Earlier this week, a court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a declined qui tam action in which the relator, a licensed nurse, alleged that an operator of treatment facilities for disabled individuals fraudulently billed Medicare and Medicaid for substandard care and retaliated against her for investigating that fraud.
Posted by Jaime L.M. Jones and Brenna Jenny
On Friday, the Northern District of California dismissed with prejudice claims alleging that a failure to obtain supplemental approval for major changes in manufacturing processes created FCA liability. U.S. ex rel. Campie v. Gilead Sciences, Inc., No. 11-0941 (N.D. Cal. June 12, 2015). The court also adopted a narrow reading of “worthless services” in the context of pharmaceutical products. Together, these holdings deal a significant blow to those seeking to premise FCA suits on violations of current Good Manufacturing Practices (“cGMPs”).
Posted by Jaime L.M. Jones and Brenna Jenny
In a remarkable opinion sure to be cited by FCA defendants facing FCA claims premised on alleged regulatory non-compliance, on January 7 the Northern District of California granted defendant Gilead’s motion to dismiss FCA claims premised on alleged violations of current Good Manufacturing Practices regulations (“cGMPs”), holding that fraudulent conduct directed at FDA standing alone cannot render subsequent Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement requests false under the FCA. See U.S. ex rel. Campie v. Gilead Sciences, Inc., No. 11-cv-00941 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2015). The ruling expands on the reasoning of the Fourth Circuit’s decision last year in Rostholder (as reported here) and reiterates the judiciary’s hesitancy to permit the FCA to displace FDA’s institutional capacity to enforce its own regulatory scheme.
Two former Gilead employees with quality control responsibilities filed a qui tam suit against their previous employer, alleging various violations of cGMP requirements. The relators asserted these regulatory issues gave rise to FCA liability because had FDA been aware of the them it would not have approved the affected drugs or would have withdrawn approval; as a result, relators claimed that all claims for payment submitted to Medicare and Medicaid for these drugs were false under the FCA. The government declined to intervene in the suit but did file a statement of interest on these issues, which the court cites in its opinion.
The court first dispensed with relators’ claim that allegedly false certifications to FDA or other allegedly fraudulent conduct during the drug approval process could give rise to FCA liability. Although FDA’s New Drug Application (“NDA”) form requires manufacturers to certify compliance with cGMP regulations, the court found the fact that manufacturers make this statement to FDA, and not to CMS for the purpose of securing payment, to be critical to the viability of relators’ claims. The court ruled that “FCA liability cannot be based on fraudulent statements made before one regulatory agency and from that implying a certification putatively made to the payor agency where there is neither an express certification nor condition of payment.” As even relators conceded during a hearing, Gilead never made any direct misrepresentations to a payor.
In an attempt to avoid this result, relators had argued in supplemental briefing that FDA served as a “gatekeeper” for CMS, with both entities standing as “two arms of the same federal department,” and thus fraudulent conduct directed toward one arm and a request for payment directed toward another arm could be synthesized so as to have a sufficiently direct nexus. The court disagreed, distinguishing between “Gilead’s non-disclosure and misrepresentations . . . [made] during the FDA approval process” and the “subsequent reimbursement requests to CMS,” and rejecting relators’ invitation to rule that a false statement to one regulatory agency “can form the basis of FCA liability simply because the fraudulently induced action of that agency was part of a causal chain that ultimately led to eligibility for payment from the payor agency.”
In similarly dismissing relators’ claims that Gilead had also made false implied certifications of compliance to CMS, the court then adopted the reasoning of the Fourth Circuit in Rostholder that the mere assertion of drugs being adulterated or misbranded as a result of a manufacturer violating cGMP requirements falls short of articulating a claim under the FCA, because Medicare and Medicaid do not condition reimbursement on compliance with cGMP regulations. Instead, payment is conditioned on a drug receiving FDA approval, which Gilead’s products had undisputedly obtained. Accordingly, the relators’ claims were held to be fundamentally flawed.
The court’s opinion generally addresses the heightened policy concerns generated by the proposition that regulatory non-compliance, particularly within the complex FDA regime, can trigger a cognizable FCA claim. If false statements made during the FDA approval process could serve as the basis for FCA liability, then courts would have to determine whether, but for the fraudulent conduct, the agency would have denied approval of the drug. Delving into the nuances of the FDA approval process, the court explained, would be a task the courts lack the expertise to execute. The court also echoed Rostholder‘s concern with using the FCA to short-circuit FDA’s own enforcement powers. Notably, however, the language and the logic of the Campie court’s opinion sweeps much broader than allegations focused on compliance with FDA regulations, and bear relevance on all FCA claims premised on alleged fraudulent conduct directed at a regulatory agency other than the one which pays the affected claims.
Finally, the court addressed the relators’ alternative theory of FCA liability, namely that the manufacturing defects were so significant they rendered the resulting product “worthless.” As we previously reported here, and as the Campie court observed, the Seventh Circuit recently constrained the viability of FCA suits premised on a theory of “worthless services,” ruling that a product or service’s diminished value must not be simply “worth less,” but rather must be truly “worthless.” Although the government has argued through statements of interest in both this case and Rostholder that some cGMP violations may so affect a drug “that the drug is essentially ‘worthless’ and not eligible for payment by the government,” the court ruled that the Campie relators had not alleged facts meeting the requirements of “the narrow ‘worthless services’ theory.”
The court granted the relators an opportunity to amend their complaint and either articulate a worthless services theory or a direct misrepresentation made during the payment process. We will continue to monitor any developments in this case, which is sure to be cited by defendants facing a broad range of FCA claims based on alleged regulatory non-compliance, and not just by defendants in FCA cases premised on alleged violations of cGMP and other FDA requirements. A copy of the district court’s opinion can be found here.