After nearly a decade of litigation, justice was finally meted out in an extreme case of Government over-reach against a government contractor. The Government had sought to recover over $1.6 million from a government contractor whose subcontractor had underpaid a handful of employees by $9,900.

When all was said and done, a federal appellate court finally rejected the Government’s legal theory as essentially frivolous and ordered it to pay the contractor’s attorney fees, estimated at roughly $500,000.  When the Government expressed concern that this would have a “chilling effect” on its efforts to vigorously enforce the False Claims Act, the court stated: “One should hope so.”  The case is called U.S. ex rel. Wall v. Circle C Constr., LLC, No. 16-6169, (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017).

The story starts when the prime contractor, Circle C Construction, won a contract to construct buildings at the Fort Campbell military base. Circle C hired a subcontractor, Phase Tech, to perform the electrical work. The prime contract required compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act, which is similar to the Service Contract Act but applies to construction work. Like the Service Contract Act, the Davis Bacon Act requires the prime contractor and all subcontractors to pay construction workers the prevailing wages and benefits set by the Department of Labor. The Davis-Bacon Act also requires that the contractor submit certified payrolls as a condition of contract payment.

While Circle C did not have a written contract with its subcontractor Phase Tech, it did provide Phase Tech with the Wage Determinations from its prime contract. But Circle C did not verify whether Phase Tech was in compliance with the Davis Bacon Act. Phase Tech did not submit payroll certifications for two years after the project commenced, and later contended it was not aware it had to do so.

Eventually, one of Phase Tech’s employees brought a qui tam False Claims Act action against both Phase Tech and Circle C based on the under-payment of wages. Phase Tech settled the case by agreeing to pay $15,000, leaving Circle C as the remaining defendant. The Government agreed to take over the case from the employee and pursued the claim against Circle C.

Initially, the case did not go well for Circle C. The federal trial court hearing the case granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and damages of $555,000 (the entire cost of the electrical scope of work on the project), which was trebled to a total award of $1.66 million against Circle C.

Continue Reading Government ordered to pay contractor’s attorney’s fees in False Claims Act case

Photo by Sgt. Sara WoodThe Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, No. 15-7 (U.S. June 16, 2016), upholds the viability of the implied certification theory of False Claims Act liability. But it also makes cases arising from minor instances of noncompliance much harder to prove. The Court held that a knowing failure to disclose a violation of a material statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirement can create False Claims Act liability. The requirement need not be an express condition of payment, but it must be material to the Government’s decision to pay.

The requirement for proof of a misleading half-truth

Those hoping that the Court would eliminate implied certification altogether will be disappointed with the decision. It opens up the possibility of new False Claims Act cases in the Seventh Circuit and in other jurisdictions that had rejected the implied certification theory or limited its application to conditions of payment. Some cases that might have been thrown out on a motion to dismiss might stand a better chance of surviving through discovery and trial.

The Court nevertheless takes strong steps to limit misuse of the implied certification theory. According to the opinion in Escobar, liability under the implied certification theory can be imposed only when two conditions are satisfied. First, the claim for payment must make “specific representations about the goods or services provided.” An invoice that makes no affirmative statement about the quality of a contractor’s goods or services cannot be the basis for an implied certification.

Continue Reading Universal Health v. Escobar: the new standard of proof for implied certification liability under the False Claims Act

[UPDATE: The Supreme Court resolved the Escobar case in a unanimous decision published on June 16, 2015. A link to our discussion of the Court’s opinion is available here.]

In some courts in the United States today, a government contractor or a healthcare provider seeking reimbursement from a federal program can violate the False Claims Act even when its work is satisfactory and its invoices are correct. Under the theory of “implied certification,” a minor instance of non-compliance with one of the thousands of applicable statutes, regulations, and contract provisions can be the basis for a federal investigation, years of litigation, as well as fines, penalties, suspension and debarment, even imprisonment of company personnel.

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, Docket No. 15-7, a case involving the viability of the implied certification theory. Here, we look at the questions posed during oral argument to see if we can infer how the Court might resolve the case.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider two questions posed in Escobar. First, the Court agreed to address the current split in the circuits as to the viability of the implied certification theory. The First Circuit’s decision in United States ex rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services, Inc., 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015), broadly adopts implied certification. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in United States v. Sanford-Brown, Ltd., 788 F.3d 696 (7th Cir. 2015), firmly rejects it.

Continue Reading How the Supreme Court will limit False Claims Act liability for implied certification

Criminal charges for minimum wage violations are certainly rare. But the November 2015 indictment of electrical contractor Marcus Butler shows that they are possible. Mr. Butler faces jail time and heavy fines for allegedly making false certifications regarding $126,514 in Davis-Bacon Act wages on three HUD multi-family housing projects.

Given the rarity of criminal indictments for wage-and-hour violations, I infer that Mr. Butler’s alleged conduct was much worse than simply miscalculating the prevailing wage or losing track of some payroll records. But there is nothing in the indictment that would reveal the underlying aggravating factors that motivated it. The Government asserts simply that Mr. Butler participated in a “scheme” and that he “knowingly and willfully” overstated wages and benefits on his 61 separate certified payrolls (DOL Form WH-347).

It will probably be some time before we see whether this is case is the result of overreaching conduct by DOL and government attorneys (like another recent DOL case) or the application of the new Justice Department policy set forth in the Yates Memorandum on Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing. This new policy will almost certainly increase the number of criminal charges arising from ordinary non-compliance and administrative oversight. Husch Blackwell’s client alert on the Yates Memorandum is available here.

Either way, now is the right time for federal contractors to take on the task of reviewing and updating their own HR policies and practices.

Continue Reading Overkill or the new normal? Criminal charges for underpayment of prevailing wages and benefits

The Supreme Court’s decision in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, No. 12-1497 (U.S. May 26, 2015) [pdf], holds that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act applies only to criminal offenses. It also holds that the first-to-file bar in the False Claims Act applies only when an earlier-filed action remains “pending.” BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq.  Staff Sgt. Gary Messer, 332nd Expeditionary Aerospace Medical Squadron bioenvironmental engineer, transfers a sample of tap water to a tube before performing tests to confirm that the water is free from bacteria. March 13, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Julianne Showalter.)The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Alito, takes a plain-meaning approach to both of the questions presented.

The Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act

Citing dictionary definitions of the word “offense” and the appearance of the WSLA in Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the Court inferred that Congress intended to toll the applicable statutes of limitations only in criminal cases. As to the removal of the phrase “now indictable” from the text of the WSLA in 1944, the Court found that such a subtle change does not prove that Congress intended to expand the tolling effect of the WSLA beyond criminal cases. “[T]he removal of the ‘now indictable’ provision was more plausibly driven by Congress’ intent to apply the WSLA prospectively, not by any desire to expand the WSLA’s reach to civil suits.”

Carter reverses the Fourth Circuit’s holding in United States ex rel. Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013) as to the scope of the WSLA. Continue Reading KBR v. US ex rel. Carter—a plain-meaning approach to the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act and the False Claims Act first-to-file bar

Redline of 2015 Amendments to FAR 52.222-50

The 2015 amendments to the anti-trafficking provisions in the Federal Acquisition Regulation will apply to all federal contracts and subcontracts awarded after March 2, 2015. Existing IDIQ contracts for which additional orders are anticipated will be modified “on a bilateral basis” to include the new language in FAR 52.222-50. See 80 Fed. Reg. 4967 (Jan. 29, 2015). The changes implement the requirements outlined in Executive Order 13627 (Sept. 25, 2012) and the anti-trafficking provisions of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Public Law No. 112-239 (Jan. 2, 2013), codified in 22 U.S.C. Chapter 78.

Here we present some of the background on the original FAR clause and a summary of the new requirements. A redline version of the 2015 amendments to FAR 52.222-50 is available here.

The original FAR language on human trafficking

A contract clause prohibiting severe forms of human trafficking, procurement of commercial sex acts, and the use of forced labor has appeared in federal service contracts since April 2006. See 71 Fed. Reg. 20301 (Apr. 19, 2006) [pdf]. The 2006 version of the anti-trafficking clause included a general prohibition applicable to federal service contractors and a requirement to establish policies and procedures to ensure employee compliance. It required contractors to notify employees of the policy and to establish an appropriate employee awareness program. It required contractors to notify the government of an alleged violation and specified penalties for human trafficking violations. The original interim version of FAR 52.222-50 was also a mandatory flowdown in all subcontracts for the acquisition of services.

FAR 52.222-50 was expanded in 2007 to cover all federal contracts and subcontracts, including those for supplies and for commercial items. See 72 Fed. Reg. 46335 (Aug. 7, 2007). The clause was revised again in January 2009. See 74 Fed. Reg. 2741 (Jan. 15, 2009). The main substantive addition at that time was the addition of language making it clear that a contracting officer could consider the adoption of a Trafficking in Persons awareness program as a mitigating factor in determining the appropriate remedy for a trafficking violation.

The 2015 FAR amendments

The 2015 amendments to FAR Subpart 22.17 and FAR 52.222-50 go well beyond the original requirements. They introduce a list of specific types of conduct that had not previously appeared in the clause. They add a requirement for many contractors to implement trafficking compliance plans and to certify the absence of any trafficking activities every year. They also modify the mandatory disclosure obligations and specify the minimum level of cooperation required of contractors responding to a trafficking investigation. Finally, the amendments to the FAR clause expand the list of contracting relationships subject to the anti-trafficking clause. Continue Reading The 2015 amendments to the FAR rule on human trafficking

Despite getting a rare Writ of Mandamus from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals establishing that its internal investigations were covered by the attorney-client privilege, Kellogg Brown & Root must still turn them over. As predicted in our earlier posts on Barko v. Halliburton, Judge James Gwin has ruled that KBR waived the attorney-client privilege that would otherwise have shielded KBR’s internal investigation documents from discovery. His rationale is reflected in three opinions published in November and December 2014.A trash-burning incinerator is installed at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Iraq, through a LOGCAP contract.

In a June 2014 opinion, the D.C. Circuit held that KBR’s internal investigation documents would be privileged if obtaining or providing legal advice was “a primary purpose of the communication, meaning one of the significant purposes. . . .”

But the Court of Appeals also invited the District Court to consider additional arguments that might have been timely asserted as to “why these documents are not covered by either the attorney-client privilege or the work product doctrine.”

That is what Judge Gwin did. When the case returned to the District Court, Barko sought “interviews, reports, and documents that KBR prepared while investigating tips KBR had received that involved the same allegations found in Barko’s complaint.” Barko relied on four arguments to support his claim that KBR had waived any attorney-client privilege or work-product protection over the documents:

  1. KBR put the contents of the documents at issue in the litigation;
  2. KBR’s Rule 30(b)(6) witness reviewed the privileged documents prior to testifying at his deposition;
  3. The documents fell under the crime-fraud exception to the privilege; and
  4. KBR had failed to list these documents on a privilege log when responding to an earlier administrative subpoena from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (“DCIS”).

In an opinion issued on November 20, 2014, Judge Gwin accepted the first two arguments.

Continue Reading Barko v. Halliburton: The next (and final?) chapter

Six years from accrual. Three years from discovery. And never longer than ten years.

Despite the statutory language imposing time limits on the government’s pursuit of False Claims Act violations, courts continue to bend over backwards to give the government more time to assert them. The decision in United States ex rel. Sansbury v. LB&B Associates, Inc., No. 07-251 (D.D.C. July 16, 2014) [pdf] allowed the government a total of 14 years from the date of the first alleged false claim.

We hope that the Supreme Court will restore some sanity to the enforcement of the FCA limitations period in its decision in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, No. 12-1497. We discuss the issues in that case in an earlier post. But we still have to wait a while for that. Argument in the Carter case is scheduled for January 13, 2015.

[UPDATE: On May 26, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Carter and held that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act is limited to criminal offenses. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. Carter, No 12-1497 (U.S. May 26, 2015) [pdf]. Our discussion of the Carter decision is available here.]

 

The FCA limitations and tolling framework

Sansbury is an unusual case that is based on the intricacies of the FCA’s limitations and relation-back provisions. Before getting into the facts of the case and the holding, here’s a breakdown of those provisions.

According to the text of the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. § 3731(b)), the limitations period applicable to civil FCA actions is the later of:  (1) 6 years after the date on which the violation is committed; or (2) 3 years after the date when the material facts giving rise to the cause of action are known or reasonably should have been known by the U.S. official responsible for acting on FCA violations (i.e. DOJ official), but in no event more than 10 years after the date on which the violation is committed.

But these may not be real deadlines. Even without the tolling that that may be available under the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act, the government may get several additional years to make a decision on whether to intervene in a whistleblower’s qui tam suit. If the whistleblower’s original action is timely under § 3731(b), the government’s intervention complaint “relates back” to the date of the initial complaint. Even if the government takes three years to file its intervention complaint, it is deemed to have been filed on the date of the original suit. The relation back provision appears in 31 U.S.C. § 3731(c).

Continue Reading How a 14-year-old case escaped the False Claims Act’s 6-year statute of limitations

The attorney-client privilege applies with equal force to internal investigations today as it did 30 years ago thanks to the D.C. Circuit’s recent decision in In re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., No. 14-5055 (D.C. Cir. June 27, 2014). The appeals court decision vacates the March 6, 2014 district court decision in the same case. At the district court, Judge James Gwin ruled that the attorney-client privilege did not protect documents developed during KBR’s internal investigations of potential fraud relating to its LOGCAP III contract. According to Judge Gwin, KBR’s investigations were not privileged because they were conducted “pursuant to regulatory law and corporate policy rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.”

The D.C. Circuit’s decision reverses Judge Gwin’s ruling. The decision recognizes the “uncertainty generated by the novelty and breadth of the District Court’s reasoning” and echoes the Supreme Court’s concern that an “uncertain privilege, or one which purports to be certain but results in widely varying applications by the courts, is little better than no privilege at all.” If the district court’s decision were to stand, “businesses would be less likely to disclose facts to their attorneys and to seek legal advice.” The behavior created by this uncertainty in the attorney-client privilege would undercut the very compliance and disclosure regulations central to Judge Gwin’s analysis.

Continue Reading Barko v. Halliburton—How the D.C. Circuit’s decision reaffirms the attorney-client privilege in internal investigations

[UPDATE: On May 26, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Carter and held that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act is limited to criminal offenses. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. Carter, No 12-1497 (U.S. May 26, 2015) [pdf]. Our discussion of the Carter decision is available here.]

Whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act tolls the six-year statute of limitations for civil claims under the False Claims Act will soon be addressed by the Supreme Court. In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel Benjamin Carter, No. 12-1497 (July 1, 2014), the Court will have the opportunity to address several important questions about the application of the WSLA. Should it apply to civil claims or be limited to criminal actions? Does the tolling specified in the WSLA require a formal declaration of war? And does the WSLA apply to a qui tam claim in which the United States declines to intervene?

[Note:  The case also asks the Court to address whether the FCA’s “first-to-file” bar applies to cases filed after the first case is dismissed.  We’ll look at that question in another post.]

The case comes to the Supreme Court following the Fourth Circuit’s decision in U.S. ex rel Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013). In that case, the Fourth Circuit held that the WSLA tolled all civil actions—including civil FCA claims brought by qui tam relators—until the President or Congress declared a “termination of hostilities.” The Supreme Court accepted Halliburton’s petition for certiorari and will hear the case in 2015.

We believe the Fourth Circuit’s opinion represents a significant expansion of the WSLA. As Judge Agee points out in his dissenting opinion, a particularly troublesome aspect of the Fourth Circuit’s decision is its application of the WSLA to civil qui tam actions in which the United States has not intervened. The underlying purpose of the WSLA is to allow the law enforcement arm of the United States government to focus on its “duties, including the enforcement of the espionage, sabotage, and other laws’” in times of war. Id. (citing Bridges v. United States, 346 U.S. 209, 219 n. 18 (1953)). In a qui tam action initiated by a private citizen, the rationale for tolling the limitations period is diminished.

Continue Reading Will the Supreme Court uphold tolling of the six-year limitations period for civil False Claims Act cases during times of war?