False Claims Act whistleblowers expose themselves to significant risks by coming forward and asserting claims of fraud against the government. Often, the whistleblowers, called relators under the False Claims Act, would prefer to maintain their anonymity for personal or professional reasons, but their options to do so are limited.

A False Claims Act case is initially filed under seal, and remains under seal while the government investigates. However, once the government either intervenes in the action or declines to intervene, the seal is lifted, and the False Claims Act complaint is publicly filed. The complaint, and the identity of the relator, become public knowledge, even if the relator does not intend to go forward with the case.

In United States ex rel. Nash v. UCB, Inc., SDNY District Judge Thomas Griesa addressed a relator’s multi-pronged effort to remain unknown. The relator alleged that his former employer, UCB, Inc., had defrauded the federal government out of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds. The Government declined to intervene, however, and the relator intended to not proceed and to dismiss the action. The relator feared that his current employer might retaliate against him when it became known that he had filed an FCA case against his former employer. The relator sought to permanently maintain a seal on all documents in the case, or alternatively, to allow use of the pseudonym “John Doe” and to remove any information from the complaint that could reveal his identity.

The Court first noted the “firmly rooted” presumption of public access to judicial documents, which applies to pleadings such as a complaint. As to relator’s fear of retaliation, the Court did not find this risk to outweigh the presumption of public access to judicial documents. Moreover, the Court pointed to the False Claims Act retaliation provision, 31 USC § 3730(h), which protects a relator from discrimination or retaliation based on acts taken under the False Claims Act. The Court determined that this provision would protect against what it considered a “speculative fear” of employment retaliation. The Court denied the application to keep the case under seal.

Next, relator sought to have the complaint filed under a “John Doe” pseudonym, with the elimination of any identifying information. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a), however, states that “The title of the complaint must name all the parties.” Courts have discretion to allow a pseudonym in special circumstances, where the need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to other parties and the public interest, but the bar is high. Factors courts consider include:

  • Highly sensitive and personal matters
  • Risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the party or innocent non-parties
  • Likely severity of alleged harms
  • Particular vulnerability of party to possible harms of disclosure
  • Whether challenge is to Government or private actions
  • Possible mitigation of prejudice by the Court

Judge Griesa found that the relator’s articulated need for anonymity was based on “attenuated and speculative risks of harm,” particularly where the concern was not with the former employer that the relator had sued, but with the current employer that he had not. The Court declined to allow a pseudonym, stating that the public “has a right to know who is using their courts.”

The Court did allow relator’s final request, that references to his current employer be redacted from the filed version of the complaint. The Court found the weight of presumption of public access to the identity of relator’s current employer to be low. Moreover, redactions would not affect the public interest, as the substance of the fraud allegations would be clear from the unredacted portions of the complaint.

Once a case is filed under the False Claims Act, the relator loses control over remaining anonymous. A resort to yet another lawsuit if there is retaliation may provide cold comfort, but the Courts are very reluctant to permit a relator to remain anonymous, even where the government has declined and the case will be dismissed.  Balancing this risk is one of the many considerations for relator and relator’s counsel in commencing a False Claims Act case.

Few, if any, in the medical industry are unfamiliar with the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”).  Under AKS, those giving or receiving compensation for referrals for items or services reimbursed by the federal healthcare programs are subject to criminal prosecution.  The statute is intended to prevent exploitation of the federal healthcare system, avoid unnecessary inflation of program costs and encourage fair competition in the industry.

AKS prohibits, among other things, the knowing and willful payment or receipt of any form of compensation to induce or reward referrals involving any item or service payable by federal healthcare programs.  “Federal healthcare programs” include more than just Medicare and Medicaid – “any plan or program providing health care benefits, whether directly through insurance or otherwise, that is funded directly, in whole or part, by the United States government (other than the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program), or any state health care program” is included.  This means that remuneration for referrals in connection with items and services that are reimbursable under TRICARE, the Veterans Administration, Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, and block grant programs are all subject to prosecution under AKS.

 

Where items or services are not reimbursable by a federal healthcare program, providers and referring parties are not subject to AKS prosecution.  However, due to an emerging trend in prosecution, the absence of reimbursement from federal healthcare programs should no longer leave providers and referral sources with a sense of security that they cannot be prosecuted for kickback arrangements.

 

Prosecutors are increasingly bringing charges against payers and recipients of remuneration for referrals in the medical arena under the Travel Act.  The Travel Act criminalizes the use of the United States mail and interstate or foreign travel for the purpose of engaging in certain specified criminal acts.  The Travel Act typically enforces two categories of state laws – laws prohibiting commercial bribery (i.e. corrupt dealings to secure an advantage over business competitors) and laws addressing illegal remuneration, including specific provisions regarding improper payments in connection with referral for services.

 

In two very recent high profile cases, prosecutors brought charges against those allegedly involved in kickback schemes under the both AKS and the Travel Act – Biodiagnostic Laboratory Services in New Jersey and Forest Park Medical Center in Texas.  Both cases have resulted in several plea bargains, yet both have charges under AKS and the Travel Act that are still pending.  While no court has directly ruled on the merits of prosecuting kickback schemes for medical services and items under the Travel Act, it is noteworthy that, in the Forest Park Medical Center case, the charges under the Travel Act survived a motion to dismiss at the district court level just last month.

 

All parties involved in referral arrangements for medical items or services should be on heightened alert as a result of this development.  Whereas AKS can only be used to prosecute parties to a kickback arrangement where federal healthcare program funds are at issue, the use of the Travel Act may broaden prosecutors’ reach to the private payor sector, even where federal healthcare programs are not involved.

The Second Circuit recently agreed to accept an interlocutory appeal to decide the question whether a violation of the False Claims Act’s “first-to-file” rule compels dismissal of the complaint or whether it can be cured by the filing of an amended pleading.

In United States ex rel. Wood v. Allergan, Inc., Relator John Wood brought FCA claims against Allergan, 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 free drugs and other goods to physicians in exchange for them providing the company’s brand name drugs to Medicare and Medicaid patients.  SDNY District Judge Jesse Furman denied most of Allergan’s motion to dismiss in an 89-page decision, deciding several FCA first-to-file issues and certifying two for interlocutory appeal to the Second Circuit.

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 primary purpose of the first-to-file rule is to help the Government uncover and fight fraud. The rule encourages prompt disclosure of fraud by creating a race to the courthouse among those with knowledge of the fraud.

Wood was not the first relator to bring FCA claims against Allergan for the alleged conduct. Two prior actions had been brought and were pending when the Wood qui tam complaint was filed. Therefore, at the time Wood’s qui tam complaint was filed, it ran afoul of the first-to-file bar and was subject to dismissal.

The Prior-filed Actions Were Dismissed Before Wood’s Action Was Unsealed and the Third Amended Complaint Was Filed

The Wood complaint, however, was under seal for several years, and Wood amended his complaint twice before the seal was lifted. While the Wood complaint 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, arguing that when Wood’s initial qui tam complaint was filed, there were two pending actions alleging the same factual allegations.

The “First-to File” Bar Is Not Jurisdictional

Judge Furman first addressed whether the “first-to-file” bar is jurisdictional. Although the majority of circuit courts have held that it is, the district court’s holding in its March 31, 2017 decision that the bar is not jurisdictional foreshadowed the Second Circuit’s similar holding four days later, in United States ex rel. Hayes v. Allstate Insurance Co.  The Circuit in Hayes stated that the first-to-file rule provides that “no person other than the Government” may bring an FCA claim that is “related” to a claim already “pending.” The Court noted that the statutory language did not speak in jurisdictional terms or refer to the jurisdiction of the courts, in contrast to other sections of the FCA. As Congress is presumed to act intentionally when it includes jurisdictional language in one statutory section but omits it in another, the Court held the a court does not lack subject matter jurisdiction over an action barred on the merits by the non-jurisdictional first-to-file rule.

An Amendment After Dismissal of the Prior Action Can “Cure” a First-to-File Violation

The district court next addressed the question of whether the first-to-file bar required dismissal of Wood’s qui tam complaint. In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, the Supreme Court had held that “an earlier [FCA] suit bars a later suit while the earlier suit remains undecided but ceases to bar that suit once it is dismissed.”  Wood therefore would be able to bring a new FCA claim as the two prior actions had been dismissed.

However, during the years that the case had been sealed, the statute of limitations had expired on most of Wood’s claims, so a dismissal without prejudice and a re-filing of his complaint would result in a dismissal of the claims on limitations grounds. The district court was therefore faced with a question the Supreme Court did not decide: whether a violation of the first-to-file bar can be “cured” by amending or supplementing the complaint in the later-filed action after dismissal of the earlier actions.

The district court held that first-to file violation can be cured by an amended or supplemented pleading.  The court noted that most courts answering this question in the negative had relied in large part on a conclusion that the first-to-file bar is jurisdictional. The district court in Wood, and later the Second Circuit, held that the bar is non-jurisdictional. The district court noted that courts routinely allow plaintiffs to cure violations of non-jurisdictional rules by amendment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15. Also, allowing an amendment to cure a violation advances the primary purpose of the FCA, to permit the government to recover for fraud. The court opined that barring a relator in Wood’s position from curing his violation of the rule would undermine, rather than advance, the purposes of the FCA.

The Amendment Relates Back to the Date of the Original Complaint

The parties also disputed whether, for purposes of the statute of limitations, the relevant complaint was the initial complaint, filed when the prior actions were pending, or the third amended complaint, the first one filed after they had been dismissed. The court recognized that the “touchstone” of Rule 15 is whether the original pleading put the defendant on notice of the relevant claims, and that an FCA defendant is often not on notice of a qui tam complaint because it is under seal. Nevertheless, the court concluded that any such delay is beyond the relator’s control, and an otherwise diligent relator should not have claims stripped away when the government and not the relator is to blame for the defendant not receiving notice. The district court therefore held that the third amended complaint related back to the original complaint for limitations purposes.

The Second Circuit Will Address The First-to-File Issues

In August, the Second Circuit accepted the interlocutory appeal of two issues:

  1. Whether a violation of the FCA’s “first-to-file” rule requires dismissal or can be “cured” through the filing of a new pleading after the earlier-filed action has been dismissed; and
  2. If a violation of the first-to-file bar is curable, whether the FCA’s limitations period is measured from the date of the relator’s curative pleading or the original complaint.