Health care fraud prosecutions in the Second Circuit and throughout the country have typically sought forfeiture money judgments against all defendants for the proceeds of the fraud obtained by all members of a health care fraud conspiracy.  The Supreme Court recently curtailed these efforts in Honeycutt v. United States.  In Honeycutt, the Court held that the forfeiture statute only permits a forfeiture money judgment for property a defendant actually acquired as part of the crime, not all proceeds of the conspiracy.

In Honeycutt, defendant Terry Honeycutt managed sales and inventory at his brother’s hardware store.  The brothers were prosecuted for conspiring to sell iodine with the knowledge that it was being used to manufacture methamphetamine.  The government sought a forfeiture money judgment of $269,751.98, constituting the hardware store’s profits.  The defendant’s brother pled guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000.  The government sought and obtained a forfeiture money judgment against defendant Terry Honeycutt for $69,751.98, even though he did not personally benefit from the hardware store’s profits.  The Sixth Circuit held that the conspiring brothers were “jointly and severally liable for any proceeds of the conspiracy,” joining several circuits, including the Second Circuit, in an expansive view of criminal forfeiture.

Justice Sotomayor’s decision in Honeycutt strictly followed the language of the statute, 21 U.S.C. § 853, which mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain crimes.  The Court concluded that the provisions of the statute limit forfeiture to property the defendant himself actually acquired, not property obtained by other conspirators.  The Court held that the plain text of the statute and the limitation of forfeiture to property acquired or used by the defendant “foreclose joint and several liability for co-conspirators.”

Prosecutors have routinely sought to forfeit all proceeds of health care fraud and other conspiracies from all co-conspirators.  Thus, minor players in a conspiracy with significant assets could find themselves liable for a forfeiture money judgment well in excess of the proceeds they actually received from their crime.  In Honeycutt, the Supreme Court refused to apply the tort concept of joint and several liability to the forfeiture statutes, and has taken a sweeping tool away from the government.

 

The Supreme Court held last week that in a federal health care fraud prosecution, the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from obtaining a pretrial freeze of assets that were untainted by the alleged crime and that defendant sought to use to pay her lawyer.

In Luis v. United States, the government alleged that the defendant had been engaged in paying kickbacks and conspiring to commit health care violations, and had fraudulently obtained close to $45 million.  The government sought a pretrial order restraining $2 million under 18 U.S.C. § 1345, which allows a restraint on property obtained as a result of health care fraud or “property of equivalent value.”  Here, however, the property the government sought to restrain was not connected with the alleged crime, and defendant sought to use those funds to hire counsel to defend her in the criminal case.

The Supreme Court held that the pretrial restraint of legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. Justice Breyer’s plurality opinion first emphasized that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is “fundamental” and “guarantees a defendant the right to be represented by an otherwise qualified attorney whom that defendant can afford to hire.” The government argued that the important interests of keeping assets available for statutory penalties and compensation of victims justified the restraint.

Justice Breyer found controlling the fact that the funds at issue were untainted by the alleged crimes, so they belonged to the criminal defendant “pure and simple.” In contrast, tainted funds—assets connected to a crime—may be subject to pretrial restraint.  The Court, for example, has held that tainted funds subject to forfeiture may be restrained pretrial even if the defendant seeks to use those funds to pay a lawyer. Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989); United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989).  A significant factor in the forfeiture cases was that title to forfeited property passes to the government at the time of the crime.  The government, however, had no present interest in the defendant’s untainted funds in the case before the Court.

While in some circumstances a party without a present interest may restrain property, here the criminal defendant sought to use the funds to hire counsel, and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not permit such a restraint.  Justice Breyer noted that accepting the government’s position could erode the right to counsel, as Congress may provide more statutory provisions allowing for restraint of untainted assets equivalent in value to the criminal proceeds.

The decision did not break along usual lines for the Court. The plurality opinion authored by Justice Breyer was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment, writing that he would not engage in any balancing and would hold strictly that the Sixth Amendment does not allow a pretrial asset freeze infringing the right to counsel.  Justices Kennedy, Alito and Kagan dissented, asserting on various grounds that where the government has established probable cause to believe that it will eventually recover all of the defendant’s assets, she has no right to use them pretrial to pay for a lawyer.

In the end, the decision draws a clear Constitutional line between: (1) tainted funds, which may be subject to pretrial restraint, and (2) innocent or untainted funds needed to pay for counsel, which may not.

Earlier this month, EDNY Judge Joanna Seybert examined the elements of Aggravated Identify Theft in an interesting context: a motion to unseal grand jury minutes in a health care fraud prosecution, United States v. Cwibeker

Defendants were charged with billing Medicare for fictitious or non-compensable treatments of residents of assisted living facilities.  Defendants would allegedly visit residents at the facilities, not provide Medicare-reimbursable services, and then generate a list of patients they allegedly visited.  Defendants would then use the list to submit fictitious claims to Medicare.  Significantly, defendants legally obtained the personal information from residents in the first instance; the alleged subsequent unlawful use of the information formed the basis of the criminal charges. 

Defendant Cwibeker argued that patients had consented to use of their personal information, and non-consent is an element of the Aggravated Identity Theft charge.  Thus, the grand jury minutes should be unsealed because this element was likely not disclosed.  

The Court first noted the long-established policy of maintaining secrecy of the grand jury.  The Court next looked to the Supreme Court’s three part analysis for allowing disclosure.  A party must show: (1) the material sought is needed to avoid a possible injustice; (2) the need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy; and (3) the request is structured to cover only the material needed. 

The Court denied the motion, holding that non-consent of the defendant’s purported patients for releasing the information is not an element of the Aggravated Identity Theft offense, which provides that whoever “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person,” is subject to an additional two years in prison. The Court found that consent of the victim has no bearing on “without lawful authority”  under the statute, as it is the improper use of the information that forms the offense.  The Court distinguished a Seventh Circuit case where the person whose identity was appropriated was a participant in the fraud.  In Cwibeker, the Medicare recipients whose identification was misappropriated were victims, with no knowledge of or participation in the alleged fraud. 

This case highlights again the need for vigilance concerning patients’ personal information.  Courts will hold persons who seek to profit from the improper use of such information accountable.  Providers must take all available steps to safeguard patient information, however, as those who allow such information to fall into the wrong hands will also be held accountable.

The Second Circuit yesterday rejected a Constitutional challenge to New York’s requirement that children be vaccinated to attend public school, and upheld a school’s decision to exclude from class, during a chicken pox outbreak, students with a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement. 

In Phillips v. City of New York, two Catholic parents received a religious exemption from the statutory vaccination requirement for their children. The statute provides an exemption for children of parents who have “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” against vaccination.   A state regulation provides that school officials may exclude children with an exemption from school “in the event of an outbreak … of a vaccine-preventable disease in a school.”  Plaintiffs’ children were excluded from school when a fellow student was diagnosed with chicken pox. 

Plaintiffs first argued that mandatory vaccination violates substantive due process.  The Court upheld New York’s requirement, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), that school vaccination is a proper exercise of the State’s police powers.  The Second Circuit rejected the argument that an alleged growing body of scientific evidence against vaccinations altered this rule.     

The Court next addressed the exclusion of plaintiffs’ children from school during the chicken pox outbreak, which plaintiffs alleged to be an unconstitutional burden on their free exercise of religion.  The Second Circuit held that the law was neutral and of general applicability, and therefore the State need nor show a compelling government interest, even if there was an incidental burden on religion.  The Court cited the Supreme Court’s statement in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”  The Court determined that because the State could exclude unvaccinated children from school altogether, the more limited exclusion during a chicken pox outbreak was Constitutional. 

Another plaintiff on the appeal was not granted a religious exemption from vaccination for her children.  The District Court had adopted the Magistrate Judge’s findings that this plaintiff’s objections to vaccination were health-related and not based on genuine and sincere religious beliefs.  The Second Circuit held that this determination had not been appealed and could not therefore be addressed.

An interesting SDNY settlement agreement resolves some False Claims Act allegations, but leaves others for another day.  Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNS) paid just under $35 million to the United States and New York State to settle allegations that VNS improperly billed Medicaid for 1,740 members whose needs did not qualify for a managed care plan.  The government alleged that these members were improperly referred by social adult day care centers (SADCC), or received services primarily from SADCCs, many of which provided substandard and minimal care.   

In the settlement agreement, VNS admitted that 1,740 Medicaid long term care  program members were referred by SADCCs or used SADCC services, and were not eligible to be members of the plan; and that various SADCCs in the provider network did not provide services that qualified as “personal care services” under the long term care program contract with New York’s Department of Health. 

The settlement agreement has a unique “Remaining Investigation” provision.  Most FCA settlement agreements are designed to settle all claims against the defendants.  The VNS settlement agreement, however, provides that it resolves only part of the United States investigation. Examples of allegations that are part of the “Remaining Investigation” are redacted in the publicly-filed document.  In a provision that could lead to interesting questions of interpretation, VNS agrees  “to cooperate with the Remaining Investigation,” but without waiving attorney-client or joint defense privileges, work product protections, or factual or legal defenses covering claims the government may bring against VNS.  The issue of whether VNS is satisfying its duty of cooperation under the agreement while maintaining assertions of privilege and factual and legal defenses will be difficult to sort out if it is ever litigated.  The settlement agreement carves out any potential claims against the president of the corporation that administered the managed health care plan, so that individual could be the focus of the “Remaining Investigation.”  In addition, the Court approved keeping the relator’s complaint and the government’s complaint-in-intervention under seal.

During the pendency of the “Remaining Investigation,” VNS agrees to monitor and further revise standards for credentialing SADCCs; only credential SADCCs that have necessary certificates; monitor SADCCs to ensure compliance with credentialing; ensure that SADCCs provide proper personal care services; and prohibit marketing practices directed at enrolling members through SADCCs.

Columbia University agreed to pay $9 million this week in settlement of a SDNY False Claims Act case alleging that it had submitted false claims in connection with federal grants funding AIDS and HIV related work.  Columbia was the grant administrator on behalf of ICAP, an entity that received millions of dollars in federal grants for support and services for HIV prevention and treatment.  The government’s complaint alleged that the federal grants at issue required that recipients charge grants only for work actually performed as part of that grant.  It further alleged that Columbia charged for work that was not devoted to the programs that grants funded, and did not have a suitable means of verifying that the employees actually performed the work charged to a particular grant. 

A settlement was approved by the Court earlier this week.  In keeping with the SDNY practice of requiring defendants to stipulate to an agreed statement of facts, Columbia admitted that ICAP allocated salaries and wages of employees among various grants without using a suitable means of verifying whether the charges were based on an employee’s actual effort for that grant. Columbia admitted that certain reports were inaccurate and for a number of years, ICAP mischarged grant agreements for work that was not allocable to them. 

SDNY U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara made clear that the government will target not-for-profits, and a charitable intent will not allow potential defendants to avoid False Claims Act damages.  After praising Columbia for its work combatting AIDS and HIV, Bharara said that “Grantees are required to use federal money for the purpose for which the grant was given and nothing else. … Educational institutions, like everyone else, should be held accountable.”  Federal grant recipients must take care to ensure compliance with all the requirements of their grant agreements, or they could face treble damages and penalties under the False Claims Act. 

 

Leslie Caldwell, DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, spoke to the qui tam relators’ bar at a Taxpayers Against Fraud conference last month, stating a new DOJ policy for criminal and civil division coordination of qui tam cases, starting with intake. 

Taxpayers Against Fraud is an organization of whistleblowers and their counsel, which seeks to combat fraud against the government.  Caldwell encouraged TAF members to reach out to the criminal division, and its 40 attorney Health Care Fraud unit, in qui tam cases that could potentially involve criminal conduct.  Stating that “qui tam cases are a vital part of the Criminal Division’s future efforts,” she outlined a newly implemented procedure so that all new qui tam cases will be shared by the Civil Division with the Criminal Division as soon as they are filed.  “Those prosecutors then coordinate swiftly with the Civil Division and U.S. Attorney’s Offices about the best ways to proceed in the parallel investigations.”   

Early civil-criminal coordination of qui tam cases has been standard practice for some time in several U.S. Attorney’s Offices, including locally in the Eastern District of New York.  As early as 1997, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a Memorandum on Coordination of Parallel Criminal, Civil and Administrative Proceedings.  In the 1997 Memo, Attorney General Reno recognized the necessity of coordinating criminal, civil and administrative investigative and litigative resources,  stating that “every United States Attorney’s office and each Department Litigating Division should have a system for coordinating the criminal, civil and administrative aspects of all white-collar crime matters within the office.”  In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder updated this policy in a Memorandum on Coordination of Parallel Criminal, Civil, Regulatory and Administrative Proceedings.   Attorney General Holder stressed that this coordination should operate at all stages of fraud investigations, including intake, investigation and resolution. 

Healthcare providers can expect DOJ to continue to expand its aggressive efforts in combatting healthcare fraud.  DOJ has signaled that it intends to increase its coordination of civil and criminal investigations and remedies for maximum deterrence and collection of healthcare dollars.  Providers facing scrutiny from the government will need to be aware that, behind the scenes, there is likely an organized and coordinated effort that includes civil, criminal, regulatory, and administrative resources.

When does the 60-day clock start for an identified overpayment of federal funds to become a reverse false claim under amendments to the False Claims Act?  A closely watched SDNY qui tam  case may provide an answer. 

In June, the United States and New York intervened in United States v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc., alleging that defendants had knowingly failed to return overpayments owed to Medicaid arising out of a computer glitch.  Defendants have now filed motions to dismiss the Federal and New York State FCA claims. 

In 2009, the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act defined “obligation” in the FCA to include “the retention of an overpayment.”  The following year, in 2010, the Affordable Care Act provided that an overpayment of federal funds must be reported and returned within “60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified.”  In addition, the ACA amendments provided that the failure to return an overpayment in 60 days constitutes a reverse false claim, subjecting the provider to treble damages and civil penalties under the FCA. 

In their motion to dismiss, Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, and Continuum Health Partners argued that there was never an “obligation” to the Federal government, because there must be a present, existing duty to repay.  Defendants asserted that an overpayment is not “identified” unless it has been confirmed and quantified, and the 60 day period does not start until that occurs.  Defendants referenced the process most providers undertake when they become aware of a potential overpayment, including an internal audit, sampling of claims, consultations with physicians and staff, and factual and legal analysis.  This process ordinarily cannot occur within 60 days of initially becoming aware of a potential overpayment. 

The complaint attached an internal summary, by one of Continuum’s employees, of approximately 900 Medicaid claims, totaling over $1 million, that were potential overpayments.  Defendants stressed that this was not a list of actual overpayments, and in fact only 465 of the claims were paid.  As further analysis was required to determine if the claims did result in overpayments, defendants argued that the summary did not “identify” overpayments, and the complaint therefore did not allege any obligation owed the government under the FCA. 

Defendants also argued that the complaint failed to allege any affirmative act of concealment to prevent an overpayment from being disclosed, and that an overpayment from Medicaid is not an obligation owed to the Federal government under the reverse false claim section of the FCA.  In a separate memorandum seeking to dismiss the state FCA claims, defendants incorporated their Federal FCA arguments and also argued that the state reverse false claim provision was enacted after the alleged conduct, and therefore could not be applied retroactively. 

This case is being closely watched, as it raises significant issues on when the government can assert reverse false claim liability for overpayments.  Significantly, in this case, there is no dispute that the overpayments resulted from a computer glitch and not fraud, and that defendants repaid the overpayment to the government.  The complaint alleges that defendants did not make that payment soon enough.  The government intervened to seek treble damages and civil penalties, signaling that it will be aggressively pursuing cases where providers become aware of overpayments and fail — in the government’s view — to promptly reimburse the government. 

The case is pending before SDNY District Judge Edgardo Ramos, and the government opposition papers are due on October 22.

False Claims Act cases do not often go to trial, so they are noteworthy when they do.  EDNY Judge John Gleeson has scheduled an FCA jury trial in October, United States ex rel. Ryan v. Lederman.  Earlier this year, the Court granted summary judgment to the government in part and scheduled the remaining issues for trial. 

Dr. Gilbert Lederman was Director of Radiation Oncology at Staten Island University Hospital (“SIUH”), where he performed various radiological procedures, usually for cancer treatment.  One such treatment was stereotactic radiosurgery, a form of radiation therapy that focuses high-power energy on a small area of the body.  Elizabeth Ryan filed a qui tam action in 2004, alleging that Lederman and SIUH had improperly billed the federal government for health services under Medicare, because stereotactic radiosurgery was not “reasonable and necessary.”  The government intervened in 2008.  SIUH had also been a defendant in the case, but settled all claims against it later that year for $25 million. 

Under local medical review policies (“LMRP”), now called “local coverage determinations,” treatment of below the neck diseases such as lung carcinoma with stereotactic radiosurgery was considered “investigational.”  The government alleged, and Lederman did not dispute, that he had submitted claims for at least 300 below-the-neck stereotactic radiosurgeries.   

Summary Judgment Establishes Claims Were False; Knowledge Issue Set For Trial

In its summary judgment decision, the Court first determined that the claims were “false” on two grounds.  Lederman had submitted false claims because the LMRPs excluded coverage for stereotactic surgery performed below the neck.  Lederman argued that the LMPRs provided only guidance, but the Court held that local coverage determinations are mandatory for the areas they cover.  In addition, the Court held that Lederman had misrepresented the procedures performed, because they were not coded as below-the-neck procedures. 

The False Claims Act requires a knowing submission of a false claim, however, so the Court next looked to whether Lederman had acted “knowingly.”   The Court found the government’s case persuasive, but not sufficient for summary judgment, necessitating a trial on that issue. 

With respect to common law claims of payment based on mistake of fact and unjust enrichment, however, there is no knowledge element, so the Court granted summary judgment to the government on those claims. 

The Court scheduled a trial on the issues of: (1) whether Lederman acted with a culpable mental state for FCA liability, and (2) the amount of damages on the government’s common law claims, and possibly also the FCA claims. 

Court Finds Jury Trial Appropriate, Bifurcates Liability and Damages

Recently, Judge Gleeson addressed two procedural issues in advance of trial, Lederman’s request for a jury trial and the bifurcation of liability and damages. 

The relator’s complaint contained a jury demand, but the government’s complaint-in-intervention did not.  Lederman did not demand a jury in answering the government’s complaint.  The Court held that he could rely on the relator’s jury demand, rejecting the government’s argument that, once it intervened, the original complaint ceased to operate and it could not be bound by the relator’s jury demand. 

Earlier this month, the Court decided that it would bifurcate the trial, trying first the issue of Ledermen’s mental state for FCA liability, and then the issue of damages on the common law claims and, if necessary, on the FCA claims.  The jury trial is scheduled for October 20.

At the end of June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan filed a False Claims Act complaint against Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, and Continuum Health Partners, United States v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc., alleging that defendants had knowingly failed to return overpayments owed to Medicaid arising out of a computer glitch. 

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act amended the False Claims Act to provide that overpayments of federal funds must be paid within 60 days after they are identified, and that the failure to timely return an overpayment constitutes a reverse false claim, subjecting a party to liability for three times the amount of the claim and a penalty of between $5,500 and $11,000 for each claim. 

Under the Medicaid regulations applicable to this case, the defendant providers were not permitted to receive additional payments from Medicaid above amounts paid by a managed care organization.  A computer glitch caused defendants to erroneously seek additional payments from Medicaid. 

According to the complaint, defendants became aware of the problem in September 2010, when the State Comptroller identified a small number of improper payments.  A review by defendants in February 2011 revealed a more significant problem, involving approximately 900 claims totaling over $1 million that were wrongly submitted to Medicaid.  Nevertheless, defendants only repaid the small amount of claims identified by the Comptroller. 

The employee who identified the significant overpayment problem was terminated, and later filed the qui tam case in which the government intervened.  The State Comptroller continued to investigate, and defendants made certain payments when they were identified by the Comptroller.  The complaint alleges that defendants dragged their heels on making all the repayments, however, and sought to conceal the true extent of the problem.  Defendants only finished returning the overpayments in 2013, more than two years after they were identified.  In addition, many of the repayments were not made until after June 2012, when the government issued a Civil Investigative Demand to defendants. The government now seeks to recover treble damages and a penalty of up to $11,000 for each claim. 

There is no question that the overpayments in this case resulted from a mistake, a computer glitch.  Nevertheless, this case shows that the government will aggressively seek to recover False Claims Act damages and penalties for the failure to timely return overpayments once they have been identified, even if the original overpayment was due to mistake or inadvertence rather than fraud.  The allegations of this complaint seem particularly egregious, with defendants allegedly being aware of significant overpayments and making only minimal efforts to repay the government.  The law, however, only requires a failure to return an overpayment within sixty days after identification for False Claims Act liability to attach. 

This case highlights a serious problem for providers who become aware that they may have been overpaid on claims to the United States.  In that situation, providers will have to promptly assess whether an overpayment has in fact occurred, and then determine what next steps are in order to avoid False Claims Act liability.  The government can be expected to aggressively prosecute these cases.  In addition, False Claims Act investigations into allegedly improper claims will likely include investigation into whether providers were aware of problems with certain claims, and whether they let more than sixty days lapse before addressing them.