In a case of first impression in the Ninth Circuit, the court held in United States ex rel. Hooper v. Lockheed Martin Corp., __ F.3d __, 2012 WL 3124970 (9th Cir. Aug. 2, 2012) that “false estimates, defined to include fraudulent underbidding in which the bid is not what the defendant actually intends to charge, can be a source of liability under the FCA, assuming that the other elements of an FCA claim are met.” (Id. at *9).
The defendant argued that an allegedly false estimate cannot form the basis of FCA liability, because it is an opinion or prediction that cannot be false within the meaning of the FCA. In reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that an opinion or estimate “carries with it an implied assertion, not only that the speaker knows no facts which would preclude such an opinion, but that he does know facts which justify it.” (Id. (citations and internal quotations omitted)).
In a passage of the opinion somewhat in tension with its holding – that a bid lower than “what the defendant actually intends to charge” can give rise to FCA liability – the court found the district court erred by requiring evidence of the defendant’s wrongful intent. (Id. at *9). In opposing summary judgment, the relator submitted testimony that the defendants’ employees were instructed to lower their cost estimates without regard to actual costs, and that the defendant “was dishonest in the productivity rates that it used to determine the cost.” (Id.). No evidence appears to have been submitted regarding what the defendant intended to charge. Nevertheless, citing the FCA’s definition of “knowing” to include deliberate ignorance and reckless disregard, the court found this evidence sufficient to prevent summary judgment and require a trial on the merits. (Id.).
In support of its ruling, the Ninth Circuit relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in United States ex rel. Marcus v. Hess, 317 U.S. 537 (1943), which the court interpreted as supporting a “‘fraud-in-the-inducement’ theory of FCA liability.” (2012 WL 3124970 at *8). Thus, this decision will likely be cited as support for all types of “fraud-in-the-inducement” theories of FCA liability, including fraudulent underbidding. Precisely when an ultimately inaccurate cost estimate becomes “false or fraudulent,” however, is not clearly answered by Hooper and will no doubt be the subject of further litigation.