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On May 13, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a relator has up to 10 years to bring a qui tam suit under the False Claims Act (FCA) whether or not the government intervenes in the suit. According to the opinion, in November 2013, a relator brought a suit against two defense contractors alleging they defrauded the U.S. Government by submitting false payment claims for security services in Iraq through early 2007. The relator claimed he told federal officials about the allegedly fraudulent conduct in November 2010, but the Government declined to intervene. The defendants moved to dismiss the action as barred by the six year statute of limitations under 31 U. S. C. §3730(b)(1), while the relator claimed the action was timely under §3730(b)(2)— which states that a FCA civil action may not be brought “more than 3 years after the date when facts material to the right of action are known or reasonably should have been known by the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances, but in no event more than 10 years after the date on which the violation is committed.” The district court dismissed the action, while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the decision, concluding that §3730(b)(2) applies in “nonintervened actions, and the limitations period begins when the Government official responsible for acting knew or should have known the relevant facts.”
Upon review, the Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ argument that the six year statute of limitations in §3731(b)(1) applies to all relator-initiated actions (whether the Government intervenes or not), while § 3731(b)(2) applies only to qui tam actions when the Government intervenes, arguing the interpretation is “at odds with fundamental rules of statutory interpretation.” Moreover, the Court concluded that the relator in a nonintervened suit is not “the official of the United States” whose knowledge triggers §3731(b)(2)’s three-year limitations period, as it was not what Congress intended, and a private relator is neither “appointed as an officer of the United States nor employed by the United States.”
On May 7, the DOJ (or the “Department”) announced the release of formal guidance to the Department’s False Claims Act (FCA) litigators, which explains how the DOJ awards credit to defendants who cooperate with the Department during a FCA investigation. Under the formal policy, which is located in Section 4-4.112 of the Justice Manual, cooperation credit in FCA cases may be earned by (i) voluntarily disclosing misconduct unknown to the government, which can be done even if the DOJ has already begun an investigation of other misconduct; (ii) cooperating in an ongoing investigation, such as by preserving documents beyond standard business or legal practices, identifying individuals who are aware of the relevant information or conduct, and facilitating review and evaluation of relevant data or information that requires access to special or proprietary technologies; or (iii) undertaking remedial measures in response to a violation, such as by implementing or improving an effective compliance program or appropriately disciplining or replacing those responsible for the misconduct.
The Department has discretion in awarding credit, which will vary depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. With regard to voluntary disclosure or additional cooperation, the Department will consider (i) the timeliness and voluntariness of the assistance; (ii) the truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of any information or testimony provided; (iii) the nature and extent of the assistance; and (iv) the significance and usefulness of the cooperation to the government. Entities or individuals may quality for partial credit if they have “meaningfully assisted the government’s investigation by engaging in conduct qualifying for cooperation credit.” Most often, cooperation credit will take the form of a reduction in penalties or damages sought by the Department. However, the maximum credit that a defendant may earn may not exceed the amount that would result in the government receiving less than full compensation for the losses caused by the misconduct. In addition, the Department may consider in appropriate circumstances other forms of credit, including notifying a relevant agency about the defendant’s disclosure or other cooperation, publicly acknowledging such disclosure or cooperation, and assisting in resolving a qui tam litigation with a relator.
On March 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a national bank’s motion to dismiss a former associate vice president/lending manager’s whistleblower claims that it violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting fraudulent claims and providing false information about loan applications to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The whistleblower alleged that the bank (i) knowingly submitted fraudulent claims for payment to the U.S. government; (ii) told Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that the applications met underwriting standards; and (iii) later terminated his employment as retaliation for notifying his superiors about the alleged false statements. However, according to the court, the whistleblower failed to sufficiently plead that the bank actually submitted the false claims, did not provide enough specificity as to whom the bank sent the alleged false claims to, and failed to “allege specific facts that link [the bank’s] fraudulent conduct to a claim submitted to the government.” Moreover, the court stated that under the FCA’s public disclosure bar, a whistleblower cannot base his case on allegations raised in prior litigation or publically disclosed information, and identified several similarities between the whistleblower’s allegations and previously disclosed claims. Because the whistleblower’s FCA claims failed, the retaliation claims were also dismissed.
On February 13, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California announced a $3.67 million joint settlement with HUD and the Fair Housing Administration (FHA) to resolve allegations that a mortgage lender violated the False Claims Act by falsely certifying compliance with FHA mortgage insurance requirements. According to the settlement agreement, between 2007 and 2009, the mortgage lender, a participant in HUD’s Direct Endorsement Lender program, allegedly knowingly submitted false claims to the FHA loan insurance program by failing to ensure the loans qualified for FHA insurance when they were originated. The announcement notes that the settlement relates solely to allegations, and that there has been no determination of actual liability by the mortgage lender, which did not admit to liability in the settlement.
On February 11, the DOJ announced a $2.5 million settlement with a South Carolina university to resolve allegations that the university violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false claims to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the announcement, between 2014 and 2016, the university hired a company, which was partially owned by the university, to recruit students to the university and paid the company based on the number of students who enrolled in university programs, in violation of the prohibition on paying incentive compensation in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The co-owner of the company originally brought a qui tam lawsuit against the university and will receive $375,000 from the settlement.
On January 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed a federal jury’s unanimous verdict clearing a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicing agency (defendant) accused of improper billing practices under the False Claims Act (FCA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiff—a former Department of Education employee whistleblower—filed a qui tam suit in 2007, seeking treble damages and forfeitures under the FCA. 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. Over the course of several appeals, the case proceeded to trial against the student loan servicing agency after the 4th Circuit held that the entity was “an independent political subdivision, not an arm of the commonwealth,” and “therefore a ‘person’ subject to liability under the False Claims Act.” The plaintiff appealed the jury’s verdict, arguing the court erred by excluding evidence at trial and failed to give the jury several of his proposed instructions.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the plaintiff, finding that the court correctly excluded the state audit, which determined the student loan servicer “failed its mission” with lavish spending on unnecessary expenses. The appeal court noted the audit was irrelevant to the only issue in the case: “Did [the servicer] commit fraud and file a false claim?” The appeals court also rejected the plaintiff’s jury instruction arguments, concluding that the court’s instructions substantially covered the substance of the plaintiff’s proposal and “sufficiently explained that the jury had to consider whether [the servicer’s] claims were ‘false or fraudulent.’”
On December 21, the DOJ announced a $4.25 million settlement with a Michigan-based servicer in connection with alleged violations of the False Claims Act related to the servicing of federally-insured home equity conversion mortgages (reverse mortgages). According to the DOJ, for the period between November 2011 and May 2016, the servicer allegedly failed to meet eligibility requirements for receiving FHA insurance payments on interest that accrued after reverse mortgages became due and payable, including meeting deadlines for obtaining property appraisals, commencing foreclosure proceedings, and/or prosecuting the foreclosure proceedings to completion. As a result, mortgagees on relevant reverse mortgage loans obtained additional interest payments they were not entitled to receive. The claims were resolved by the settlement without a determination of liability.
On December 4, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a New York foreclosure law firm and its wholly-owned affiliates—a process server and a title search company (defendants)—have agreed to pay $4.6 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations claiming that between 2009 and 2018 the defendants systematically generated false and inflated bills for foreclosure-related and eviction-related expenses and caused those expenses to be paid by Fannie Mae. The settlement also resolves claims arising from the same misconduct pertaining to eviction-related expenses that were submitted to and ultimately paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The DOJ alleges that the process server and title search company both added “additional charges to the costs charged by independent contractors and otherwise took actions that increased costs and expenses,” which were then submitted by the law firm for reimbursement. According to the DOJ, “[l]awyers are not above the law. For years, the [law firm] submitted bills to Fannie Mae and the VA that contained inflated and unnecessary charges. This Office will continue to hold accountable those who seek to achieve profits by fraudulent conduct.” The DOJ states that Fannie Mae’s Servicing Guide requires “all foreclosure costs and expenses be ‘actual, reasonable, and necessary,’ and that foreclosure law firms ‘must make every effort to reduce foreclosure-related costs and expenses in a manner that is consistent with all applicable laws.’”
The DOJ further notes that the defendants agreed to pay an additional $1,518,000 to resolve separate False Claims Act claims pursued by the whistleblower.
On October 19, the DOJ announced a $13.2 million settlement with a mortgage lender resolving allegations that the company violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by falsely certifying compliance with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance requirements in violation of the False Claims Act (FCA). Specifically, the government alleged that, between 2006 and 2011, the lender failed to follow proper mortgage underwriting and certification rules as a participant in the direct endorsement lender program and knowingly submitted loans for FHA insurance that did not qualify. Additionally, DOJ alleged that the lender “improperly incentivized underwriters and knowingly failed to perform quality control reviews.” Under the direct endorsement lender program, FHA does not review a loan for compliance with FHA requirements before it is endorsed for FHA insurance; accordingly lenders are required to follow rules designed to ensure that they are properly underwriting and certifying mortgages for FHA insurance. This settlement also resolves a related whistleblower lawsuit filed under the FCA, in which the former employee of a related entity will receive approximately $2 million.
On May 9, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed a qui tam action brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) against a national bank and its predecessors-in-interest (defendants), which alleged that the defendants presented false information to Federal Reserve Banks (FRBanks) in connection with their applications for loans. The court held that allegations of false or fraudulent claims being presented to the FRBanks cannot form the basis of an FCA action because the FRBanks cannot be characterized as the federal government for purposes of the FCA.
The relators in the action originally brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the defendants inaccurately represented their financial condition in order to be eligible to borrow from the FRBanks’ discount window at lower interest rates. By way of background, in order for liability to incur under the FCA, a false or fraudulent claim must be made to the federal government or its agents. Therefore, the court needed to resolve two legal issues: (i) whether FRBanks should be characterized as the government or its agents for purposes of the FCA, and (ii) whether the federal government paid any portion of the loans the defendants received or reimbursed the FRBanks for issuing the loans.
In supporting its conclusion that FRBanks are not government actors, the court reasoned that the Federal Reserve Act (FRA), which created the Federal Reserve districts and FRBanks, did not designate the FRBanks as part of an executive department or agency. The court also noted that although the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (Board) is a federal agency, each FRBank operates as a private corporation owned by private stockholders, receives no government appropriations, and generates its own income from interest earned on government securities. Furthermore, the court reasoned that the Board provides only general policy supervision, FRBank employees are not government employees, and FRBanks lack the ability to promulgate regulations and operate independently of the Board and the government.
In resolving the second issue, the court agreed with the defendants’ argument that the bank’s loan requests did not create FCA liability for claims, because the relators did not, and could not, “allege that the [g]overnment either provided any portion of the money loaned to the defendants, or reimbursed [FRBanks] for making the loans.”
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