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On October 29, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed a False Claims Act (FCA) suit against a national bank, concluding the relator failed to prove the inapplicability of the public disclosure bar. According to the opinion, the relator filed an action against the national bank alleging that from 2009 to 2013, as an employee of the bank, she witnessed “numerous violations of [the bank]’s obligations under [government] loan modification programs.” The bank moved to dismiss the action on five separate grounds, including statute of limitations and public disclosure bar. The court first addressed the statute of limitations claims, applying the six-year limitation after the violation and holding that because the relator filed her action against the bank on June 2, 2018, any claims occurring before June 2, 2012 are barred as untimely.
The court then addressed the public disclosure bar, which requires courts to dismiss an action under the FCA “if substantially the same allegations or transactions as alleged in the action or claim were publicly disclosed….” The bank argued, and the relator did not contest, that the relator’s allegations “had already been publicly disclosed through the news media, a federal lawsuit, and federal reports.” The court rejected the relator’s claims that she should qualify as an original source of the information. Specifically, the court concluded that while the relator may have independent knowledge of the information provided in her complaint by virtue of her employment, she did not “materially add to” the public disclosures and thus, did not carry “her burden to prove the inapplicability of the public disclosure bar.” Accordingly, the court dismissed all remaining allegations postdating July 2, 2012.
On October 20, the DOJ announced a nearly $25 million settlement with a California-based mortgage lender in connection with alleged violations of the False Claims Act (FCA) related to originating and underwriting mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). According to the DOJ, the lender “knowingly approved ineligible loans that later defaulted and resulted in claims to FHA for mortgage insurance,” failed to comply with material program rules requiring lenders to maintain quality control programs to prevent underwriting deficiencies, and failed to self-report identified materially deficient loans. The mortgage lender agreed to pay the DOJ $24.9 million to resolve the FCA claims. In addition, a whistleblower will receive nearly $5 million under the settlement. The DOJ’s press release noted that the claims “are allegations only, and [that] there has been no determination of liability.”
DOJ: Lender allegedly violated FIRREA, False Claims Act by forging certifications and using unqualified underwriters
On September 25, the DOJ filed a complaint against a lender alleging that it forged certifications and used unqualified underwriters to approve FHA-insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs) to increase its loan production in violation of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act and the False Claims Act. In addition, the DOJ claims that, because the lender allegedly did not employ enough direct endorsement underwriters to review each HECM loan endorsed for FHA mortgage insurance, it bypassed FHA’s underwriter requirements and (i) allowed “unqualified temporary contractors to underwrite, approve, and sign certifications for HECM loans”; (ii) “[f]orged signatures of qualified underwriters on certifications for other HECM loans” to create the appearance that they had been reviewed and approved by a qualified underwriter; (iii) pre-signed blank certifications representing that appraisals had been reviewed and approved; and (iv) used these forms and certifications to insure HECM loans that did not meet the underwriting requirements. The DOJ alleges that, accordingly, the FHA insured overvalued and underwater properties, which increased borrower expenses and raised the chances of default. The DOJ also asserts that the lender’s purported false claims for FHA mortgage insurance payments were material, as it led to the government making payments it would otherwise not have been required to make.
On July 2, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a False Claims Act suit against a British bank accused of allegedly engaging in banking practices that violated U.S. sanctions against Iran. The bank had entered into deferred prosecution agreements in 2012 and 2019 with the DOJ and agreed to pay penalties to federal and New York authorities to resolve allegations that it had facilitated U.S. dollar transactions for Iranian entities in violation of U.S. sanctions and various New York and federal banking regulations. According to the whistleblower’s suit, the bank mislead the DOJ when negotiating the 2012 deferred prosecution agreement, and allegedly continued to engage in sanctions-violating conduct, “notwithstanding their representations to the [DOJ] that they had thereafter ceased doing so.” The DOJ twice declined to intervene in the case and moved to dismiss, arguing that it was “meritless” and that continuing to discovery would waste government resources. The whistleblower countered that the DOJ “failed to properly investigate its contentions,” but the court determined that this argument was “insufficient to transform the Government’s decision into one that is arbitrary and capricious.” In reaching its decision, the court determined that it did not need to adopt a specific standard, stating, “[l]ike other courts in this [d]istrict to have considered this question, the [c]ourt concludes that it need not definitively determine the appropriate standard of review to resolve this case.” According to the court, this “is because the Government has carried its burden even under the more searching. . .standard” outlined by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in United States ex rel. Sequoia Orange Co. v. Baird-Neece Packing Corp., which requires the DOJ to identify “‘a valid government purpose’ and ‘a rational relation between dismissal and accomplishment of the purpose.’”
DOJ reaches $2.47 million settlement to resolve alleged lending violations regarding FHA-insured reverse mortgages
On March 31, the DOJ announced a $2.47 million settlement with an Oklahoma-based mortgage lender in connection with alleged violations of the False Claims Act (FCA) related to an acquired predecessor entity’s origination and underwriting of home equity conversion mortgages (HECM). According to the DOJ, these HECM loans were insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) but failed to meet HUD requirements. The DOJ alleged that, prior to May 2, 2010, the predecessor entity ordered appraisals for HECM loans on forms that provided loan amounts and “otherwise improperly communicated certain information to [appraisers] in an attempt to influence the appraised value, in violation of FHA requirements.” The mortgage lender agreed to pay the DOJ $1.97 million to resolve the FCA claims, as well as $500,000 to HUD to resolve administrative liability allegations. The DOJ’s press release noted that the claims “are allegations only, and [that] there has been no determination of liability.”
On February 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a relator’s False Claims Act claims, which alleged that a group of prime private student loan debt collectors (defendants) defrauded the federal government of funds intended for small businesses in relation to contracts to service student loans with the Department of Education (Department). The 2015 lawsuit filed by the relator accused the defendants of, among other things, allegedly concealing that “the purportedly small business subcontractors were affiliated with ‘co-conspirator’ larger businesses, ‘making them ineligible to be claimed as small businesses by the prime contractors on the [Department’s private collection agency] task orders.’” The relator also claimed that the defendants convinced the Department to award contracts and provide bonuses they did not deserve. According to the relator, the defendants made claims that hinged “on the factual allegation of undisclosed affiliation and associated submission of false claims and/or misrepresentations concerning business size.”
In the order, the court determined, among other things, that the relator fell short of alleging the specific facts necessary to convince the court that the defendants engaged in fraudulent inducement and implied certification. The court held that “despite [the relator’s] contrary contentions, [the relator’s] pleading does not establish with the requisite particularity the time and place of the false misrepresentations, what constitutes the allegedly false claim for each discrete defendant, and what, precisely, ‘was retained or given up as a consequence of the fraud.’” Specifically, the court stated that the relator “fail[ed] to connect several critical dots in the alleged scheme, leaving the [c]ourt unclear as to what, precisely, was allegedly actionably false and/or fraudulent.” However, the court allowed the relator leave to file an amended complaint, stating that “because the allegation of further facts might cure the identified deficiencies (although the [c]ourt has its doubts, given the length of the investigation and [the relator’s] counsel’s central role in the investigation), the [c]ourt sees no reason to deviate from the general rule [allowing leave].”
On December 10, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a memorandum and order denying an international bank’s motion to dismiss a DOJ suit filed in 2018. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the DOJ alleges the bank and several affiliates violated the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) by misleading investors and rating agencies in offering documents and presentations regarding the underwriting quality and other important attributes of the mortgages they securitized into residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) for sale to investors during the financial crisis. Specifically, the complaint alleges (i) “mail fraud affecting federally-insured financial institutions (FIFIs)”; (ii) wire fraud affecting FIFIs; (iii) bank fraud; (iv) “fraudulent benefit from a transaction with a covered financial institution (FI)”; and (v) “false statements made to influence the actions of a covered FI.” The DOJ seeks the maximum civil penalty.
According to the district court’s memorandum, the bank’s motion to dismiss sets forth a number of arguments, including, among other things, a failure to sufficiently plead fraudulent intent and the particular circumstances constituting fraud, and a lack of personal jurisdiction, all with which the court rejected. Specifically, the bank suggested that the DOJ’s complaint did not show that the bank “acted with fraudulent intent,” or that the bank committed “bank fraud, [made] fraudulent bank transactions, and [made] false statements to banks.” The memorandum rejects the bank’s claims, adding that personal jurisdiction over the bank and its affiliates is shown “based on [the bank’s] origination of loans” in New York.
On November 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the dismissal of a relator’s qui tam action, concluding that allegedly fraudulent loan requests made to one or more of the Federal Reserve Banks (FRBs) qualify as claims within the meaning of the False Claims Act (FCA). In the case, two qui tam relators brought an action under the FCA against a national bank and its predecessors-in-interest (defendants), alleging the defendants presented false information to FRBs in connection with their applications for loans. However the district court dismissed the action, holding that allegations of false or fraudulent claims being presented to the FRBs cannot form the basis of an FCA action because the FRBs cannot be characterized as the federal government for purposes of the FCA. In addition, the district 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 FRBs for making the loans.” (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.)
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit concluded that although the FRBs are not a “part of any executive department or agency,” the FRBs still act as agents of the U.S. because the U.S. “created the FRBs to act on its behalf in extending emergency credit to banks; the FRBs extend such credit; and the FRBs do so in compliance with the strictures enacted by Congress and the regulations promulgated by the [Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System], an independent agency within the executive branch.” The 2nd Circuit also held that the loan requests qualified as claims under the FCA because the money requested by the defendants is provided from the Federal Reserve System’s (Fed’s) emergency lending facilities and “is to be spent to advance a [g]overnment program or interest.” In supporting its conclusion, the appellate court stated that the U.S. “is the source of the purchasing power conferred on the banks when they borrow from the Fed’s emergency lending facilities.” The 2nd Circuit also referred to a U.S. Supreme Court holding in Rainwater v. United States, which stated that “the objective of Congress was broadly to protect the funds and property of the government from fraudulent claims, regardless of the particular form or function, of the government instrumentality upon which such claims were made.”
On October 28, HUD and DOJ announced a long-awaited Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which provides prudential guidance concerning the application of the False Claims Act to matters involving alleged noncompliance with FHA guidelines. The announcement was made by HUD Secretary Dr. Benjamin S. Carson at the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Annual Conference, and both agencies issued releases shortly after Carson’s comments. The intention, HUD noted, is to bring greater clarity to regulatory expectations within the FHA program and ease banks’ worries about facing future penalties for mortgage-lending errors.
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If you have any questions about the HUD/DOJ Memorandum of Understanding or other related issues, please visit our Mortgages or False Claims Act & FIRREA practice pages, or contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
On October 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a whistleblower’s reverse-false-claims action because it was barred by the False Claims Act’s (FCA) public-disclosure provision and the alleged scheme was not plead with sufficient detail. The relator, a former fraud investigator for the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General, alleged that the 15 financial institution defendants “avoided their regulatory obligation to return government-benefit payments they received for beneficiaries they knew to be deceased.” According to the relator, the defendants must have known of the beneficiary deaths because the Social Security Administration sends death notification entries to all receiving depository financial institutions. However, the district court determined that defendants provided documents showing the information had already been publicly disclosed and the relator was not the original source of the information (which would have been required to maintain a claim with respect to information that has already been publicly disclosed) because he obtained the information through his employment as a fraud investigator. As such, the court permanently dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the relator relied on public disclosures, and that the complaint failed to plead the allegations with sufficient detail.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed that the complaint could not survive the FCA’s public disclosure bar, explaining that the public-disclosure bar is met if the following elements apply: (i) the disclosure is public; (ii) the disclosure contains “‘substantially the same allegations’” as in the complaint; and (ii) the relator is not the “‘original source’” of the information. In addition, the appellate court agreed that the complaint lacked sufficient factual matter to satisfy federal rules of civil procedure, and concluded that further amendments would be futile because there are no claims left to amend.