In United States ex rel. Wood v. Allergan, Inc., the Second Circuit addressed the issue of whether a violation of the False Claims Act’s “first-to-file” rule compels dismissal of an action or whether it can be cured by the filing of an amended or supplemental pleading. The Court’s acceptance of the interlocutory appeal was addressed here in a post last year. In August, the Second Circuit reversed the District Court, holding that a violation of the first-to-file bar cannot be remedied by amending or supplementing the complaint.
Relator John Wood brought FCA claims against Allegan, a pharmaceutical company that develops and manufactures eye care prescription drugs. Wood alleged that Allergan violated the FCA and the Anti-Kickback Statute by providing large quantities of free medical products to physicians to entice them to prescribe Allergan drugs. When Wood brought his action, two other actions alleging similar FCA violations were pending.
The Initial Qui Tam Complaint Violated the “First-to-File” Bar
The FCA’s “first-to-file” rule states that once a qui tam action has been brought, no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the same facts. The first-to-file rule ensures that only one relator shares in the Government’s recovery and encourages potential relators to file their claims promptly. Because two prior actions were pending when Wood filed his qui tam complaint, it ran afoul of the first-to-file bar.
The Wood complaint, however, was under seal, and while it remained under seal, the two prior actions were dismissed. When the government declined to intervene in the Wood action and the case was unsealed, there were no longer any prior-filed pending actions. Wood thereafter filed a third amended complaint. Allergan moved to dismiss on several grounds, including the “first-to-file” bar, because when the Wood qui tam complaint was commenced, there were two pending actions alleging the same factual allegations.
The Second Circuit first held that the first-to-file rule applied, rejecting Wood’s argument that the earlier actions failed to adequately allege an FCA claim. Even if Wood’s allegations were broader than the prior complaints, the claims were related, as the alleged schemes were sufficiently similar, and the Government would have been equipped to investigate them. In addition, the Court rejected as unworkable the argument that the Judge in a later-filed case could address the sufficiency of an earlier-filed case pending before a different Judge, potentially even before the first Judge had done so.
An Amended Pleading Cannot “Cure” a First-to-File Violation
In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, the Supreme Court had held that “an earlier suit bars a later suit while the earlier suit remains undecided but ceases to bar that suit once it is dismissed,” dismissing the later filed action without prejudice. Wood therefore would have been able to commence a new action once the two prior actions had been dismissed. However, due to the passage of time, statutes of limitation would have barred a new action. Wood argued that the first-to-file bar could be “cured” by amending or supplementing the complaint after dismissal of the earlier actions. Other Circuits have split on this question.
The Second Circuit followed a D.C. Circuit decision to hold that Wood’s “action was incurably flawed from the moment he filed it.” The Court found that the plain language of the FCA provides that no individual may bring a related action when an FCA action is pending, and that the plain language required dismissal. The Court determined that Wood’s position—a first-to-file violation can be cured by a later amendment—is inconsistent with the language of the statute. The Court reasoned that the statute bars a person from bringing a related action when a prior FCA action is pending; it does not provide for the second action to be stayed until the first-filed action is no longer pending. An amended or supplemented pleading could not change the fact that Wood brought the action when another related action was pending.
The Court also posited several inefficiencies from Wood’s suggested approach: inequities among Relators with later-filed complaints depending on the happenstance of when their complaint was dismissed or whether their case was stayed; questions as to which later-filed case would proceed; and a potential lineup of later-filed cases waiting to take the place of a dismissed earlier action. Finally, the Court found support in legislative history, indicating that the primary, if not sole, purpose of the first-to-file rule is to help the Government uncover and fight fraud. The Court found it unlikely that Congress would have invited an inefficient process prone to anomalous outcomes, dependent on the chance considerations of one Court’s backlog and another Court’s timeliness of dismissal.
This Second Circuit decision, following the D.C. Circuit, now conflicts with a First Circuit decision finding the argument that amendment cannot cure a first-to-file violation to be “untenable.” The Supreme Court may be called on to decide this Circuit split.