This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision for government contractors and the whistleblowers who sue them under the federal False Claims Act.
The bottom line may be this: contractors must abide by a myriad of rules, regulations, and contractual provisions in doing business with the government, but if they don’t, not ever misstep, only the material ones, can give rise to liability for fraud.
The case began with the tragic death of a teenage girl.
For five years, the girl had received counseling services at a clinic owned by a Medicaid contractor. When she was seventeen, she died from a bad reaction to a drug that she was prescribed there after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Afterward, her parents learned that only one of the five employees who treated her was properly licensed. The employee who prescribed the drug had claimed to be a psychiatrist but, in fact, was a nurse who lacked the authority to prescribe without supervision. The employee who diagnosed her had claimed to be a psychologist but, in fact, had graduated from an unaccredited online school and been denied a license.
Those employees weren’t the only ones, either. Some 23 employees at the clinic weren’t licensed to provide mental-health services but did it anyway, counseling patients and prescribing drugs in violation of Medicaid’s regulations. The clinic’s director knew about it and helped misrepresent their qualifications.
Thereafter, the girl’s parents filed a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act. They alleged that the contractor had defrauded Medicaid by billing for services that its employees were not licensed or qualified to render and by not disclosing that fact. First, the trial court dismissed the case on the ground that, even if the contractor had violated Medicaid’s rules, its violations didn’t make its bills false because those rules were not an express condition of payment. Then, the court of appeals reversed, holding that such rules were implied conditions of payment even if they weren’t expressly identified as such.
By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, the issue had boiled down to whether the parents could sue under a theory of implied false certification. Under this theory, when the contractor submitted its bills, it impliedly certified that it had complied with all conditions of payment. Therefore, since it knowingly failed to disclose its regulatory violations, its bills were false, and they triggered liability under the False Claims Act.
So did the Court endorse this implied-certification theory?
Yes and no.
The Court held that liability depends on whether a defendant’s misrepresentation about its compliance was material to the government’s payment decision. In other words, the question is whether the government would have paid the bill if it knew of the defendant’s noncompliance. In this case, the contractor had used billing codes that corresponded to specific job titles when it knew that its staff didn’t measure up, so the Court sent the case back down for the lower courts to decide whether that misrepresentation was material.
The Court also held that liability doesn’t depend on whether the government calls something a condition of payment. That may be relevant, but it’s not conclusive. The question remains whether the condition was material to the government’s payment decision. Otherwise, the government might label every applicable rule or regulation an express condition of payment, and there are just too many of them for that.
To illustrate the difference, the Court used two examples. First, suppose the government orders guns but doesn’t specify that they actually be able to shoot. Obviously, that would be a material condition whether or not the government spelled it out. Second, suppose the government contracts for health services but expressly requires providers to use American-made staplers for the paperwork. That likely wouldn’t be a material condition, especially if the government routinely paid out on claims knowing that foreign staplers were used.