Another interesting statutory construction case arising from allegations scientists at Cornell University Medical College and Thomas Jefferson University "misrepresented the findings of their DNA research when they applied for National Institute of Health research grants and did not correct the misrepresentations on subsequent progress reports and renewal applications." Problem is, the grants in question were filed back in the 1990s.
As Judge Savage recounts,
The [False Claims Act] prohibits ‘any person from making false or fraudulent claims for payment to the United States.’ Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409, 411, 125 S. Ct. 2444, 162 L. Ed. 2d 390 (2005); 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a). Any person found liable for violating the FCA is subject to a civil penalty of $ 5,000 to $ 10,000 per violation and treble damages. 31 U.S.C.A. § 3729(a) (West Supp. 2008); Hutchins v. Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, 253 F.3d 176, 181 (3d Cir. 2001).
An action under the FCA may be commenced in one of two ways. The attorney general may sue on behalf of the United States government; or, a private individual, known as a relator, can bring a qui tam action. 31 U.S.C.A. § 3730(a), (b)(1); Graham County, 545 U.S. at 411-12 (citing Vermont Agency of Natural Res. v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 769-72, 120 S. Ct. 1858, 146 L. Ed. 2d 836 (2000)). Because the relator brings the action on behalf of the government, he must give the government notice of the action. The government has sixty days from the filing of a qui tam complaint to elect to intervene in the action, and, for good cause shown, can petition the court to permit it to intervene at a later date. Graham County, 545 U.S. at 412; § 3730(b)(2) and (c)(3).
A civil action under the FCA must be brought within six years of the violation or within three years of the date when the government learned or should have learned the facts material to the violation, whichever is later. Id. §§ (b)(1), (2). In no event may an action be brought after ten years of a violation. Id. Specifically, the FCA statute of limitations provides:
(b) A civil action under [the False Claims Act] may not be brought –
(1) more than 6 years after the date on which the violation of [the False Claims Act] is committed, or
(2) 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,
whichever occurs last.
31 U.S.C.A. § 3731(b) (2003).
The critical difference between § (b)(1) and (b)(2) is that under § (b)(1), the statute of limitations begins to run when the violation occurs, whereas under § (b)(2), it begins to run when the appropriate person learned or should have learned facts putting him on notice that a violation occurred. A conflict arises from the interplay between the unusual procedure allowing a private party to bring a qui tam action on behalf of the government and the language of the tolling provision, which appears to relate only to the government. It is this conflict that raises the issues confronting us in this case."
United States ex rel. Bauchwitz, No. 04-2892, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111919, at *23–25 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 1, 2009).
There’s no obvious right answer:
The circuits and district courts that have considered the issue are split as to whether § 3731(b)(2) applies to private relators in actions where the government has not intervened. The Courts of Appeals for the Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Circuits have held that the tolling provision does not apply to qui tam actions where the government has not intervened. United States ex rel. Sanders v. N. Am. Bus Indus., 546 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2008), cert. denied, 129 S. Ct. 2793, 174 L. Ed. 2d 291 (2009); United States ex rel. Erskine v. Baker, 213 F.3d 638, 2000 WL 554644 (5th Cir. 2000) (unpublished table opinion); United States ex rel. Sikkenga v. Regence Bluecross Blueshield of Utah, 472 F.3d 702, 725 (10th Cir. 2006). In contrast, the Ninth Circuit, as well as district courts in Massachusetts, Georgia and Illinois, apply § 3731(b)(2) to private actions even where the government has not intervened. United States ex rel. Hyatt v. Northrup Corp., 91 F.3d 1211, 1214, 1217 (9th Cir. 1996); United States ex rel. Ven-A-Care v. Actavis Mid Atlantic LLC, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92945, 2009 WL 3171798 (D. Mass. 2009); United States ex rel. Lewis v. Walker, No. 3:06-CV-16, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68208, 2007 WL 2713018 (M.D. Ga. Sept. 14, 2007); United States ex rel. Bidani v. Lewis, No. 97 C 6502, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3530, 1999 WL163053 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 12, 1999). The Third Circuit has not decided the issue.
Id. at *51–52.
Although the Third Circuit’s precedent leans towards allowing relators in non-intervention cases to rely on statutory provisions arguably meant only for use by the government when it intervenes, the Supreme Court says otherwise:
The Third Circuit’s view of the relator’s status vis-a-vis the government is no longer viable in light of the Supreme Court’s recent holding in United States ex rel. Eisenstein v. City of New York, 129 S. Ct. 2230, 173 L. Ed. 2d 1255 (2009). There, the Supreme Court held that the relator in a non-intervened FCA case cannot invoke the sixty-day deadline applicable to the United States as a party for filing a notice of appeal under Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(1)(B). Resolving the circuit split, the Supreme Court determined that the government’s retaining an interest in an FCA case in which it has not intervened does not make it a ‘party.’ 129 S. Ct. at 2233. It concluded that this interest does not convert the government’s status as a real party in interest to that of a ‘party’ in the litigation in which it has declined to intervene. Id. at 2235. Consequently, the relator cannot be deemed to have the same status as the government.
Because the Third Circuit’s rationale regarding the relator’s status in Rodriguez has been rejected, it cannot support a holding that would permit a relator to take advantage of a tolling provision applicable only to the government. 54 It has been replaced by the reasoning of the Supreme Court in Eisenstein. Therefore, following that reasoning, we conclude that the three-year tolling period in § 3731(b)(2) does not apply in cases where the government does not intervene.
Id. at *55–56.
Summary judgment granted, case dismissed. It’s not good material for appeal or certiorari, either, as the Eastern District of Pennsylvania also held "Even if the tolling provision applies, as [plaintiff] argues it does, the result would be the same. Because [relator] possessed knowledge of the facts underpinning his allegations regarding all three areas of the defendants’ fraudulent statements by 1999 and their probable connection to grants, the claims that are barred by the six-year limitations period would also be barred by the three-year tolling period."