The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action filed an amicus brief on June 22 urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a decision out of the 3rd Circuit involving qui tam pleading standards for the False Claims Act (FCA). The standard set by the 3rd Circuit is the most lenient of those adopted and would require the pleading party to show nothing more than an opportunity for fraud by a business. Such a standard would lead to increased litigation and abuse of the FCA harming businesses, their employees, their owners, shareholders, the public at large and even the government.
In the underlying case, Customs Fraud Investigations, LLC (CFI) filed a reverse false claim against Victaulic Co. as a qui tam relator. A reverse false claim occurs when a party creates false records or statements to avoid payment obligations to the government, and a qui tam relator is a private person bringing FCA actions on behalf of the government with the potential benefit of a monetary award. Pleading standards for a qui tam relator’s complaint are governed by Rule 9(b), which requires a party pleading fraud to “state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud. . . ” However, in this case, the 3rd Circuit established an overly lenient pleading standard that effectively eliminates Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement and allowed CFI’s fraud claims, largely based on reviews of eBay image postings, to proceed. By setting a standard that requires relators show nothing more than the opportunity for fraud, the 3rd Circuit allows Victaulic to be subject to an unfounded lawsuit and opens other businesses up to the same potential harms.
The National Association of Manufacturers argued that resolving the circuit split and establishing a strict, consistent pleading standard would ensure appropriate application of Rule 9(b) and prevent speculation and forum shopping by outsider relators—relators with no insider knowledge of the company. Strict enforcement of Rule 9(b) ensures that outsider relators will not use the system to their advantage in pleading speculation, not facts, and helping themselves to discovery that is costly to businesses, the judiciary and the government.
The 3rd Circuit reasoned in its opinion that concerns regarding discovery could be mitigated through “controlled discovery” in which the courts use tools and discretion to curb discovery abuse; however, these tools cannot take the place of Rule 9(b) requirements. Controlled discovery can still be burdensome, and utilization of controlled discovery in place of dismissal principally violates pleading requirements in general. Furthermore, in qui tam cases, before a court decides on a Rule 9(b) issue, the government has already conducted its own statutorily-mandated investigation of the complaint using “discovery tools” to decide whether to intervene in the action. In cases where the government has declined to intervene following the conclusion of its own investigation of a business, the court should consider it inappropriate to apply the relaxed Rule 9(b) standard.
The courts are expected to act as gatekeepers preventing non-particularized and meritless claims from proceeding; unfortunately, the courts cannot effectively fulfill this role under toothless standards like that established by the 3rd Circuit. The Supreme Court should end the confusion within the circuit courts and decide the appropriate Rule 9(b) standard as applied to the FCA.