The False Claims Act
False Claims Act was designed to encourage citizens with knowledge of fraud against the government to come forward by authorizing them to file a civil suit in the name of the government, and by rewarding them with a percentage of the recovery.
Although the so-called “Lincoln Law” was a wartime initiative, it was not limited to defense fraud. In 1863, private citizen enforcement was an integral part of the U.S. statutory framework. The qui tam action was borrowed from the English common law, which had recognized it since the thirteenth century. Ten of the fourteen statutes passed by the first Congress contained qui tam provisions designed to supplement government enforcement, including statutes relating to bank regulation, import duties and copyright infringement. As a California court noted in 1989, the qui tam laws “are firmly rooted in the American legal tradition.”
Today’s federal False Claims Act provides for treble damages and penalties of $11,000 per violation for virtually any kind of fraud on federally funded programs. The qui tam provisions of the statute permit a private citizen (individual or corporation) who brings suit under the False Claims Act – known as the “relator” – to receive up to 30% of the recovery, with the average share hovering around 17%.
A number of states have followed the federal lead by enacting False Claims Acts to combat fraud committed against their own programs.
Key Features of the False Claims Act
- Almost any false claim or false statement that involves payment or a demand for payment from the Federal Government, or which deprives it of revenues in some way, is actionable. Making, and causing to be made, false claims or statements are covered; for example, a subcontractor who makes false claims for payment to a general contractor knowing that an overpayment by the government will result is liable.
- Specific intent to defraud is not required to create civil liability under the False Claims Act. The “knowing” submission of false claims under the False Claims Act includes not just actual knowledge, but also deliberate ignorance and reckless disregard for the truth. Thus government contractors have a duty to ascertain that they are entitled to the public funds to which they lay claim. Conscious avoidance of an enquiry which would reveal the existence of fraud could also attract liability.
- A qui tam complaint is filed in federal court under seal and is not initially served on the defendant. The complaint is delivered, together with a “disclosure statement” containing all facts material to the action, to the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office in the district in which the complaint is filed. The government then has a period of time within which to investigate the relator’s allegations in the complaint and decide whether to “intervene in,” (or join) the action. While the statutory period of time for the government to investigate and make that decision is 60 days, the government is allowed to ask the court to extend this period and almost always does so. Complex qui tam cases, particularly those involving a criminal investigation, frequently are under seal for several years. If the government decides not to join, the relator may pursue the action alone. The government has the right to intervene at a later date upon a showing to the court of good cause. Whether or not the government intervenes in the action, the government may dismiss or settle the action over the objections of the relator provided that the court has afforded the relator an opportunity to be heard.
- The relator’s share of the recovery is 15-25% if the government intervenes, and 25-30% if the relator pursues the action alone. In certain circumstances, lower percentages apply: where an action is based primarily on “specific information” that is publicly disclosed, the relator’s share is limited to 0-10%. Also, the court is authorized to reduce the share of a relator who “planned and initiated” the wrongdoing. A relator who is criminally convicted for conduct arising from his or her role in the fraud alleged in the qui tam case must be dismissed from the case and will not receive any share of the proceeds.
- FCA cases cannot be based on information that is in the public domain. The qui tam law is designed to encourage individuals with inside knowledge of fraud on the government to come forward and report it. Therefore, the FCA prohibits qui tam cases in which the plaintiff seeks to rely on information that is substantially the same as allegations in the public domain — so-called “parasitic” claims — unless the qui tam plaintiff is an “original source” of the information. An “original source” is defined as someone who has information that is independent of and adds materially to the publicly disclosed information.
- If more than one relator files essentially the same case, only the first to file survives. The statute bars any subsequent case that is based on the “facts underlying the pending action.” Current case-law supports a broad construction of this phrase and the notion of a “race to the courthouse” between relators with knowledge of the same fraud.
- The 1986 amendments to the False Claims Act created a federal cause of action for employees who experience retaliatory conduct by their employers because of their acts in furtherance of a qui tam action, providing for double the amount of back pay plus interest, reinstatement and compensation for special damages. The employee need not be a qui tam relator in order to bring an action under this section, but for practical purposes an employment retaliation action under the False Claims Act usually is brought in conjunction with a qui tam case.
- In a successful suit, the relator’s attorney fees and costs are recoverable from the defendant. If the government does not intervene in the case and the defendant prevails, the court may award attorneys’ fees and costs to the defendant and against the relator upon a finding that the claim was clearly frivolous, vexatious, or brought primarily for purposes of harassment.
- A False Claims Act case must be brought within six years of the violation or within three years of the date the government learns, or should have learned, of the facts material to the violation, but in no event more than ten years after the violation. So in other words you have six years from the date of the violation, or, if the fraud was concealed from the government, you have ten years from the date of the violation, but in such case you must bring it within three years of the time that the government knew, or should have known, that that there was or might be a violation.
If you believe that you have been denied overtime or that your employer has committed some other violation of the wage and hour laws, you don’t have to file an EEOC claim as you would in a typical discrimination case. Instead, you can hire a private attorney and file suit as soon as you discover the violation. If other people at your company have also been denied overtime, you may be able to file a special type of FLSA class action, known as a collective action, which will help you bring the maximum pressure to bear on your employer to change its ways and to pay you all the compensation you are owed.
Also unlike the discrimination laws, the FLSA has a much longer statute of limitations—you have two years to file suit for most violations and three years if your employer’s violation of the law is willful. You damages can include all back wages (which includes any unpaid overtime), plus an amount equal to your unpaid back wages, interest, attorneys’ fees, and court costs.
The FLSA is an extremely complex statute; there are hundreds of pages of rules and regulations covering the exemptions and other aspects of the law.
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