The U.S . Department of Health and Human Services has released its Fiscal Year 2013 “Budget in Brief,” an overview of how HHS proposes to spend the close to $1 billion in budget authority for HHS requested in President Obama’s 2013 budget request. Program integrity is a top priority, with HHS noting that over the last three years, Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control (which comprises $610 million of the budget request) has produced a “return on investment” of $7.20 for every dollar spent. Among the key initiatives these funds will support are a continued emphasis on improper fee-for-service payments by Medicare, expansion of the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) task forces, and “an increased focused on civil fraud, such as off-label marketing and pharmaceutical fraud.” (page 62).
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.
On February 16, 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) released a long-awaited proposed rule (“Proposed Rule“) to implement the overpayment reporting and refund provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), which are enforceable in a “reverse false claims” action under the False Claims Act.
Under section 6402 of PPACA, providers and suppliers who have been overpaid by Medicare or Medicaid must report and return the overpayment within the later of: (1) 60 days of the date on which the overpayment is “identified;” or (2) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable, or face reverse false claims liability under the FCA. Although the duty to report and return an overpayment is triggered, in the alternative, from the date the overpayment is “identified,” Congress did not define “identified.” The Proposed Rule defines the term by reference to the FCA’s scienter provisions. Specifically, the Proposed Rule would deem an overpayment to be “identified” when the person has actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment, which is how the FCA defines a “knowing” violation of the Act. This standard mirrors that provided in the CMS’ Physician Payment Sunshine Act proposed rule whereby an applicable manufacturer must report payments or transfers of value to a covered recipient when the applicable manufacturer has actual knowledge of or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the identity of the covered recipient.
According to CMS, it incorporated the FCA’s mens rea standard to incentivize providers and suppliers “to exercise reasonable diligence to determine whether an overpayment exists.” In particular, CMS stated that the provision is designed to prevent providers and suppliers from avoiding their obligation to identify potential billing issues through, e.g., self-audits or compliance checks. The Proposed Rule does not otherwise provide guidance as to what steps providers should take to uncover potential billing issues, beyond the requirement to exercise “reasonable diligence,” and that investigations, once initiated, should be conducted “with all deliberate speed.” As evidenced by the case law interpreting the FCA’s “knowingly” standard , there is ample room for CMS and providers and suppliers to disagree regarding whether providers and suppliers have exercised “reasonable diligence” to identify potential overpayments.
Increasing the stakes for providers and suppliers in the event that they fail properly to “identify” an overpayment is the Proposed Rule’s adoption of an FCA-like 10-year “look-back” period. This provision requires providers and suppliers (and allows CMS and qui tam relators) to review any potential overpayments in the prior 10-year period (in contrast to the existing four year CMS reopening period and the three year Recovery Audit Contractor “look back” period). The 10 year look-back period obviously raises the spectre of significant financial liability for providers and suppliers.
As for how overpayments are to be reported, the Proposed Rule adopts CMS’ existing process for voluntary refunds, renamed the “self-reported overpayment refund process” set forth in Publication 100-06, Chapter 4 of the Medicare Financial Management Manual. CMS states that it intends to publish a new form specifically for reporting overpayments under PPACA.
The Proposed Rule also clarifies the relationship between the government’s various self-reporting mechanisms. First, if a provider or supplier reports a violation of the Stark Law through the Medicare Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol, this suspends the obligation to return overpayments, but not to report. In contrast, a provider’s or supplier’s report of potential fraud through the OIG Self-Disclosure Protocol1 both suspends the obligation to return overpayments once the OIG has acknowledged receipt of the submission,2 and constitutes a report for purposes of the Proposed Rule, provided such notification is consistent with the proposed deadlines.
CMS also offers guidance on what constitutes “overpayments” in the context of an alleged violation of the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”). The Proposed Rule notes that that while some overpayments may arise from potential violations of the AKS, third parties to the kickback arrangement do not have a duty to report or return such overpayments unless they have “sufficient knowledge of the arrangement to have identified the resulting overpayment.” In that case, the third party must report the overpayment to CMS, but only the parties to the kickback scheme would be expected to return the overpayment and not the innocent third-party provider or supplier, “except in the most extraordinary circumstances.” While the rule does not expressly apply to manufacturers, this proposed interpretation seems to establish a clear link between claims “tainted” by manufacturer kickbacks and “overpayment” liability. A separate post on this topic will be forthcoming.
While the Proposed Rule expressly applies only to Medicare Part A and B providers and suppliers, and is not final, CMS “remind[s] all stakeholders that even without a final regulation,” they “could face potential False Claims Act liability . . . for failure to report and return an overpayment.”
Comments on the Proposed Rule are due by April 16, 2012.
1 Id. at 9,182.
2 Id. at 9,183.
Posted by Robert J. Conlan and Scott D. Stein
On February 15, 2012, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced that CitiMortgage, Inc., a subsidiary of Citibank N.A., settled a suit asserting violations of the FCA and Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) arising out of allegations that CitiMortgage failed to comply with certain HUD-FHA requirements with respect to certain loans and submitted certifications to HUD-FHA stating that certain loans were eligible for FHA mortgage insurance when in fact they were not. As part of the settlement, CitiMortgage has agreed to pay $158.3 million in damages to the United States and a relator under the FCA.
The settlement has generated significant press coverage. An article in the American Lawyer notes that the settlement reflects the third case in less than a year in which DOJ has asserted FCA claims against a major financial institution for conduct relating to mortgage loans. Business Week reports on the settlement in an article titled “More Financial Whistleblowing Is On The Way.” And Reuters has an interesting article on the genesis of the suit, including an interview with the whistleblower, who remains an employee of CitiGroup.
Posted by Jonathan F. Cohn and Brian P. Morrissey
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) withdrew a proposed rule that would have imposed liability under the False Claims Act on USDA contractors for failure to report violations or alleged violations of federal labor laws. 77 Fed. Reg. 5714 (Feb. 6, 2012); 77 Fed. Reg. 5750 (Feb. 6, 2012). It appears that the rule, if adopted, would have been the first federal regulation to assert FCA liability on this ground. The USDA withdrew the Rule in response to criticism from industry groups, although it remains uncertain whether the agency will reissue the same or a similar rule in the future.
The rule, issued in December 2011, would have required USDA contractors to certify that they were “in compliance with all applicable labor laws” and that, to the best of their knowledge, “all of [their] subcontractors of any tier, and suppliers” were similarly in compliance. See 76 Fed. Reg. 74722 (Dec. 5, 2011); 76 Fed. Reg. 74755. Separately, the Rule would have required contractors to report violations or alleged violations of labor laws to their contracting officer. (The text of the Rule was ambiguous on the question whether this reporting obligation pertained only to violations by contractors themselves, or whether it required contractors to report conduct by their subcontractors and suppliers.) The Rule further stated that contractors’ certifications, if false, could be penalized under the FCA. 76 Fed. Reg. 74722; 76 Fed. Reg. 74755. The Rule was ground-breaking in this respect—it appears to be the first federal regulation that would have called for FCA liability for federal contractors who fail to report violations or alleged violations of labor laws.
This novel application of the FCA underscores the broad reach of the Act, and highlights yet another sector of the economy that could face increased exposure to FCA suits in the future. Most federal courts agree that a claim for payment is cognizable under the Act if it falsely certifies the submitter’s compliance with a condition of Government payment imposed by statute, regulation, or contract provision. See, e.g., United States ex rel. Conner v. Salina Reg’l Health Ctr., Inc., 543 F.3d 1211, 1217 (10th Cir. 2008). In applying this standard, courts have wrestled with the question whether, and to what extent, a claim submitted by a contractor should be interpreted to certify that other parties in the supply chain have also complied with applicable federal rules. The question typically arises in pharmaceutical cases, where a healthcare provider submits a claim based on the use of a product manufactured and supplied by other entities, all of whom might have violated a federal law—such as the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”), 21 U.S.C. § 301, et seq., and the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”), 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b)(2)—at some point in the course of producing or marketing the drug for which the provider seeks reimbursement. The answer typically depends on the facts—e.g., the precise certification language on the contractor’s claim form and/or the nature of the law that was violated—and has engendered a great deal of litigation. Expanding this theory of liability to violations of labor laws and to contractors in the agricultural industry could represent a new frontier in FCA exposure.
Multiple industry groups objected to the USDA’s rule, including the National Chicken Counsel, the National Turkey Federation, and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. See here. Their objections were numerous, but high on the list was their concern that the Rule would expose contractors to FCA liability for failing to report labor law violations already known to relevant federal law enforcement agencies, and for failing to report any allegation of labor law violations, even a patently frivolous one. The industry groups also expressed concern that the costs of their compliance with this Rule could materially increase the costs of poultry and other agricultural products provided to schools, hospitals, and the military through federal procurement programs.
The USDA withdrew the rule in response to these concerns, but this action may not end the debate. The USDA issued this proposed rule on December 1, 2011 through a Direct Final Rule, 76 Fed. Reg. 74722, and a substantively identical Proposed Rule, 76 Fed. Reg. 74755. The agency stated that the Direct Final Rule would bypass standard notice-and-comment procedures and take immediate effect on February 29, 2012 if no adverse comments were received. If adverse comments were received, however, the agency would withdraw the Direct Final Rule and proceed with standard notice-and-comment procedures on the Proposed Rule.
The USDA withdrew the Direct Final Rule on February 6, 2012 in response to the adverse comments noted above. It also withdrew the Proposed Rule, without explanation. It thus remains uncertain whether USDA plans to re-issue the same or a similar rule at a later time. But the possibility that the agency may do so warrants continued monitoring, especially for those interested in this potential expansion of the FCA.
Posted by Patrick E. Kennell III and Ellyce R. Cooper
On January 31, 2012, the Department of Justice celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Amendments to the False Claims Act with speeches by Attorney General Eric Holder, Assistant Attorney General Tony West, and Members of Congress. The celebration also included a panel discussion entitled “$30 Billion, 25 Years: The False Claims Act in Review.” The DOJ used the occasion to celebrate its recent accomplishments and to describe its future enforcement efforts.
In press releases sent out to mark the occasion, the DOJ noted the following successes:
- “Since [the 1986] changes were enacted, the Justice Department has recovered more than $30 billion under the act.”1
- “Since January 2009, the department has recovered $8.8 billion under the False Claims Act – the largest three-year total in the Justice Department’s history, and 28 percent of all recoveries since the False Claims Act was amended in 1986.”2
- $6.6 billion of the amounts recovered since January 2009 have been from healthcare fraud recoveries.3
- “[F]or every dollar Congress has provided for healthcare enforcement over the past three years, the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services have recovered nearly seven.”4
- “In FY 2011 alone, the Department of Justice secured more than $3 billion in settlements and judgments in civil cases involving fraud against the government.”5
- “Whistleblowers have filed nearly 8,000 actions – including a record high of 638 in the past year alone.”6
The DOJ also noted a series of key settlements including:
- $2.3 billion – Pfizer Inc. (2010);
- $1.7 billion – Columbia/HCA I & II (2000 and 2003);
- $1.415 billion – Eli Lilly and Company (2009);
- $950 million – Merck Sharp & Dohme (2011);
- $923 million – Tenet Healthcare Corporation (2006);
- $875 million – TAP Pharmaceuticals (2002);
- $750 million – GlaxoSmithKline (2010);
- $704 million – Serono, S.A. (2005).
- $650 million – Merck (2008); and
- $634 million – Purdue Pharma (2007).7
In his speech, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the DOJ is committed to “aggressively utilizing” the FCA to combat fraud and that the past successes of the DOJ “represent a wide-ranging effort to eradicate the scourge of fraud from some of government’s most critical programs.”8 Attorney General Holder also noted that “in these challenging economic times” the DOJ’s mandate to “aggressively pursue those who would take advantage of their fellow citizens – has never been more clear or more urgent.”9 Finally, Attorney General Holder stated that “the strength of our resolve is equal to the breadth of our mandate.”10 Likewise, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, Tony West indicated that “Attorney General Eric Holder, has made fighting fraud – particularly healthcare fraud – a top priority.”11
It is clear from the remarks at this celebration that the recent increase in civil and criminal FCA actions will continue for the foreseeable future.12 It also remains evident that the healthcare sector continues to be a focus of the DOJ’s enforcement efforts, although it also continues to pursue other industries. The increase of whistleblower FCA cases during this past year also evidences the increased awareness of the FCA by employees of companies that deal with government funding in some way. Corporations and individuals should continue to have extensive compliance programs in place to ensure that the DOJ does not target them as part of the DOJ’s “aggressive pursu[it]” of government fraud related actions using the DOJ’s broad mandate.
1 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Justice Department Celebrates 25th Anniversary of False Claims Act Amendments of 1986 (Jan. 31, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/January/12-ag-142.html.
3 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the 25th Anniversary of the False Claims Act Amendments of 1986 (Jan. 31, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/civil/speeches/2012/civ-speech-120131.html.
5 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Justice Department Celebrates 25th Anniversary of False Claims Act Amendments of 1986 .
6 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the 25th Anniversary of the False Claims Act Amendments of 1986 (Jan. 31, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2012/ag-speech-120131.html.
7 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Justice Department Celebrates 25th Anniversary of False Claims Act Amendments of 1986.
8 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the 25th Anniversary of the False Claims Act Amendments of 1986.
11 Press Release, United States Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the 25th Anniversary of the False Claims Act Amendments of 1986.
12 For a detailed accounting of DOJ Fraud Statistics, see Department of Justice, Fraud Statistics Overview (Dec. 7, 2011, 2:47 PM), http://www.justice.gov/civil/docs_forms/C-FRAUDS_FCA_Statistics.pdf.
On March 26–28, 2012, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on various challenges to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the federal health reform legislation enacted in March 2010. Two laws comprise the ACA: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. While the vast bulk of the political debate surrounding the ACA involves the individual health insurance mandate and Medicaid expansion provisions, these are only two components of a law that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals described in its underlying opinion as “contain[ing] hundreds of new laws about hundreds of different areas of health insurance and health care.” Florida v. DHHS, Nos. 11-11021 & 11-11067, Slip Op. at 22 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2011). In this light, one of the most significant issues before the Supreme Court is whether the remainder of the ACA’s provisions are severable from any provisions that may be deemed unconstitutional.
Of particular import to companies affected by the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), among the ACA’s hundreds of provisions are amendments to the FCA and the AKS that expand the scope of liability and restrict the “public disclosure” defense under the FCA. For example, the ACA:
- Amends the AKS to provide that any claim submitted to a federal healthcare program for items or services “resulting from” a violation of the AKS constitutes a “false or fraudulent claim” under the FCA. PPACA § 6402(f)(1) (adding a new subsection (g) to 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b).
- Eliminates the need to prove specific intent and actual knowledge to establish an AKS violation. PPACA § 6402(f)(2) (adding a new subsection (h) to 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b).
- Limits the public disclosure bar by (a) restricting the scope of materials that qualify as public disclosure, (b) making it easier for relators to qualify as an “original source,” and (c) eliminating public disclosure as a subject-matter-jurisdictional bar and instead giving the Government veto power over any motion to dismiss based on public disclosure. PPACA § 10104(j)(2) (amending 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)).
- Imposes an affirmative obligation on recipients of overpayments to report and return those overpayments or face liability for “reverse false claims.” PPACA § 6402(a) (adding 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7k, including subsection (d) regarding overpayments).
- Establishes new civil monetary penalties of up to $50,000 per violation for conduct that is also actionable under the FCA. PPACA §§ 6402(d)(2) and 6408(a) (adding new CMPs under 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7a(a)).
In the Eleventh Circuit’s 2-1 decision, the appeals court ruled that the ACA’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. Crucially, however, the court found this provision severable from the rest of the law. In so ruling, the Eleventh Circuit stated that “the lion’s share of the [ACA] has nothing to do with private insurance, much less the mandate that individuals buy insurance.” See Slip Op. at 192. Accordingly, under the Eleventh Circuit’s analysis, the rest of the ACA’s provisions could remain intact even if the individual mandate component falls.
The law’s challengers, including 26 states, do not agree; they have told the Supreme Court that the entire law must be struck if the individual mandate is held unconstitutional. Likewise, the federal government does not completely agree with the Eleventh Circuit’s view of severability, either. In its Supreme Court brief responding to the severability question, filed January 27, 2012, the federal government makes two arguments—neither of which asserts that the individual mandate provision is severable from all of the ACA’s other provisions. First, the federal government argues that the Supreme Court should not address the merits of the severability issue in this case, because the petitioners lack standing to challenge the validity of most of the law’s provisions. Should the Justices reach the merits of this issue, however, the federal government further argues that, if the individual mandate falls, so must two particular insurance reform provisions: (1) guaranteed issue, which requires insurers to provide coverage to all comers and prohibits discrimination based on preexisting medical conditions; and (2) community rating, which prohibits plans from charging higher premiums based on applicants’ experiences or characteristics, except for limited variances based on the applicant’s age, where the applicant resides, whether the applicant uses tobacco, and whether the policy covers individuals or families. Under the federal government’s position, only these two provisions—not the entire law—should be struck if the individual mandate is found unconstitutional.
To ensure that the arguments in favor of “full” severability get a full hearing, the Supreme Court appointed an attorney, who does not represent either of the parties to the case, to argue the position that the rest the ACA provisions (including guaranteed issue and community rating) can survive even if the individual mandate does not. (Another appointed attorney will address yet another question: whether the entire case is premature for judicial consideration under the Anti-Injunction Act (26 U.S.C. § 7421(a)).)
If the Supreme Court ultimately agrees with the Eleventh Circuit that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but holds that the provision is not severable, the entire law would be struck down as unconstitutional. Such a ruling would “undo” the multitude of corollary provisions, which have received less public attention. While it also is possible that the Supreme Court will not reach the severability question in its decision later this year on the fate of the ACA, entities subject to the FCA—and, indeed, anyone affected by the ACA’s “hundreds of provisions”—should appreciate just how much is at stake in the pending decision beyond the provisions at focus in current media coverage.
Posted by Robert J. Conlan and Brian P. Morrissey
In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that a first-filed qui tam complaint need not satisfy the heightened pleading requirements for fraud set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b) in order to bar subsequent qui tam complaints based on the same material allegations. In so holding, the court rejected the contrary argument put forth by the relator and the United States as amicus curiae, and it created a circuit split with the Sixth Circuit.
In United States ex rel. Batiste v. SLM Corp., reported at 659 F.3d 1204 (D.C. Cir. 2011), slip opinion here, the relator, Sheldon Batiste, alleged that SLM Corp. (commonly known as “Sallie Mae”) defrauded the Federal Government in its administration of student loans by unlawfully putting federally-subsidized student loans into forbearance (thereby causing the Government to pay additional interest and special allowances on such loans), and by filing false certifications with the Government in order to maintain its status as an eligible lender.
More than two years before Batiste filed his complaint, however, another relator had filed a qui tam suit against SLM and one if its wholly-owned subsidiaries. Complt., United States ex rel. Zahara v. SLM Corp., No. 2:05-cv-8020 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 9, 2005). That complaint was ultimately dismissed with prejudice after the relator failed to obtain counsel by a set deadline, Entry Dismissing Action, United States ex rel. Zahara v. SLM Corp., No. 1:06-cv-088 (S.D. Ind. Mar. 12, 2009). The district court in Batiste’s case concluded that this prior qui tam suit was based on the “same material elements of fraud” as Batiste’s complaint. Batiste, 659 F.3d at 1208. Accordingly, the district court dismissed Batiste’s complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the FCA’s first-to-file bar. Id.; see also 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5) (providing that “no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the facts underlying [a] pending action”).
Batiste, supported by the United States as amicus curiae, appealed, arguing that the prior complaint in Zahara did not allege fraud with the particularity necessary to meet Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b)’s heightened pleading standard for fraud claims and, thus, should not have triggered the FCA’s first-to-file bar. The D.C. Circuit rejected that contention, holding that “first filed complaints need not meet the heightened standard of Rule 9(b) to bar later complaints; they must provide only sufficient notice for the government to initiate an investigation into the allegedly fraudulent practices, should it choose to do so.” Batiste, 659 F.3d at 1210.
In reaching this conclusion, the D.C. Circuit expressly declined to follow the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Walburn v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 431 F.3d 966 (6th Cir. 2005). Batiste, 659 F.3d at 1210-11. In Walburn, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that a complaint that fails to satisfy Rule 9(b) should not be given preemptive effect under the FCA’s first-to-file bar because such a complaint, by virtue of its failure to meet the 9(b) standard, is insufficiently precise to provide the Government “adequate notice . . . of the fraud it alleges.” Id. at 973.
Other federal courts are likely to grapple with this same question. As the number of qui tam complaints filed in the federal courts rises and qui tam relators focus special attention on certain industries (including the student loan industry), overlap between complaints is all but inevitable. These courts will be forced to choose between the competing approaches taken by the Sixth and D.C. Circuits, and may ultimately help inform Supreme Court resolution of the current circuit split.