Posted by Jaime Jones and Jessica Rothenberg
On February 21, 2014, the Fourth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a former employee’s False Claims Act suit against Omnicare, Inc. (“Omnicare”), holding that while the relator alleged violations of certain Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) regulations by Omnicare’s subsidiary, Heartland Repack, his failure “to allege that the defendants made a false statement or that they acted with the necessary scienter” was fatal to his claim. Relator Barry Rostholder alleged that Heartland Repack violated drug GMP regulations that require penicillin and non-penicillin drugs be packaged in isolation from each other so as to avoid cross-contamination, by repackaging penicillin in facilities also used for non-penicillin drug packaging operations. In his suit, which was first filed in 2007, Rostholder alleged that as a result of this violation, the drugs were adulterated and ineligible for Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, and that any claims presented to the government for reimbursement were false under the FCA. The government declined to intervene in 2009. The district court granted Omnicare’s motion to dismiss and denied relator’s request to file an amended complaint.
The Fourth Circuit held that whatever Rostholder had alleged, he had not identified any false statement or other fraudulent misrepresentation made by Heartland Repack to the government, as required under the FCA. The court first held that a drug must be merely FDA-approved to qualify for reimbursement, and that the Medicare and Medicaid statutes do not prohibit reimbursement for adulterated drugs and do not require compliance with FDA safety regulations as a precondition to reimbursement. Therefore, “the submission of a reimbursement request for [an FDA-approved] drug cannot constitute a ‘false’ claim under the FCA on the sole basis that the drug has been adulterated . . . in violation of FDA safety regulations.” Because Rostholder failed to plead the existence of any false statement or fraudulent course of conduct, his FCA claims failed. The court summarily dismissed Rostholder’s attempt to proceed under implied certification or worthless services theories of FCA liability. Holding that any amendment would be futile in light of its holding, the Fourth Circuit also upheld the lower court’s decision to deny Rostholder leave to file a third amended complaint.
In arriving at its decision, the Fourth Circuit declined to sanction the use of the False Claims Act as a tool to ensure regulatory compliance, particularly where an agency such as the FDA has the power to enforce its own regulations. As Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, writing for the panel, noted, “[T]he correction of regulatory problems is a worthy goal, but is ‘not actionable under the FCA in the absence of actual fraudulent conduct.'” This case is significant in particular in light of numerous recent statements by various government lawyers signaling DOJ’s intent to pursue FCA actions based on GMP violations, and is sure to be frequently cited in defense of such claims.
On February 10, 2014, following a recent jury finding that pipemaker J-M Manufacturing (“J-M”) was liable for damages in a False Claims Act suit initiated by former employee John Hendrix, J-M filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Middlesex County, alleging that the whistleblower and his counsel, Phillips & Cohen LLP (“P&C”), conspired to misappropriate confidential, proprietary, and trade secret information in furtherance of the qui tam lawsuit. The complaint specifically alleges that P&C repeatedly directed Hendrix to use his employee status to obtain information to support his FCA claims, in violation of his confidentiality agreement with J-M. According to the complaint, J-M did not discover the theft of the information until after the qui tam complaint was unsealed and the discovery process unfolded in 2013, more than five years after the qui tam complaint was filed. J-M alleges that P&C used the misappropriated information to develop Hendrix’s own lawsuit and to recruit additional whistleblowers. In doing so, J-M asserts that P&C exceeded its role as counsel “by actively directing and engaging in Hendrix’s illegal scheme to steal J-M’s confidential and proprietary information.” J-M alleges that this represents a “pattern of misconduct” by P&C, citing the 2012 decision in which P&C was disqualified and ordered to pay sanctions related to its acquisition of documents from IASIS Healthcare Corp., a defendant in another qui tam suit.
The issue of whistleblowers taking confidential business information and trade secrets in support of potential qui tam actions, and, increasingly, whistleblower counsel’s solicitation of such information, is one confronted by many FCA defendants. In recent years a number, like J-M, have sought damages and protections from such misappropriation. Several courts have been receptive to such claims, rejecting arguments from whistleblowers that the public policy served by the FCA justifies confidentiality and other breaches in gathering evidence of fraud. We will monitor the outcome of the J-M case, and provide an update as it is available.
As we previously reported, a federal court in Virginia last year held that the minimum statutory civil FCA penalties were unconstitutionally excessive in light of the facts before it, and refused to impose any penalties. U.S. ex rel. Bunk v. Birkard Globistics GMBH (E.D. Va. Feb. 14, 2012). On December 19, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision to enter no penalties with an instruction to award the plaintiff $24 million – the amount relator Bunk previously had expressed a willingness to accept. United States ex rel. Bunk v. Gosselin World Wide Moving, N.V., No. 12-1369, slip op. 30 (4th Cir. Dec. 19, 2013).
At trial, the jury found 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, but only penalties 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, the court calculated the mandatory minimum penalty as no less than $50,248,000 ($5,500 x 9,136). The court determined that this penalty violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment in light of the relator’s failure to establish that the defendant’s fraud caused any economic harm to the government. As such, the district court concluded “that [it] must simply refuse to enforce the mandated penalty . . . and not substitute its own fashioned penalty.”
The Fourth Circuit reversed, rejecting the district court’s determination that it was unable to craft an alternative penalty. The court held that the government – or a relator standing in the government’s shoes – has “unbounded” discretion to pursue a lesser judgment than that to which it may be entitled and, by exercising that discretion, may avoid the application of the Excessive Fines Clause. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted that the dilemma under the Excessive Fines Clause was the result of the court’s own precedent construing the FCA penalty provisions broadly to impose penalties on each false or fraudulent claim submitted, rather than narrowly to attach only to an underlying fraud. By concluding that a relator may simply select an alternative penalty without regard to the FCA’s requirements, the Fourth Circuit avoided the Constitutional dilemma created by the law’s draconian penalty provisions and the court’s precedent. The court then concluded – without analysis – that the alternative penalty proposed by the relator was not unconstitutionally excessive in light of the “gravity” of defendant’s misconduct and the “necessary and appropriate deterrent effect” served by the FCA’s penalties provision.
The Taxpayers Against Fraud (“TAF”) Education Fund recently reported that the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ’s”) False Claims Act data dramatically underestimates the amount of money actually recovered to the government. In fact, according to TAF, the federal government’s return on investment (“ROI”) related to federal FCA enforcement from fiscal years 2008 through 2012 exceeds 20:1, up significantly from the 16:1 ROI calculated by DOJ. TAF explains that this discrepancy is due to the fact that DOJ’s figures do not include criminal fines associated with federal FCA recoveries or any state FCA recoveries, which together account for almost an additional $9 billion above the approximately $9.4 billion figure attributable to civil net recoveries during the 2008-2012 period. In light of this, TAF views the DOJ as significantly underestimating the benefits of its own investment in health care fraud enforcement.
Other notable statistics cited in the TAF report include the following:
- From 1987 to 1992, a total of 62 new health care qui tam matters were filed, while in 2011 and 2012, respectively, there were 417 and 412 new matters.
- In 2012, whistleblowers received $284 million of the more than $2.5 billion in health care qui tam settlements and judgments.
- From 2008 to 2012, the federal government poured almost $575 million of funding into U.S. Attorney’s offices, the Office of Inspector General, and the DOJ to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of health care fraud.
Posted by Jaime Jones and Brenna Jenny
An Eastern District of New York judge recently declined to apply a relaxed pleading standard to qui tam claims, dismissing an FCA suit based on alleged violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute for relator’s failure to plead facts sufficient to identify false claims that were actually submitted to the government. In United States ex rel. Moore v. GlaxoSmithKline PLC, No. 1:06-cv-06047 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 18, 2013), a former employee of GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) alleged that GSK induced doctors to prescribe its HIV drugs by offering honoraria and educational grants. The relator urged the district court to relax the Rule 9(b) pleading standard and require merely “an adequate basis for the Court to reasonably infer that false claims were submitted.” Slip op. at 7. The relator alleged the submission of false claims could be inferred from the fact that many patients who use GSK’s HIV products are federal healthcare program beneficiaries and allegations of one doctor’s supposed awareness of the alleged scheme.
In declining to relax the requirements of Rule 9(b), the District Court noted that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet weighed in on the issue, which has led to a Circuit split. However, the district court observed that the majority of lower courts in the circuit have rejected relators’ attempts to utilize a lower pleading standard. Siding with those courts, the Moore court required both the underlying scheme and the submission of a false claim to be pled with the particularity required by Rule 9(b). With respect to the latter, the court noted that it is not enough to portray the submission of a false claim as “merely conceivable or even likely.” Id. at 8. Instead, relators must allege with particularity “details of either a specific claim for payment that was submitted to the Government by either a medical provider or a pharmacist, or the specific details of an actual Medicaid/Medicare provider certification form signed by a particular physician.” Id. The court dismissed the claims because the relator failed to establish a connection between any alleged kickback and any actual claims for reimbursement.
As we recently reported, the Supreme Court recently expressed an interest (see related post here) in the government’s view of the pleading requirements for FCA claims. The Moore decision emphasizes not only the significance of the ongoing Circuit split on the issue, but the critical importance of Rule 9(b)—at least in some Circuits—to the pleading and defense of whistleblower FCA actions.
DOJ has announced a settlement agreement with medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific, alleging that its Guidant division caused the submission of false claims for two of its implantable cardiac defibrillators. The agreement, pursuant to which Boston Scientific will pay $30 million, resolves qui tam claims brought by a relator who was implanted with one of the devices. The government and relator alleged that the defendant knew of defects in the devices but failed to disclose the issues to physicians, patients, or the FDA. The case is one of an increasing enforcement trend in which the government pursues FCA claims based on allegations that the failure accurately to disclose safety or risk information regarding drugs or devices renders claims for reimbursement false.
This settlement follows the resolution in 2010 of criminal charges stemming from Guidant’s alleged failure to disclose information related to its implantable defibrillators. At that time Guidant pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges for filing a false report with FDA and failing to notify FDA about a safety correction made to one device, and agreed to pay $296 million.
In recent decisions, a federal court entered judgment under the FCA against a healthcare system that a jury had found violated the Stark Law and submitted claims for prohibited patient referrals. Among relatively few FCA cases that have proceeded to a jury verdict, this case illustrates the significant penalties defendants face.
As we previously reported, U.S. ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey Healthcare System involved claims that the defendant healthcare system entered into compensation arrangements with physicians that violated the Stark Law and resulted in the submission of false claims for patients who were referred in violation of Stark. In 2010, a jury concluded that the defendant violated the Stark Law but not the FCA. The district court subsequently set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial on the FCA claim, but entered a judgment on equitable claims based on the jury’s finding of a Stark Law violation. The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.
In May 2013, the retrial concluded with the jury finding the defendant violated the Stark Law and caused the submission of 21,730 false claims, in violation of the FCA. The jury calculated the total value of false claims filed by Tuomey as $39,313,065. The court calculated the award under the FCA as including treble damages plus the statutory minimum per-claim penalty of $5,500, for a total judgment under the FCA of $237,454,195. On September 30, the court ordered the defendant to pay $276 million. The government moved to amend the judgment, noting that the court’s award appeared to include $39,313,065 above the treble damages and statutory penalties to which it was entitled under the FCA. The government noted this appeared to be a “clerical error.” The court agreed, entering an amended judgment for $237 million.
In its order entering the amended judgment, the court also disposed of the defendant’s post-trial motions. Among the arguments for setting aside the jury verdict the court rejected, it denied Tuomey’s request for judgment as a matter of law because the government “failed to prove damages.” The Court noted that although the government “received the medical services it paid for, and it paid the same amount it would have paid had the services been performed by another hospital,” the government was entitled to damages under the FCA because the Stark Law prohibits “any payment” for a claim for prohibited referrals. In addition, the court denied Tuomey’s motion to set aside the $237 million award based on the excessive fines provision of the Eighth Amendment, finding the award of treble damages plus statutory per-claim penalties not to be “grossly disproportional to the gravity of Tuomey’s offense.”
Posted by Jaime Jones and Brenna Jenny
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reaffirmed that mere regulatory noncompliance, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish False Claims Act liability for claims submitted to Medicare. Rather, the court held, a relator must allege facts tying a defendant’s alleged conduct to Medicare’s expectations regarding material conditions of payment. See United States ex rel. Ketroser v. Mayo Found., No. 12-3206 (8th Cir. Sept. 4, 2013).
In the Ketroser case, relators alleged that the defendant violated the FCA when it submitted one written report, rather than two, as part of a pathology analysis incorporating a two-stage testing process. According to relators, because the CPT codes for the tests were both included in a section of the Medicare Codebook that required “reporting,” Medicare expected Mayo, to create two separate written reports. Mayo responded that it created a written report of the first test, and more broadly “reported” the results of the second test through oral communications between physicians and supplemental written comments as needed.
The court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claim based on relators’ failure to submit any “specific evidence” that Medicare considered separate written reports to be a material condition of payment. In this regard, the court joined other Circuits, including the Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth, in holding that pleading a “claim of regulatory noncompliance” does not satisfy FCA pleading requirements.
Furthermore, the court suggested that even if Medicare had expected a separate written report as a condition of payment, the Codebook’s “reporting” requirement was ambiguous, and Mayo’s reasonable interpretation negated any inference that Mayo had “knowingly” submitted a false claim. As other courts have held (see related posts here and here), the Eighth Circuit reiterated that where a defendant’s “interpretation of the applicable law is a reasonable” one, relators fail to plead the requisite scienter under the FCA.
Posted by Jaime Jones and Nirav Shah
This week, the Supreme Court invited the Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States on the pleading standards in FCA cases. U.S. ex rel. Nathan v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America, Inc., et al., Dkt. No. 12-1349 (Oct. 7, 2013). This move signals that the Court may soon decide whether to grant certiorari and hear a case that has significant implications for the efforts of the whistleblower bar and federal government to leverage the FCA for billions of dollars in recoveries each year.
In the decision at issue, the Fourth Circuit dismissed a complaint by the qui tam plaintiff for his failure to “allege with particularity that specific false claims were presented to the government for payment,” which the court held was necessary to satisfying the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b). Circuits are split on this issue, with the Sixth, Eight, and Eleventh Circuits adopting the standard articulated by the Fourth Circuit, while the First, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have allowed qui tam claims to survive based only on “reliable indicia that lead to a strong inference that claims were actually submitted.” See, e.g., U.S. ex rel. Grubbs v. Kanneganti, 565 F.3d 180, 190 (5th Cir. 2009).
It is unclear for which approach the Solicitor General may advocate. In a case involving similar issues three year ago, the Solicitor General merely noted that the First Circuit’s more-relaxed pleading requirement “deepens an existing circuit conflict.” There, the Solicitor General recommended that the Court answer the fundamental pleading question raised by the Circuit split—albeit not in that particular case. See Ortho Biotech Prods., L.P. v. U.S. ex rel. Duxbury, Dkt. No. 09-654.
On June 12, 2013, the First Circuit in United States ex rel. Duxbury v. Ortho Biotech Products, L.P., No. 12-2141, held that the district court properly limited discovery on the relator’s FCA claims to only those time periods and regions of the country as to which relator could be considered an “original source.”
Relator, a former employee of manufacturer Ortho Biotech Products, based his FCA claims in part on allegations that OBP delivered kickbacks to doctors in various forms to induce prescriptions of OBP’s anemia drug, Procrit. In 2007, the District of Massachusetts dismissed the kickback-related allegations for failure to plead fraud with sufficient particularity. The First Circuit reversed that decision, finding that the complaint properly set forth allegations of kickbacks that resulted in false claims by eight healthcare providers in the western U.S. between 1992 and 1998. The Court then remanded the case to the district court for consideration of discovery and statute of limitations issues.
On remand, Judge Zobel found that the temporal scope of discovery properly was limited to a roughly seven month period in late 1997 and early 1998. The district court reasoned that claims accruing prior to this time frame were barred by the FCA’s statute of limitations, and claims arising afterwards fell outside the scope of the court’s subject matter jurisdiction, because relator could not be an “original source” of claims arising after his termination. Additionally, the court limited relator’s discovery to the facts arising in the western United States because he only had “direct and independent knowledge” of OBP’s activities there. At the close of discovery, the parties stipulated that relator had not identified and did not possess any admissible evidence to support his remaining claims. OBP moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted.
Relator appealed, contending that the district court erroneously had applied the “original source” rule in determining the scope of its subject matter jurisdiction. Without reaching the merits of the district court’s subject matter jurisdiction, the First Circuit held that the limitations imposed by the district court were well within its “broad discretion in managing discovery.” Specifically, the First Circuit found the district court was not required to “expand the scope of discovery based upon the amended complaint’s bald assertions that the purported kickback scheme continued after [relator’s] termination or was ‘nationwide’ in scope.” Accordingly, the Court found that relator’s claims “evaporated” with the failure to uncover any admissible evidence to support the allegations in the complaint by the close of discovery, and upheld the grant of summary judgment for the defendant.
A copy of the First Circuit’s opinion can be found here.