The False Claims Act case against Lance Armstrong lasted longer than his 7 year Tour de France win streak.

While the settlement of the False Claims Act case against Lance Armstrong has generated a press release, a quick online search didn’t produce a copy of the actual agreement. So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and the next day the Department of Justice provided me a copy of the Lance Armstrong settlement agreement.  Thank you, Team DOJ!  Below is my take on that agreement and what it tells us about the case.

The settlement amount

The settlement agreement provides that Lance Armstrong will pay $5 million to the Government and $1.65 million to the relator Floyd Landis. To put this in context, the Postal Service had paid about $40 million to sponsor Team Postal. Trebling that amount, and throwing in civil penalties and investigative costs, bumps up potential damages to well over $100 million. The settlement amount was thus less than 7 cents on the dollar.

Damages was always the Government’s weakness – because there weren’t any. This should have been apparent at the outset from the contemporaneous USPS reports on how much publicity and new revenue the Team Postal sponsorship had generated. These reports were poppycock, of course, but they still posed insurmountable problems for the Government’s case.

The USPS-generated reports on the value of the Team Postal sponsorship came in response to criticism over the deal. The Postal Service is often wrongly criticized for anything it spends on advertising. In my view, it should be spending a lot more, especially to defend the remains of First Class Mail. But these critics had a point. Why spend tens of millions of dollars on an event that takes place on foreign soil, and that most Americans have never seen and don’t care about?  And how will promoting the U.S. Postal Service in foreign countries generate more U.S. Mail?

To counter these criticisms, USPS needed to show that the six-year agreement made economic sense, so it generated report after report calculating the value it received.  Armstrong’s attorneys say these reports show USPS earned over $163 million in quantifiable benefits from the sponsorship – more than four times what USPS spent on it. These reports were backed by statements from high level USPS officials attesting to the great deal it had made. Armstrong’s summary judgment motion cited some of these beauties, including:

  • “I can assure you that the value of the brand advertising we receive from the USPS Pro-Cycling Team more than offsets the cost of the sponsorship.”
  • “The sponsorship has provided a substantial return-on-investment and has been a real bargain.”
  • “While postal officials decline to say how much they pay, spokesman Joyce Carrier said the free advertising they received ‘is way more than we ever spent’ to sponsor it. ‘Anyone who was looking at it on a return from investment, and everybody does . . . they think it’s pretty darn good.’”

How could the Government get past all of these contemporaneous statements from top USPS officials on the tremendous value USPS obtained from the sponsorship contract? And while Lance Armstrong later admitted to rampant doping during the Team Postal years, how did this revelation negate all of these previous economic benefits?

Yes, Lance Armstrong violated the no-doping clause of the USPS sponsorship agreement. But Armstrong somewhat successfully concealed the truth for a long time, thus allowing the Postal Service to get the benefit of the bargain.  If Armstrong had admitted to doping when the contract was in effect, maybe there would have been some damages, but his success at hiding the truth prevented that from happening. While that may be hard to swallow, the False Claims Act was not designed to mete out just desserts for all bad acts related to a government contract.

The round dollar figure

Next, let’s analyze the nice round $5,000,000 settlement figure itself. Having represented clients in various Government fraud investigations, most involving the Postal Service, I can tell you that the Government’s standard opening position is that it will only settle at twice the amount of actual damages. The Government prefers talking about damages, not entitlement, and its settlement offer is normally some specific dollar amount, multiplied by two.

The perfectly round number of the $5 million settlement shows it was not arrived at by an attempt to measure actual damages and multiplying by two. It is a number based on perceived litigation risk by both sides. From the Government’s side, the question was how much it could get from Armstrong without going to trial. Given its weakness on damages, the Government was staring at the possibility of getting only statutory penalties, which didn’t amount to much and would not have justified its pursuit of the case. From Armstrong’s side, the question was how much was finality worth?  Even though the Government was unlikely to recover significant damages, there is no telling what a jury would do.  Moreover, statutory penalties were likely, and an appeal would be required if the damages issue went the wrong way. Armstrong was looking at the possibility of spending millions more on professional fees with no assurance he would prevail.

The $1.65 million settlement with the Relator tells a different story. In context, this amount is not a perfectly round number – one hardly picks $1.65 million out of thin air. Instead, it is an approximation or discount on Relator’s attorney fees and expenses, likely based on actual numbers that were presented to Armstrong.

The payment terms

Typically, when the settlement amount is in this range and the defendant can afford it, the Government demands full or substantial payment upon agreement or soon afterwards, often within 10 days of signing. The settlement’s payment terms are lenient. Armstrong’s first payment was due 30 days after signing and was only $75,000; his second payment, due in 90 days, was $677,000. Armstrong then had 180 days to make the next payment of $1,879,000. No further payment was due until one year after signing, when Armstrong owed a balloon payment of $2,368,000. Nice payment terms, if you can get them.

Armstrong had similarly leisurely terms to pay the Relator. The first payment was due in 30 days and was only $25,000. The next payments were $223,000 in 90 days; $620,000 in 180 days; and the final $782,000 within one year.   [Rounded payment numbers used above.]

The settlement agreement’s layaway plan thus gives Armstrong plenty of time to sell “the Texas Collateral,” the proceeds of which he presumably intends to use to pay the settlement. Armstrong granted the Government and the Relator a lien on that property until it is sold. He also signed a Consent Judgment decree that can be filed against him should he default on his payment obligations.

Relator’s share

Now let’s look at the Relator’s share of the Government’s $5 million bounty. Since the Government intervened in the case, the Relator’s share could have been anywhere between 15 and 25 percent. The settlement agreement grants Relator a 22 percent share, which works out to $1.1 million. The Department of Justice has taken the positon that a 15 percent share is appropriate for a case that settled early (before trial or discovery) and a 25 percent share is reserved for fully litigated cases in which the relator’s contribution is substantial. All things considered, 22 percent was a healthy reward for the Relator in this case. One wonders whether the Government would have sought a lower Relator’s share if the recovery from Armstrong had been greater.

FCA claims with no real damages

I’ve been practicing long enough to remember when False Claims Act cases involved actual falsehoods, like doctored invoices and fake signatures. Rare is the case today where the Government alleges an affirmative falsehood by the contractor. Instead, modern day FCA cases involving government contracts are normally about a contract interpretation or breach of contract. Not only are these cases really contract disputes at heart, but in many of them, the contractor’s position is the most reasonable one. Evolving FCA standards have resulted in the fraudification of contract disputes.

The Armstrong case goes one step beyond fraudification to cases where the Government is not even monetarily harmed by the defendant’s bad actions.  There have been other FCA cases where the Government has suffered no or minimal damages from an alleged false claim. For example, in U.S. ex rel. Wall v. Circle C Constr., LLC, 813 F.3d 616 (6th Cir. 2016), the Government sought $1.6 million (after trebling) for a relatively minor violation of the Davis Bacon Act.  The Court found that the Government’s actual damages were only $9,900 and later held that the Government must pay the defendant’s attorney fees under 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(D) because the Government’s demands were excessive.

With the teachings of the Circle C case, and the settlement of the Armstrong case after a 10 year slog, let’s hope the Government will be more reluctant to intervene in – and maybe even move to dismiss – future qui tam FCA cases where there are no real damages.

Contractors are now familiar with the Supreme Court’s June 2016 decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar [PDF]. That decision recognizes False Claims Act liability for implied false certifications. But it also holds that FCA liability is available only when the false statement or omission is “material” to the Government’s decision to pay a claim. Our discussion of Escobar is available here.

Over the last 18 months, courts across the country have been asked to determine the impact of the Escobar decision. Ten of the eleven U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have interpreted Escobar. Numerous U.S. District Courts have applied Escobar in resolving pre-trial motions. Cases based on “garden-variety breaches of contract or regulatory violations” are being thrown out. Even jury verdicts are being overturned for insufficient evidence of materiality. There is one inescapable conclusion from these post-Escobar decisions: materiality matters.

In this entry, we discuss two recent decisions that illustrate the impact of Escobar. One reaffirms the notion that, after Escobar, minor non-compliance with a regulatory requirement will not normally support FCA liability. The other highlights the critical role the government’s actions can play in establishing materiality. Together they reject jury verdicts imposing more than $1 billion in False Claims Act liability. Continue Reading After Escobar, materiality matters

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

[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

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

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?

The line between “white collar crime” and “street crime” is often blurred as prosecutors and investigators deploy all of the tools at their disposal against white collar and regulatory offenses. Principal among these tools is the search warrant. While the execution of a lawfully-obtained search warrant cannot be stopped, a company’s reaction to the search and to the agents conducting it can have a significant impact on the course of a government investigation. A well-executed response may yield intelligence about the nature and scope of the investigation and may limit the amount of information the government obtains.

In this post, we present an overview of the search warrant process and offer some basic guidelines that may be used in preparing for and responding to a search warrant.

Understanding the element of surprise

Government investigators correctly see search warrants as their one chance to use the element of surprise. They make every effort to use it effectively. Long before a warrant is served, agents spend weeks or months on pre-search surveillance. They serve warrants simultaneously at all of a company’s offices. They conduct interviews of key executives at their residences early in the morning before attorneys are available. They use whistleblowers present during the execution of the warrant wired to record employee conversations of the employees. They interview employees on site before company attorneys can inform them of their rights or contact the lead prosecutor. They engage in surveillance of key individuals after the search is executed. They even search nearby dumpsters for evidence. Several weeks later, they may issue a grand jury subpoena requiring the company to produce email and text messages sent during and after the search.

Investigators have the process down to a science, while the company at the center of the investigation likely will be going through it for the first time. Preparation and training on the process will help level the playing field. Here are the five basic elements that should be addressed in an action plan for responding to a search warrant.

Continue Reading A five-part action plan for responding to a federal search warrant

[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”