Posted by Jaime L.M. Jones and Nirav Shah
In a report released last month, the federal government announced that it had recovered nearly $4.1 billion last fiscal year as a result of its escalated fight against health care fraud. Spearheaded by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice, the government recouped approximately $2.4 billion in civil health care fraud via the False Claims Act as well as $1.3 billion in criminal fines and forfeitures under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The number of new cases also rose, with the DOJ opening more than 1,100 new criminal health care fraud cases in addition to the more than 1,800 already pending. The number of civil cases is growing, too, with nearly 1,000 new cases being filed on top of over 1,000 existing actions.
In a blog post announcing the report, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius credits recent tools, including the Affordable Care Act’s $350 million funding of the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program, to help in the fight against fraud. A government fact sheet released on the same day also highlights these efforts, with particular focus on Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Teams (“HEAT”). These teams, created in 2009, are designed to encourage coordination and intelligence sharing among HHS and DOJ. The report also praises the work of the Medicare Strike Force, an “interagency team of analysts, investigators, and prosecutors who can target emerging or migrating fraud schemes, including fraud by criminals masquerading as health care providers or suppliers.” Secretary Sebelius cites these specialized anti-fraud teams and notes that, before their creation, “a fraudster could swindle Medicare for millions of dollars in Florida, close up shop, move to Detroit, and attempt to reestablish the same scheme without ever being noticed. Now, CMS and Department of Justice officials are tracking fraud scams as they move across the country, so that criminals are spotted when they try to re-enroll into Medicare or Medicaid.”
Administration officials noted that the recovery figures are nearly double the $2.14 billion recouped in 2008. Likewise, the number of fraud prosecutions increased 75 percent during the same period. Secretary Sebelius and Attorney General Holder both credited the Obama Administration’s revamped efforts at fighting fraud for these statistics.
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.