In a groundbreaking decision announced last week, a federal court in Virginia held that the minimum statutory civil FCA penalties were unconstitutionally excessive in light of the facts before it, and refused to impose any penalties. This case is the first in which a federal court has determined that it does not have the authority to fashion an alternative penalty under the FCA where the statutory penalty is grossly disproportionate to the government’s loss or defendant’s gain arising from fraudulent conduct. Judge Anthony Trenga’s decision in U.S. ex rel. Bunk v. Birkard Globistics GMBH (E.D. Va. Feb. 14, 2012) should give pause to those pursuing claims under the FCA when they allege the number of “false claims.”
A jury this past summer found the Bunk defendants liable under the FCA for conspiring with subcontractors to fix prices in advance of a bid for a government contract and submitting a false Certificate of Independent Pricing. The Relator did not seek damages, apparently unable to obtain the necessary evidence from the government, but only penalties under the FCA based on the parties’ stipulation that the defendant had filed 9,136 invoices under the fraudulently obtained contract. While Relator proposed a $24 million civil penalty, under the FCA’s mandatory penalty provisions the court calculated the required penalty as no less than $50,248,000 ($5,500 x 9,136).
To determine whether the mandatory minimum penalty violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, the court considered the harm – economic and non-economic – to the government. Based in part on evidence that the defendant’s charges to the government under the fraudulently obtained contract were substantially the same as charges under other contracts as to which there had been no fraud established, and not higher than what the government had paid other contractors in prior years, the court concluded that the Relator failed to establish that the defendant’s fraud caused any economic harm to the government. Significantly with respect to the lack of evidence of non-economic harm, the court relied on evidence that the government twice renewed the defendant’s contract, even after it had received the Relator’s allegations of fraud. Noting that this evidence “does not constitute ‘government knowledge’ sufficient to preclude or estop the government from pursuing claims against the Defendants,” the court did find it probative of the value received by the government. Thus, in light of the lack of evidence of harm to the government, the court deemed the mandatory minimum penalties in excess of $50 million unconstitutionally excessive.
While other courts have concluded that FCA penalties are constitutionally excessive in certain circumstances, what sets Judge Trenga’s decision in Bunk apart is his conclusion “that [the court] must simply refuse to enforce the mandated penalty . . . and not substitute its own fashioned penalty.” The government, with Relator having elected not to seek damages, is thus left with nothing on the claim at issue.
Interestingly, Judge Trenga went on to discuss potential alternative penalties in the event that the Fourth Circuit determines the lower courts do have discretion to fashion alternative penalties under the FCA. He first considered imposing only one penalty for the submission of the false certification. Second, he considered a penalty equal to treble the amount of defendant’s financial gain, totaling approximately $1.5 million. Finally, he considered an alternative amount sufficient to sanction defendant and deter future wrongdoing, and concluded $500,000 would be an alternative penalty. Judge Trenga’s opinion suggests that if ordered to select an alternative penalty, he would impose one $11,000 penalty under the first alternative methodology.
This opinion should be a strong warning to the government and relators’ counsel carefully to consider the calculation of claims and avoid seeking the imposition of penalties that significantly exceed any measure of harm to the government.
On February 16, 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) released a long-awaited proposed rule (“Proposed Rule“) to implement the overpayment reporting and refund provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), which are enforceable in a “reverse false claims” action under the False Claims Act.
Under section 6402 of PPACA, providers and suppliers who have been overpaid by Medicare or Medicaid must report and return the overpayment within the later of: (1) 60 days of the date on which the overpayment is “identified;” or (2) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable, or face reverse false claims liability under the FCA. Although the duty to report and return an overpayment is triggered, in the alternative, from the date the overpayment is “identified,” Congress did not define “identified.” The Proposed Rule defines the term by reference to the FCA’s scienter provisions. Specifically, the Proposed Rule would deem an overpayment to be “identified” when the person has actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment, which is how the FCA defines a “knowing” violation of the Act. This standard mirrors that provided in the CMS’ Physician Payment Sunshine Act proposed rule whereby an applicable manufacturer must report payments or transfers of value to a covered recipient when the applicable manufacturer has actual knowledge of or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the identity of the covered recipient.
According to CMS, it incorporated the FCA’s mens rea standard to incentivize providers and suppliers “to exercise reasonable diligence to determine whether an overpayment exists.” In particular, CMS stated that the provision is designed to prevent providers and suppliers from avoiding their obligation to identify potential billing issues through, e.g., self-audits or compliance checks. The Proposed Rule does not otherwise provide guidance as to what steps providers should take to uncover potential billing issues, beyond the requirement to exercise “reasonable diligence,” and that investigations, once initiated, should be conducted “with all deliberate speed.” As evidenced by the case law interpreting the FCA’s “knowingly” standard , there is ample room for CMS and providers and suppliers to disagree regarding whether providers and suppliers have exercised “reasonable diligence” to identify potential overpayments.
Increasing the stakes for providers and suppliers in the event that they fail properly to “identify” an overpayment is the Proposed Rule’s adoption of an FCA-like 10-year “look-back” period. This provision requires providers and suppliers (and allows CMS and qui tam relators) to review any potential overpayments in the prior 10-year period (in contrast to the existing four year CMS reopening period and the three year Recovery Audit Contractor “look back” period). The 10 year look-back period obviously raises the spectre of significant financial liability for providers and suppliers.
As for how overpayments are to be reported, the Proposed Rule adopts CMS’ existing process for voluntary refunds, renamed the “self-reported overpayment refund process” set forth in Publication 100-06, Chapter 4 of the Medicare Financial Management Manual. CMS states that it intends to publish a new form specifically for reporting overpayments under PPACA.
The Proposed Rule also clarifies the relationship between the government’s various self-reporting mechanisms. First, if a provider or supplier reports a violation of the Stark Law through the Medicare Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol, this suspends the obligation to return overpayments, but not to report. In contrast, a provider’s or supplier’s report of potential fraud through the OIG Self-Disclosure Protocol1 both suspends the obligation to return overpayments once the OIG has acknowledged receipt of the submission,2 and constitutes a report for purposes of the Proposed Rule, provided such notification is consistent with the proposed deadlines.
CMS also offers guidance on what constitutes “overpayments” in the context of an alleged violation of the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”). The Proposed Rule notes that that while some overpayments may arise from potential violations of the AKS, third parties to the kickback arrangement do not have a duty to report or return such overpayments unless they have “sufficient knowledge of the arrangement to have identified the resulting overpayment.” In that case, the third party must report the overpayment to CMS, but only the parties to the kickback scheme would be expected to return the overpayment and not the innocent third-party provider or supplier, “except in the most extraordinary circumstances.” While the rule does not expressly apply to manufacturers, this proposed interpretation seems to establish a clear link between claims “tainted” by manufacturer kickbacks and “overpayment” liability. A separate post on this topic will be forthcoming.
While the Proposed Rule expressly applies only to Medicare Part A and B providers and suppliers, and is not final, CMS “remind[s] all stakeholders that even without a final regulation,” they “could face potential False Claims Act liability . . . for failure to report and return an overpayment.”
Comments on the Proposed Rule are due by April 16, 2012.
1 Id. at 9,182.
2 Id. at 9,183.