Jury Verdict Clears Student Loan Servicer in FCA Suit
On December 5, after a five-day trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia entered a unanimous verdict clearing a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicing agency (defendant) accused of improper billing practices under the False Claims Act (FCA) and bilking the federal government of millions of dollars. The plaintiff—a former Department of Education employee whistleblower—sought treble damages and forfeitures under the FCA. The case stems from a qui tam suit originally filed in 2007, in which the plaintiff alleged that multiple state-run student loan financing agencies overcharged the U.S. government through fraudulent claims to the Federal Family Education Loan Program in order to unlawfully obtain 9.5 percent special allowance interest payments. Although the district court dismissed four of the agencies from the suit in 2009, ruling that they were state agencies and therefore immune from lawsuits brought by a qui tam relator, a Fourth Circuit Panel eventually reversed the ruling with respect to the Pennsylvania-based state agency defendant, holding that the entity “is an independent political subdivision, not an arm of the commonwealth,” and “therefore a 'person' subject to liability under the False Claims Act.” The panel held that the defendant failed to qualify as a state entity because the defendant’s board is responsible for decision-making and its revenue derives from commercial activities, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant is operated by state employees and is required to deposit its funds in the state’s treasury.
Upon remand, the district court cleared the way for the jury trial by denying the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, which argued that the plaintiff cannot establish the materiality requirement set under Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar. In a memorandum opinion, the court concluded that the Department of Education continuing to pay claims even after becoming aware of the loan servicer’s billing practices did not, in fact, change the definition of materiality under the FCA, and therefore, did not “merit reconsideration of this court’s ruling that plaintiff stated a plausible claim.”
The case then went to jury trial in November, leading to the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendant.