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

Read the press about Judge James Gwin’s decision in United States ex rel. Barko v. Halliburton Co., No. 1:05-cv-1276 (D.D.C. Mar. 6, 2014), and you might see it as the beginning of the end for the attorney-client privilege in internal investigations. While the ultimate implications of the decision remain to be seen, that’s not how we see it.

The attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine are alive and well, as is their application to internal investigations. The FAR clause implementing the requirement for a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct preserves the contractor’s right to conduct an internal investigation subject to the protections of the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine. See FAR 52.203-13. The Justice Department’s Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations explicitly states that a company is not required to waive privilege in order to get credit for cooperating with a government investigation. “[W]aiving the attorney-client and work product protections has never been a prerequisite under the Department’s prosecution guidelines for a corporation to be viewed as cooperative.”

For federal contractors, publicly-traded companies, and others in highly-regulated industries, the real question presented by Barko is more granular: How can my company avoid the same result?

Continue Reading Preserving attorney-client privilege in internal investigations after Barko v. Halliburton

[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.]

What is the statute of limitations for qui tam actions brought against a contractor during a time of war? The answer to this question depends not only on whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act applies to actions brought by an individual relator under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, but also on when the United States is “at war.” The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed both of these questions in U.S. ex rel. Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013).

“At war” does not mean “declared war.”

The Wartime Suspension of Limtations Act was enacted in 1942. It suspends the applicable limitations period for any offense involving fraud against the United States when the country is “at war” or when Congress has enacted a specific authorization for the use of the Armed Forces. The suspension lasts for the duration of the war and until five years after hostilities end. 18 U.S.C. § 3287. Hostilities must be terminated “by a Presidential proclamation, with notice to Congress, or by a concurrent resolution of Congress.”

The meaning of “at war” is not specifically outlined in the WSLA, but it is a focal point of the decision in Carter. The relator, a water purification operator at two U.S. military camps in Iraq, asserted that his employer charged the government for work that was not performed. Due to a number of procedural obstacles, the action was filed outside of the six-year limitations period that normally applies to FCA qui tam actions. As a result, the district court dismissed the action as untimely. The relator appealed, asserting that the WSLA tolled the limitations period because the hostilities in Iraq meant that the United States was “at war.” The Fourth Circuit agreed, reasoning that a “formalistic” definition of when the country was “at war” did not reflect the “realities of today.”

Continue Reading The statute of limitations for qui tam actions under the False Claims Act when the United States is “at war”

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the federal government has withdrawn its False Claim Act suit against KBR alleging $100 million in improper charges for private security costs under KBR’s LOGCAP III contract. We criticized the court’s August 3, 2011 decision denying KBR’s motion to dismiss the case last summer. While KBR has good reason to celebrate the withdrawal of the claim, the court’s approach to the case will continue to present problems for government contractors.

The case arose out of a dispute relating to the allowability of private security costs. KBR attempted to seize the initiative by submitting a Contract Disputes Act claim to the Army contracting officer and then appealing to the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals. The government responded to the Board case with a False Claims Act complaint in the D.C. federal district court. KBR moved to dismiss the FCA case, contending that there was nothing “false” about its claims for payment of private security costs. KBR argued that the issue was just a contract dispute that ought to be resolved as such.

The court denied KBR’s motion, citing internal KBR emails questioning the allowability of private security costs and KBR’s effort to obtain change order allowing them. The court held that that the government’s allegations satisfied the “materiality” element of the implied false certification theory under the DC Circuit’s SAIC decision.

The government’s decision to withdraw the complaint is certainly a positive development for KBR. Perhaps the claim will be resolved as an ordinary contract dispute, as it should have been in the first place. The informal resolution of the case is not as positive for other contractors facing government efforts to wield the False Claims Act sword in connection with resolving ordinary contract disputes. Without further consideration of the issue in the KBR case, some courts will no doubt be tempted to treat the issue of materiality as a factual, and not a legal, question. The risk remains that the government or a qui tam relator can cite a contractor’s internal discussion of the meaning of ambiguous contract terms as evidence of an FCA violation.

Contractors sued for False Claims Act violations face a potential judgment assessing stiff civil penalties and treble damages. Even assuming that the government can meet its burden of proving a violation of the False Claims Act, defenses to the damages elements of the case should not be ignored. Grossly disproportionate penalties One important limit on the assessment of civil penalties appears in the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the assessment of excessive fines. To prevail on an 8th Amendment defense, a contractor must show that the fine would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. Four factors are relevant here:

  1. the extent of the harm caused;
  2. the gravity of the offense relative to the fine;
  3. whether the violation was related to other illegal activity, and the nature and extent of that activity; and
  4. the availability of other penalties and the maximum penalties which could have been imposed.

In one recent case, the court accepted an 8th Amendment argument that wiped out a $50 million civil penalty against a contractor found guilty of bid rigging. See United States ex rel. Bunk v. Birkart Globistics GMBH & Co., No. 1:02cv1168, 1:07cv1198 (E.D. Va. Feb. 14, 2012). The contract involved moving services for military personnel stationed in Europe. The contractor submitted a bid with 51 line item prices. The court found a violation of the False Claims Act because one of the line item prices was affected by a subcontractor bid-rigging scheme. The government sought to assess a $5,500 penalty for each of the contractor’s 9,136 invoices, yielding a penalty of $50,248,000. Despite the False Claims Act violation, the court refused to assess the penalty because it was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. The entire contract price was only $3.3 million and the contractor’s profit was only $150,000. There was no evidence of economic harm to the government because the contractor’s services were acceptable and the prices were lower than any competitor’s prices. Continue Reading Challenging damages and penalties in False Claims Act litigation

Secrecy is not often associated with fairness in the American system of justice. One law that requires secrecy is the False Claims Act, which encourages and rewards private citizens who bring actions against those whom they believe have defrauded the government. Because these cases must be filed under seal, the defendant remains blind to the allegations until a government investigation is well underway. Even before the government is notified of alleged fraudulent behavior, the whistleblower or “qui tam relator” can obtain documentation and information necessary to investigate and file suit without going through a formal discovery process. Whistleblowers and their attorneys may even use a “ringer” to obtain evidence and avoid alerting a contractor of the potential suit.

Continue Reading Secrecy in whistleblower lawsuits under the False Claims Act

The False Claims Act encourages individuals with knowledge of fraud against the Government to file a court action seeking damages for the fraud.  It does this by promising a bounty. The relator receives a percentage of the amount recovered in a false claims case.  But there is a constant tension between encouraging plaintiffs to bring cases alleging fraud and protecting defendants from frivolous cases. The January 11, 2011 decision in United States ex rel. Folliard v. Hewlett-Packard Co. illustrates how the requirement that a plaintiff include all of the details of an alleged fraud in the initial complaint helps strike this balance.

Continue Reading Hewlett-Packard and the need for “particularity” in qui tam cases

The Justice Department’s most recent fraud statistics are worth checking out if you follow enforcement of the False Claims Act.  The federal government is reporting that it collected over $3 billion in judgments and settlements in False Claims Act cases resolved through the end of Fiscal Year 2010. About 80 percent of the recoveries were in cases initiated by qui tam relators, who themselves recovered more than $386 million. 

As you might have guessed, most of the settlements and judgments involved health care fraud.  Cases in which the Department of Health and Human Services was the primary client agency represented more than $2.5 billion, or about 83 percent of the total.  Fraud cases involving the Department of Defense represented only 8 percent of the total–$261 million.  Since it was announced on October 26, 2010, we assume that the $750 million GlaxoSmithKline settlement is not included in the total.