A bipartisan group of senators, led by Senators Grassley (R-IA), Leahy (D-VT), Wicker (R-MI), Durbin (D-IL), and Kennedy (R-LA), has introduced the False Claims Amendments Act of 2021. This legislation is worth watching not just because it would significantly amend the FCA, but because Senator Grassley has a successful track record of shepherding through to passage legislation reversing gains made by defendants in FCA cases.
On July 6, 2021, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court’s dismissal of the qui tam suit against IBM in United States ex rel. Cimino v. Int’l Bus. Machines Corp., No. 19-7139. The relator alleged that IBM and the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) had entered into a software license agreement, but that upon learning that the IRS was uninterested in renewing the agreement, IBM fraudulently induced the IRS to extend the contract. In particular, IBM allegedly collaborated with the auditor of the agreement, resulting in an audit finding that the IRS owed IBM $292 million for noncompliance with the contract’s terms. IBM then offered allegedly to waive that fee in exchange for the IRS renewing the agreement. The relator further alleged that once the new agreement was in place, IBM nonetheless collected $87 million of the noncompliance penalty by disguising that amount as fees for products and services that were never provided. According to the relator, this scheme yielded FCA liability in two ways: first, IBM fraudulently induced the IRS to renew the agreement; second, IBM submitted false claims by billing $87 million for unprovided products and services.
Late last week, Judge Patti Saris (D. Mass.) issued an opinion on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by a qui tam relator and Massachusetts and a group of defendants that includes South Bay Mental Health Center (“South Bay”) and its private equity fund owner, permitting the vast majority of plaintiffs’ claims to proceed to the jury. The opinion addresses important questions of law as to each of the elements of the FCA related to claims to Medicaid for services allegedly provided in violation of various state regulatory requirements. However, the opinion is most notable for being the first to hold at the dispositive motion stage that a private equity fund and its principals can act with the requisite scienter and cause the submission of false claims, and thus be exposed directly to the treble damages and statutory penalties of the FCA as a result of conduct by a healthcare provider portfolio company. As such, we may expect it to add momentum to DOJ’s stated intent to pursue FCA claims against PE investors in the industry, as we previously reported here.
In a recent Statement of Interest, DOJ articulated a problematic, and incorrect, theory of materiality in an apparent effort to make it virtually impossible for defendants to defeat bare allegations of materiality at the motion to dismiss stage in cases that involve allegedly false claims for prescription drugs.
Senator Charles Grassley, who supported the nomination of Merrick Garland for Attorney General, sent the then-nominee a letter on February 24 to ask the Department of Justice to work to “further clarify and strengthen the False Claims Act.” As we reported in previous posts (here, here, and here), Senator Grassley has publicly criticized DOJ’s position that its authority to dismiss FCA suits over relators’ objections is virtually unfettered, and has criticized the materiality standard established by the Supreme Court in Escobar as lending undue weight to role of government conduct (or lack thereof) in response to allegations of fraud. The letter discloses that Senator Grassley is working with “a cadre of bipartisan Senate colleagues” to “strengthen” and “improve” the False Claims Act by narrowing the materiality requirement, and by requiring a court to assess the merits of a qui tam in deciding whether to grant a motion to dismiss filed by DOJ. We will continue to monitor and report on any such legislation that may ultimately be proposed.
Yesterday, Senator Grassley, the architect of the 1986 False Claims Act amendments, and Brian Boynton, the Acting Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Civil Division, delivered the opening remarks at the Federal Bar Association’s 2021 Qui Tam Conference, previewing Senator Grassley’s priority legislative changes to the FCA and DOJ’s enforcement priorities under the Biden administration.
Two recent decisions by district courts in the Third Circuit illustrate the continued divide among courts regarding the extent to which the government’s declination decision bears on the materiality analysis set forth in Escobar and also underscore the challenges defendants can face in defeating materiality at the motion to dismiss stage.
On June 25, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court’s decision to set aside a jury’s $350 million verdict in favor of the relator. In Ruckh v. Salus Rehabilitation, LLC, Angela Ruckh, a registered nurse, alleged that two skilled nursing facilities (“SNFs”) and two related management services companies violated various Medicare and Florida Medicaid SNF regulations. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision adds further gloss to the FCA’s materiality and causation standards.
Two recent court decisions ruled in favor of relators on the issue of materiality under the standard set forth in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 136 S. Ct. 1989, 2001 (2016). On May 7, 2019, the Fifth Circuit reversed a decision by the Southern District of Texas, which had held that relators had failed to sufficiently plead materiality. And on May 8, 2019, the Eastern District of California denied a motion to dismiss premised on failure to adequately plead materiality.
In Escobar, the Supreme Court held that the implied false certification theory of liability is viable under the False Claims Act when “at least two conditions” are satisfied: “[F]irst, the claim does not merely request payment, but also makes specific representations about the goods or services provided; and second, the defendant’s failure to disclose noncompliance with material statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements makes those representations misleading half-truths.” As we have previously discussed here, courts are split as to whether Escobar’s two-part test is a mandatory baseline to demonstrate an implied false certification or merely one way to plead such a claim, leaving open the door for other variants of implied certification claims not explicitly identified by the Supreme Court. Recently, in United States ex rel. Scott Rose, et al. v. Stephens Institute, No. 17-15111 (9th Cir. Aug. 24, 2018), the Ninth Circuit held that Escobar’s two-part test was mandatory—effectively overruling its pre-Escobar test for establishing implied certification claims outlined in Ebeid ex rel. United States v. Lungwitz, 616 F.3d 993 (9th Cir. 2010). (more…)