion to dismiss.  Because actions under the FCA allege fraud against the government, courts require allegations sufficient to satisfy Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Determining whether an FCA complaint satisfies Rule 9(b) turns on two related questions: Does it contain an adequate description of the alleged fraud scheme? If so, does it connect that scheme to false claims submitted to the government?

This post discusses the requirements for adequately pleading a fraudulent scheme.  We have also written a follow-up post discussing the requirements for connecting that scheme to the submission of actual false claims.  To follow our discussion of recent developments in FCA pleading standards, subscribe to this blog.

Pleading Details of a Fraudulent Scheme

Generally speaking, courts agree that in order to pass muster, FCA complaints must include all of the details one would expect to find in the first paragraph of a newspaper article—that is, the “who, what, when, where and how” of the alleged fraud.  While meeting this standard may seem simple enough, courts continue to grapple with the nuances and difficulties associated with pleading fraud with the requisite specificity.


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On December 26, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion in United States ex rel. Grant v. United Airlines affirming dismissal of the relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) allegations on the grounds that the complaint failed to plead presentment of a false claim with sufficient particularity under Rule 9(b). In the same opinion, however, the court revived the relator’s retaliation claim on the grounds that the relator satisfied the lower standard of Rule 8(a) applicable to retaliation claims, which are not claims of fraud.

Presentment Must Follow from Conduct Alleged in Complaint

The court affirmed dismissal of the relator’s substantive FCA claims because it held that the relator failed to adequately plead presentment under Rule 9(b) in either of the two ways that the Fourth Circuit has recognized as acceptable:

  1. By alleging with particularity that specific false claims actually were presented to the government for payment, including by describing the time, place, and contents of the false representation; the person making the false representation; and what was obtained by making this representation
  2. By alleging a pattern of conduct that would “necessarily have led to a false claim being submitted”

The court focused its analysis on whether the complaint was adequately pleaded under the latter of those two options. The relator was a former maintenance technician of United Airlines who was a second-tier subcontractor on a government contract for the repair and maintenance of military aircraft. His complaint alleged that United Airlines was specifically subcontracted to repair, overhaul and inspect certain airplane engines and was required to do its work in compliance with certain regulations. The complaint alleged that United Airlines violated the FCA by failing to comply with the required regulations in completing work on these airplane engines.
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In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar confirming the viability of the implied false certification theory in False Claims Act (FCA) cases and mandating that claims brought pursuant to that theory satisfy “demanding” materiality and scienter requirements.  As discussed in a prior post, since Escobar, the U.S. Courts of Appeals have wrestled with analyzing and applying the materiality and scienter requirements discussed in the Supreme Court’s opinion, resulting in a number of recent petitions for writ of certiorari filed with the Supreme Court seeking clarification of the Escobar mandates.

In one of its first actions of 2019, the Supreme Court recently denied petitions in two closely-watched FCA cases, U.S. ex rel. Harman v. Trinity Industries, Inc., and Gilead Sciences Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Campie.

$660 Million Reversal Stands in Harman

The plaintiff-relator in Harman sought review from the Supreme Court after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a $660 million jury verdict, holding that the relator failed to prove that the defendant’s alleged misrepresentations were material to government’s payment decisions.  The relator in Harman claimed that the defendant produced and sold defective highway guardrails to various states, causing them to submit fraudulent claims for reimbursement to the federal government.  However, evidence was presented that the Federal Highway Administration was aware of the alleged defects but continued to pay for the guardrails despite their non-compliance.  Relying on Escobar, the Fifth Circuit held that relator failed to overcome such “strong evidence” that the requirements at issue were not material.   The Supreme Court’s recent denial of the relator’s petition leaves intact the Fifth Circuit’s judgment and precedential opinion, providing a potential defense to FCA defendants in cases where the government was aware of certain conduct but continued to pay claims.


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The Ninth Circuit recently revived a False Claims Act (FCA) suit against Medicare Advantage Organizations (MAOs) related to risk adjustment payments for Medicare Advantage plans in U.S. ex rel. Silingo v. WellPoint Inc. et al.  As previously discussed in this blog post, MAOs provide Medicare benefits under a capitated payment system, whereby government reimbursement is based on an individual’s risk adjustment data.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) increase monthly payments to MAOs when an individual’s medical diagnoses support a higher level of risk or cost of care.  Recently, both relators and the government in a number of cases have challenged the validity of diagnostic patient information utilized to support risk adjustment data, as discussed here and here.

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On September 1, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of an FCA lawsuit by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, and in doing so, evaluated the particularity required to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 9(b) as it relates to both a relator’s obligation to plead specific claims and the specifics of the underlying fraudulent conduct at issue.
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