3rd Circuit: FCA claims not barred by state’s equitable “entire controversy” doctrine
On August 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit vacated the dismissal of a relator’s qui tam action, concluding that the federal action was not barred by New Jersey’s equitable entire controversy doctrine. In the case, an employer brought a defamation and disparagement suit against a former employee, and while the suit was pending, the employee brought a qui tam action under the False Claims Act (FCA) against the employer on behalf of the United States and the state of New Jersey. The qui tam action remained under seal for over seven years while the government investigated the action. During this time, the employer’s state court action against the employee was dismissed after the parties entered into a settlement agreement. After the government chose not to intervene in the FCA action, and the district court unsealed the complaint, the employee chose to proceed. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that New Jersey’s “entire controversy” doctrine requires claims arising from related facts or transactions to be adjudicated in one action.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that New Jersey’s entire controversy doctrine did not apply to the employee’s qui tam action because, in FCA cases, the U.S. is the real party in interest. The appellate court noted that concluding otherwise would essentially allow the employee to “unilaterally negotiate, settle, and dismiss the qui tam claims during the Government’s investigatory period.” Moreover, the appellate court found that application of the doctrine “would incentivize potential [FCA] defendants to ‘smoke out’ qui tam actions by suing potential relators and then quickly settling those private claims,” in order to bar a potential qui tam action.