The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently upheld a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Abbott Laboratories in an action alleging that Abbott terminated a sales representative in retaliation for reporting a potential FCA violation. The appeals court held that the case should not proceed because the sales representative failed to show she reasonably believed an FCA violation had occurred. The holding potentially is helpful to FCA defendants facing retaliation allegations, but its precedential value may be limited because the court issued the unpublished opinion per curiam and with one judge dissenting.
In addition to the most common grounds upon which dismissal is sought in FCA actions, Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai Radiology Associates recently requested that the district court throw out FCA claims based on their argument that relators relied on improperly obtained patient records in support of their allegations. Relators, who were employed in various positions with defendants, alleged FCA violations based upon false and fraudulent billing in connection with physician services and attached patient medical records to their complaint in support of their FCA claims. Defendants argued that relators should be precluded from relying on the medical records attached to their complaint because allegedly relators obtained those records without authorization following an internal investigation at the Hospital. Relators countered that there were no facts before the district court to support any assertion that the medical records were obtained improperly and cited HIPAA’s exception for whistleblowers to reveal information to government authorities and private counsel if those whistleblowers have a good faith belief that their employer engaged in unlawful conduct.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a relator who pleaded guilty to a felony that involved the same fraudulent conduct that gave rise to the relator’s qui tam suit in U.S. ex rel. Schroeder v. CH2M Hill. The FCA’s § 3730(d)(3) requires dismissal of a relator from a qui tam lawsuit and precludes the relator from any recovery in the lawsuit, “[i]f the relator has been convicted of criminal conduct arising from his or her role in the violation of section 3729.” In Schroeder, the Ninth Circuit concluded that this provision applied even to minor participants in the underlying alleged misconduct, who neither planned nor initiated the fraudulent scheme.
The relator, who was employed by the defendant government contractor, was involved in an underlying fraudulent scheme to bill the Department of Energy (DOE) by submitting false time cards to DOE for hourly work. After his interview by investigators, the relator pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to commit fraud. After his interview, but before pleading guilty, the relator filed suit under the FCA against his employer concerning the DOE fraud scheme. The United States intervened and moved to dismiss the relator from the lawsuit under § 3730(d)(3) as a result of his felony conviction.
Last month, the Sixth Circuit affirmed sanctions imposed by a district court against a relator and his counsel for bringing a frivolous False Claims Act (“FCA”) action. The ruling in United States ex rel. Jacobs v. Lambda Research, Inc., No. 14-3705, 2015 WL 1948247 (6th Cir. May 1, 2015) is a positive development for companies that have faced an increase in FCA actions in recent years. It also illustrates the use of a sanctions provision that is specific to FCA claims. Read the full analysis on the GovCon blog post “Relators Beware – Sanctions Upheld for “Vexatious” False Claims Act Suit.”
In recent months, relators’ qui tam complaints have been subject to increased scrutiny by criminal prosecutors. In addition to civil FCA liability, individuals doing business with the federal government face potential criminal liability under various criminal fraud-related statutes. Potential charges for fraudulent activities are not limited to a criminal fraud charge, but also include bribery, false statements, conspiracy to defraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, and identity theft, among others. Most of these crimes are felonies and carry substantial penalties, including fines, freezing of assets and imprisonment. Especially in the healthcare industry and defense procurement space, many criminal investigations originate as civil qui tam filings only later adopting a criminal component. These parallel investigations typically involve the DOJ and may include other enforcement agencies.
Recent DOJ rhetoric encourages an increased use of such parallel investigations. In September 2014, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the DOJ, Leslie Caldwell, announced that the Criminal Division would be “stepping up” its review to look for potential criminal liability in qui tam complaints, noting that such complaints “are a vital part of the Criminal Divisions’ future efforts.” Consistent with this message, Caldwell encouraged the relator’s bar to notify the Criminal Division directly when a complaint is filed instead of coordinating only with the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. As part of the new process, the Criminal Division will receive and review new complaints so that prosecutors may determine the nature and extent of any criminal exposure.