DOJ Will Clear Out Weak Qui Tam Cases

In a surprise announcement, the U.S. Justice Department says it will start moving to dismiss weak whistleblower cases brought under the False Claims Act rather than let them run their course. The announcement was made at a recent conference by the Director of Commercial Litigation for the Fraud Section of the Department’s Civil Division. I wasn’t at the conference, but this gentleman was, and he sheds light on the new policy.

Up to this point, the government has let whistleblowers litigate cases on their own even when it didn’t think they were any good. The government always get a first look at these cases, as we’ve explained before. If it likes what it sees, it will take over the case and throw its weight behind it. If it doesn’t, it will decline to intervene but allow the case to proceed if the whistleblower (and his or her lawyers) is willing to do the work. Often, the government’s decision not to intervene will prompt whistleblowers to dismiss the case themselves. But now, it seems, the government will sometimes make that decision for them.

Don’t Keep The Change, Doc

Meaning, don’t just pocket the difference when the government overpays you for healthcare goods or services.

Recently, a medical group agreed to pay $450,000 to settle allegations that it refused to return $175,000 in overpayments that it received from federal healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Here’s the government’s press release.

The overpayments at issue tend to happen in medical practices when two insurers share responsibility for a payment, and one pays too much.

But the thing is, you have to return the surplus, whether it’s big or small; you can’t keep it, and you can’t dawdle, either. If you do, you may incur significant liability under the False Claims Act, as we’ve explained before.

The rule is that you have sixty days to return the money once you know (or should know) about the overpayment. For more on the 60-day rule, see here.

In this case, the government alleged that the medical group failed to return the money despite repeated warnings, until it learned the Justice Department was investigating. Apparently, it didn’t know that one of its employees had filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which the government joined and took over. (For more on that process, see here.) The former employee will receive $90,000 of the settlement proceeds, or twenty percent.

This isn’t the first time the feds have moved to enforce the 60-day rule, and it sure won’t be the last. They’re just getting started.

They May Be Intelligent, But Are They Wise?

Speaking of fair shakes, here is a wise word of caution about the emerging, expanding use of computer programs to evaluate people in the justice system, whether at bail hearings, sentencings, or elsewhere.

The author is a former software engineer at Facebook who’s now studying law at Harvard. Her point isn’t that we shouldn’t use or consult these programs, but we should know what we’re getting into and proceed with caution. It’s troubling, for example, if we use programs that no one in the field fully understands—not judges, not lawyers, not probation—because the manufacturer won’t disclose a proprietary algorithm.

She says we turn to computers in part to control for our own biases, “[b]ut shifting the … responsibility to a computer doesn’t necessarily eliminate bias; it delegates and often compounds it.” That’s because these programs mimic the data we use to train them, so even the ones that accurately reflect our world will necessarily reflect our biases. Plus, they work on a feedback loop, so if they’re not constantly retrained, they lean in toward those biases and drift even further from reality and fairness. So they don’t just parrot our own biases; they amplify them. She saw this phenomenon time and again as a software engineer.

She agrees that algorithms can work for good. They’ve reportedly helped New Jersey reduce its pretrial jail population, for example.

But let’s proceed with caution, she says:

“Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise. Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases. They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.”

California’s New Law of Fair Shakes

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, take note.

Earlier this month, California enacted the Fair Chance Act.

This means that, beginning next year, many employers can no longer ask about or look into criminal convictions until they’ve decided a person is right for the job. That means they can’t ask about convictions anymore on a job application. It also means they can’t run a background check until they’ve made a conditional offer of employment.

Also, once employers make a conditional offer and run someone’s record, they can’t deny the job based on a conviction unless they first analyze the relationship between the job and conviction. What kind of job is it, after all? Does it have anything to do with the conviction? How long ago was that, anyway? There must be a “direct and adverse” relationship between the two to justify the decision.

Employers don’t have to share their analysis with applicants, but they must advise of their decision in writing. When they do, they must identify the relevant conviction, attach a copy of the report they ran on the person, and explain that he or she has at least five business days to show why the report isn’t accurate or why they should still get the job based on rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances. Employers must consider any evidence they submit. If they still decide to deny the job, they must let the person know in writing, refer him or her to any existing procedure they have for challenging it, and give them notice of the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

What hasn’t changed? Employers still can’t consider arrests that didn’t lead to conviction, unless charges are still pending or the arrest was for certain drug or sex offenses and the job is in a healthcare facility that requires access to drugs or patients. Nor can employers consider convictions that have been sealed, dismissed, or otherwise expunged.

The law will apply to employers with five or more employees. It exempts those who must conduct background checks by law. For more on the new law and its passage, see here and here. For the text itself, see here.

Commemorating a Courtroom Legend

One of the great professional experiences of my life was the year I spent working for a federal trial judge in Los Angeles. Fresh out of law school in 2005, I served as a law clerk to the Honorable Manuel Real, who was appointed by President Johnson in 1966 and has presided there in the district court since. He’s a walking, living legend of the law.

Judicial clerkships are sought-after jobs for good reason. You learn more about litigation in that year than you ever could by practicing law in any other capacity. It’s because you read and analyze a lot of briefs, and you watch and listen to a lot of lawyers. You see it all from good to run-of-the-mill to bad, and it’s not always what, or whom, you’d expect.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate Judge Real’s fiftieth year on the bench, and recently, it was published in the newsletter of the Federal Bar Association in Orange County. Here’s a link to the newsletter if you’re interested, and you’ll find my profile of Judge Real on page ten. Or you can just keep reading below. You’ll hear about bank robberies, business litigation, and even a little gardening.


What do you say when someone celebrates fifty years on the bench?

Plenty in Judge Real’s case if you ask me, and since someone did, here’s my piece.

Who am I? Well, I was the Judge’s 62nd law clerk: one of two during the 2005-06 term, and one of 82 now overall. A lot of those clerks feel the way about him that I do, so I’m delighted to help commemorate this very special jubilee; it’s a deep and sentimental honor for me.

The Judge hired me when I was 26 years old, and he made a big impression on me from the beginning.

For one thing, he seemed like the strongest 82 year old in the world. I remember we flew to Arizona once to sit by designation, and at the airport, I found myself scampering ten or fifteen feet behind him because he was tearing along at a brisk pace with all of his luggage in tow. It was the gait of a man who knew where he was going. A lot of folks have marveled at his vitality over the years, and the Judge will often attribute it to his gardening, but I’m not sure you’d grasp what he means by that if you haven’t seen some of the gardening he’s done.

Here’s a story for you. A few years ago, I went to visit him at home, and when I got there, he was all by himself; no Mrs. Real, no family. He asked me to give him a hand with something, so we headed back toward the garden, and I saw that he was already in the middle of some heavy-duty project. Before I knew it, he brought over a ladder and power saw, and he said we were going to clear out some tree branches and foliage. That sounded good to me in the abstract, but then I found myself at the foot of a very tall ladder, staring up at my 86-year-old former boss, who happened to be a federal judge, perched on the penultimate rung. And above him, the tree branches loomed large and thick. It would’ve been a tough job for someone half his age.

Suddenly, I was pretty worried. And I didn’t like my options. I couldn’t ask him to come down from there any more than I could’ve told him not to go up in the first place. Not to someone like Judge Real, and not in his own house, anyway. But my mind was running and my adrenaline pumping. All I could think about — in addition to his falling and hurting himself — was how in the world I would account for that afterward to his family, or the world.

So I held onto that ladder as best I could and braced myself to break his fall or do whatever else.

But you know what? I didn’t need to worry. The Judge climbed that ladder to the top, stood firmly at its crest, and starting mowing down branches like nobody’s business. Before I knew it, I was getting covered down there with leaves and branches. At some point, he came down to take a break, and I offered to go a round. He didn’t go up again after that, and that was the end of it. But boy, what a moment that was.

And I have to tell you, I was astonished by that. I really couldn’t believe he did something like that at his age, and there was never a moment while he was up there that he seemed unsteady or precarious. The whole thing just blew me away.

But then the Judge is impressive in a lot of ways.

I remember a patent case we had that went to trial. It was a difficult, esoteric case, and the jurors had a hard time following along or even trying to. I found my own thoughts wandering, and I was supposed to be the apprentice law clerk. The Judge, however, actively presided over the trial and lobbed incisive questions from the bench. In the fog of a dry witness examination, he would get the testimony moving again with a series of short, focused questions. The longer I practice, the more I’m impressed by that case and how the Judge exerted the same energy and attention that one might summon in, say, a bank robbery.

Speaking of bank robberies, I remember one of those went to trial, too. The defendant was a middle-aged man who’d walked into a bank and passed a note. It was, like many bank robberies, a nonviolent act of turmoil and desperation. The guy had lost his job, his wife had left him, and his life was falling apart. So he went and robbed a bank. No gun or other alarming facts, just a guy with a note. It was sad and pitiable. He got caught, and now he was looking at a serious term of imprisonment under the federal sentencing guidelines.

There was no jury this time, and the case was tried to the court. I do recall the evidence was sufficient to convict the man, but then I wasn’t the trier of fact, though I’m not sure I would’ve come out differently if I was.

Well, the Judge acquitted him. I’m not saying the evidence was overwhelming, but there was plenty of room to convict if he wanted to. Although I’ve never asked the Judge about it, I believe it was a pure, unsung display of mercy and judgment by a judge whom no one would characterize as easy or soft. Mind you, the law of federal sentencing was in a state of upheaval at the time. The Supreme Court had just declared the guidelines to be advisory, not mandatory, but there was a lot of commotion about it, and the dust hadn’t settled like it has since.

Sometimes, the Judge disagreed with me, and those were the best lessons. One time, we got a motion for attorney’s fees after a disabled-access case had settled. The plaintiff’s lawyer was asking for $103,000, and the defendant, a restaurant, said it should be $13,000. I split the baby and recommended an award of $65,000. I argued that the lawyer’s hourly rate was reasonable and that the award, even if generous, would compensate him for the risk he took in bringing the case and his success in obtaining defendant’s compliance with the law. Or so I thought.

After the Judge reviewed my bench memo, he posed just one question: Could I research the court dockets for cases involving this plaintiff and lawyer? Sure thing, Judge. And so I did, and what I found was quite interesting. In the past three years, the plaintiff had filed at least 21 of these lawsuits in the California federal courts alone. In each case, his complaint made the same boilerplate claim that he’d fallen in a toilet at some restaurant. In two of these cases, he even alleged that it happened on the same day in two different restaurants — on opposite ends of the state. His lawyer in every case? You can take a wild guess.

The two had quite a racket going. They would file a lawsuit based on their boilerplate claims; bring in a consultant to identify every technical violation of disabled-access laws, few of which had anything to do with the plaintiff’s personal claim; settle the case for next to nothing but the defendant’s promise to bring itself into compliance; declare victory; and move for attorneys’ fees, which I suspect the two probably shared to some extent. But this wasn’t the Judge’s first rodeo, and needless to say, they didn’t get what they asked for.

There are a lot of things that you learn in a textbook, but when you learn by doing, and you peel back an onion that way, it tends to stay with you.

In that case, rather than acceding to the parties’ settlement, the Judge pursued a more just result, and he got it.

But that’s how he approaches work every day in my estimation. He’s a prototypical trial judge. During my clerkship, he would often remind us that, as a matter of fact, “we decide these cases.” He knows that it’s his job to decide them, and he understands that, while the court of appeals is there to review them, appellate review isn’t always an adequate remedy for injustice. He knows that, in nearly every case, the most important contest in the lives of those involved is the one decided in his court. And he knows that not everything that happens in a case or courtroom transfers to an appellate record, anyway. He wants to do justice.

Even generations of defendants whom he’s supervised on probation write to him, still — decades after he’s sentenced them or terminated their probation — to thank him for taking the time to judge them in a way that improved the balance of their lives.

That kind of stuff makes an impression on you, too.

In the end, everyone will have his or her critics — we all do — and fifty years of judging will earn you a few.

But I’ve learned that Judge Real cares only to do the best he can every day in law and in life. May we all do it so well.

His style may hark back to the brand of judge he used to appear before in his day, but his instincts are sound, his philosophy just, and his heart tucked securely in the right place. He is a good man in a preternatural sense, one of the very best I know, and I’m proud to call him a friend and mentor. Happy anniversary, Judge, and here’s to many more.

Impaneling a Jury of Your Peers

Do you have a civil or criminal case that’s heading to trial?

Starting next year, California will have new rules for picking a jury in both types of cases.

First, the rules for criminal cases. This is Assembly Bill 1541. It brings jury selection in criminal trials more in line with the procedure for civil trials.

The process will still begin like before. The court will question the jury pool to see if anyone knows the parties or witnesses or otherwise holds a bias that will keep them from being fair and impartial. The court may also agree to ask additional questions that the lawyers have submitted in advance. Then the lawyers will get their crack at it, though the court can set reasonable limits on their questions.

The new emphasis, however, will be on giving lawyers more time and room to question the pool and follow up on the answers. The court can still set limits, but they can’t be arbitrary, inflexible, or unreasonable. In setting those limits, moreover, the court must consider the complexity of the case and even the amount of time the lawyers want. It should allow them to follow up on the court’s questions as well as their own, and it shouldn’t screen their questions beforehand unless they’re really trying to indoctrinate the jury.

Next, the rules for civil cases. This is Senate Bill 658. It makes fewer changes to existing procedure but also puts greater emphasis on letting the lawyers conduct voir dire.

How will the courts apply these rules in practice?

That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Certificates of Rehabilitation in California

A certificate of rehabilitation is a court order that declares your rehabilitation to the world. It also automatically recommends you to the governor for a pardon. If you’re not eligible for an expungement, you can still clean up your record through a certificate of rehabilitation. Or you may want to apply for one even though you’ve already expunged your conviction.

Like an expungement, a certificate of rehabilitation will bring better job prospects and a better chance at getting a professional license. Unlike an expungement, it won’t allow you to say that you have no conviction.

But also, unlike an expungement, a certificate of rehabilitation can relieve you from having to register as a sex offender. The court will deny it, however, if it finds you’re a continuing threat to minors. Or the district attorney’s office can petition to rescind it on that ground.

[Update: Beginning July 1, 2021, a certificate of rehabilitation will no longer end sex-offender registration because of a new law and process for doing so.]

To qualify, you must show that you live “an honest and upright life” and have demonstrated rehabilitation for a number of years after you were released from custody or put on probation or parole. You can’t still be under supervision, and the number of years depends on the nature of your conviction. In a nutshell, it’s nine years if you were convicted of a serious violent crime; ten years if you were convicted of most sex offenses that require sex-offender registration; and seven years for anything else. You also must prove that you’ve lived in California for at least five years before you filed your petition.

Who’s ineligible? Well, you’re not eligible if you don’t meet the above criteria. But you’re also ineligible if you were convicted of a serious sex offense involving a minor. If that’s the case, you can still ask the governor directly for a pardon, but you’ll need to show extraordinary circumstances to get it. Finally, you’re not eligible for a certificate of rehabilitation if you were convicted of a misdemeanor, unless it was a sex offense that required registration.

How do you do it? You can find more information from the governor’s office here, and you can pull the appropriate forms from your local courthouse, public defender, or probation department. The court may even appoint counsel to represent you. Or, if you can afford it, retain counsel to make the best case for you.

Expunging Criminal Records in California

It ain’t just for kids, after all. Anyone who’s eligible can petition to expunge a criminal conviction in California. Here’s what you need to know.

Like we explained last week, the term “expungement” is a misnomer because it doesn’t erase the conviction or wipe the slate clean. But that’s still how lawyers and judges will refer to it. Technically, it’s called a dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 or other such section. So you’re still going to have a rap sheet, in other words.

But it will add a line item to your rap sheet that shows the case was dismissed. If you had pleaded guilty before, the court will permit you to withdraw your plea. If you were convicted at trial, the court will set aside that verdict. Either way, the court will then dismiss the case.

In most situations, that means you can legally and truthfully say that you don’t have a conviction. That can help on a job application, for example, though the rule is different for public employers like law-enforcement agencies. In all situations, you can at least say that the conviction was dismissed, because it was.

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2018, many employers will no longer be able to ask about convictions on a job application. But there’s more to it than that, as we explain here.]

Most employers aren’t even supposed to ask about convictions that have been dismissed, and they’re not supposed to rely on them in their decision-making. The exceptions include public employers like law-enforcement agencies.

Most licensing boards, on the other hand, can ask about them, and you should answer by disclosing both the conviction and the dismissal. They’re not supposed to deny a license basely solely on a conviction that has been expunged or dismissed.

You’re eligible to expunge a felony or misdemeanor if you were sentenced to probation or the county jail. If you successfully completed probation or had it terminated early then you are entitled to the dismissal. If you didn’t then you can still win if you can persuade the court of your rehabilitation. If you went to county jail on a felony then you’re eligible one or two years after the end of your sentence; it depends on whether you served a split sentence that included post-release supervision (one year) or a full sentence in jail (two years). Or, if you didn’t get probation on a misdemeanor then you’re eligible if it’s been over a year since you were sentenced, and you’ve completed that sentence and otherwise done well.

You’re not eligible if you were sentenced to state prison, unless you would go to county jail for the same offense today or the court suspended the execution of your prison sentence and put you on probation instead. You’re also not eligible for certain sex offenses involving minors, including child pornography or statutory rape if you were 21 or older and the minor was younger than sixteen.

So how do you do it? Here’s a guide from the official website of the California courts that can help you do it yourself. But you should check your own county’s rules and forms, too. Here’s the link for Orange County, for example. Or, if you can afford it, get a lawyer. He or she will navigate the process for you and help you put your best foot forward. Plus, you may not ever have to go to court yourself.

The CURES For What Ails You

Speaking of prescription drugs, almost every state now has a prescription-drug monitoring program (or PDMP). The goal is to curb prescription-drug abuse by discouraging pill-pushing and doctor-shopping. So whether you’re a patient or provider, you should pay attention because law enforcement and licensing boards are watching.

In California, for example, the program is called CURES: the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System. By law, pharmacies must report to CURES every prescription for a Schedule II, III, or IV drug within seven days of dispensing it. And pretty soon, under a law passed last year, doctors will be required to check CURES before prescribing such drugs to a patient for the first time and every four months after that during treatment.

Last week, the California Supreme Court ruled that the California Medical Board could freely access CURES at any time. It didn’t need to get a warrant or show good cause beforehand. The doctor who was being investigated argued that this violated the privacy of his patients. But the Court held that, on balance, the Board’s access was justified by the need to protect the public from drug abuse and protect patients from impaired or negligent doctors.

Even if your state’s law is different, remember that federal law remains supreme. Last month, a federal court decided a case in which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) subpoenaed data from Oregon’s PDMP. Unlike California’s program, Oregon required all agencies—even federal ones—to get a court order before it would respond to a subpoena. It sued to compel the DEA to comply with its law, but it lost. Federal law authorizes the DEA to issue subpoenas on its own, so Oregon couldn’t force it to follow state law.

Feds Arrest Hundreds in Healthcare Raids

Last week, the federal government conducted nationwide raids of healthcare providers and facilities based on $1.3 billion in allegedly false billings.

In one day, the feds arrested 412 people in a coordinated takedown that netted 115 doctors, nurses, and other licensed professionals. The government also brought legal action to exclude 295 providers—including doctors, nurses, and pharmacists—from further participating in federal healthcare programs.

The government says the defendants schemed to defraud Medicare, Medicaid, and Tricare, which is the health-insurance program for veterans, servicemembers, and their families. It alleges that defendants billed for prescription drugs and other treatments or services that were medically unnecessary or never even provided.

The raids were spearheaded by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Here’s DOJ’s press release about it, and here’s a factsheet by HHS that tallies up the numbers. The raids were concentrated in Florida, Texas, Michigan, California, Illinois, New York, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But they also captured targets in over two dozen other states across the country.

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