[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.


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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.


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