Earlier this summer, Ethan P. Davis, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) delivered remarks addressing DOJ’s top priorities for enforcement actions related to COVID-19 and indicating that DOJ plans to “vigorously pursue fraud and other illegal activity.”[1] As discussed below, Davis’s remarks not only highlighted principles that will guide enforcement efforts of the Civil Fraud Section under the False Claims Act (FCA) and of the Consumer Protection Branch (CPB) under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), they also provide an indication of how DOJ might approach enforcement over the next few years.

DOJ’S KEY CONSIDERATIONS & ENFORCEMENT STRATEGY FOR COVID-19

Davis highlighted two key principles that would drive DOJ’s COVID-related enforcement efforts: the energetic use of “every enforcement tool available to prevent wrongdoers from exploiting the COVID-19 crisis” and a respect of the private sector’s critical role in ending the pandemic and restarting the economy.[2] Under that framework, DOJ plans to pursue fraud and other illegal activity under the FCA, which Davis characterizes as “one of the most effective weapons in [DOJ’s] arsenal.”[3]

However, as DOJ pursues FCA cases, it will also seek to affirmatively dismiss qui tam claims that  DOJ finds meritless or that interfere with agency policy and programs.[4] DOJ also plans to collect certain information from qui tam relators regarding third-party litigation funders during relator interviews.[5] DOJ’s emphasis on qui tam cases—cases brought under the FCA by relators or whistleblowers—for COVID-related enforcement highlights the impact such matters have on DOJ’s enforcement agenda.[6]

  1. DOJ will consider dismissing cases that involve regulatory overreach and are not otherwise in the interest of the United States.

Although Davis emphasized that the majority of qui tam cases would be allowed to proceed, in order to “weed out” cases that lack merit or that DOJ believes should not proceed, DOJ will consider dismissing cases that “involve regulatory overreach or are otherwise not in the interest of the United States.”[7] This is consistent with the principles reflected in the 2018 Granston Memo that instructed DOJ attorneys to consider “whether the government’s interests are served” when considering whether cases should proceed and listed considerations for seeking alternative grounds for dismissal of FCA cases.[8] Davis gave examples throughout his speech of actions DOJ might consider dismissing:

  • Cases based on immaterial or inadvertent mistakes, such as technical mistakes with paperwork
  • Cases based on honest misunderstandings of rules, terms, and conditions
  • Cases based on alleged deviations from non-binding guidance documents
  • Cases against entities that reasonably attempted to comply with guidance and “in good faith took advantage of the regulatory flexibilities granted by federal agencies in the time of crisis.”[9]

DOJ litigators have been advised to inform relators of the possibility of dismissal.[10] Additionally, qui tam suits based on behaviors temporarily permitted during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in circumstances in which agencies exercised discretion to waive or not enforce certain requirements, might
“fail as a matter of law for lack of materiality and knowledge.”[11]

  1. DOJ will now include a series of questions during relator interviews to identify third-party litigation funders.

During each relator interview, DOJ has instructed line attorneys to ask a series of questions to identify whether the relator or their counsel has a third-party litigation funding agreement,[12] which is an agreement in which a third party—such as a commercial lender or a hedge fund—finances the cost of litigation in return for a portion of recoveries.[13] Under the new policy detailed in Davis’s speech, if a third-party funder is disclosed, DOJ will ask for the following:

  • the identity of the third-party litigation funder,
  • information regarding whether information of the allegations has been shared with the third party,
  • whether the relator or their counsel has a written agreement with the third party, and
  • whether the agreement between the relator or their counsel and the third party includes terms that entitles the third-party funder to exercise direct or indirect control over the relator’s litigation or settlement decisions.

Relators must inform DOJ of changes as the case proceeds through the course of litigation.[14] While Davis characterizes these changes as a “purely information-gathering exercise for the purpose of studying the issues,” the questions are in furtherance of DOJ’s ongoing efforts to uncover the potential negative impacts third-party litigation financing may have in qui tam actions. [15] The questions Davis referenced in his remarks reflect DOJ’s concerns with third-party litigation funding as expressed by Deputy Associate Attorney General Stephen Cox in a January 2020 speech.[16] Davis emphasized that DOJ particularly sought to evaluate the extent to which third-party litigation funders were behind qui tam cases DOJ investigates, litigates, and monitors; the extent of information sharing with third-party funders; and the amount of control third-party funders exercised over the litigation and settlement decisions.[17] While the Litigation Funding Transparency Act of 2019 has remained inactive since its introduction in February 2019 by Senator Grassley[18] and the 2018 proposal by the U.S. Court’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights’ Multidistrict Litigation Subcommittee to require disclosure of third-party litigation funding remains under consideration,[19] DOJ’s plans to include this line of questioning potentially signals DOJ’s intention to take more concrete and significant steps to address third-party litigation funding in the future.


Continue Reading False Claims Act Enforcement During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

In an important win for healthcare providers, on July 17, 2020, the Third Circuit determined in a published opinion that an out-of-network provider’s direct claims against an insurer for breach of contract and promissory estoppel are not pre-empted by ERISA.  In Surgery Ctr., P.A. v. Aetna Life Ins. Co.[1] In an issue of first impression, the Third Circuit addressed the question of what remedies are available to an out-of-network provider when an insurer initially agrees to pay for the provision of out-of-network services, and then breaches that agreement.

This case arose because two patients—identified as J.L. and D.W.—required medical procedures that were not available in-network through Aetna. J.L. needed bilateral breast reconstruction surgery following a double mastectomy and D.W. required “facial reanimation surgery,” which the Third Circuit describes as “a niche procedure performed by only a handful of surgeons in the United States.” Neither J.L. nor DW had out-of-network coverage for these procedures. D.W.’s plan also contained an “anti-assignment” clause, which would have prevented D.W. from assigning his or her rights under the plan to the Plastic Surgery Center, P.A.
Continue Reading Third Circuit: Provider’s Out-of-Network Claims not Pre-empted by ERISA

The Supreme Court of New Jersey unanimously held in Linda Cowley v. Virtua Health System (A-47-18) (081891) that the “common knowledge” exception of the Affidavit of Merit Statute applies only when a simple negligence standard is at issue, and does not apply when a specific standard of care must be evaluated.  In this case involving if and how to reinsert a removed nasogastric tube, the Court reversed the judgement of the Appellate Division and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice because she failed to submit an affidavit of merit within the time required by the Affidavit of Merit Statute.

Enacted in 1995, the Affidavit of Merit Statute requires that plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases “provide each defendant with an affidavit of an appropriate licensed person that there exists a reasonable probability that the care, skill or knowledge exercised or exhibited in the treatment, practice or work that is the subject of the complaint, fell outside acceptable professional or occupational standards or treatment practices.” N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27. The statute’s primary purpose “to require plaintiffs in malpractice cases to make a threshold showing that their claim is meritorious, in order that meritless lawsuits readily [can] be identified at an early stage of litigation.” Cornblatt v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218, 242 (1998). Failure to provide an affidavit or its legal equivalent is “deemed a failure to state a cause of action,” N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-29, requiring dismissal with prejudice.

An exception to this rule is the judicially-created “common knowledge” exception which provides that an expert is not needed to demonstrate that a defendant professional breached some duty of care “where the carelessness of the defendant is readily apparent to anyone of average intelligence.” Rosenberg v. Cahill, 99 N.J. 318, 325 (1985). In those exceptional circumstances, the “jurors’ common knowledge as lay persons is sufficient to enable them, using ordinary understanding and experience, to determine a defendant’s negligence without the benefit of the specialized knowledge of experts.” Hubbard v.  Reed, 168 N.J. 387, 394 (2001). Thus, a plaintiff in a malpractice case is exempt, under the common knowledge exception, from compliance with the affidavit of merit requirement where it is apparent that “the issue of negligence is not related to technical matters peculiarly within the knowledge of [the licensed] practitioner[].” Sanzari v.  Rosenfeld, 34 N.J. 128, 142 (1961).


Continue Reading New Jersey Affidavit of Merit Statute Applied to Nursing Case Despite “Common Knowledge” Claim

On January 28, 2020, the Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) addressed a federal court’s January 23rd invalidation of certain provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) rule relating to the third-party requests for patient records. In Ciox Health, LLC v. Azar,[1] the court invalidated the 2013 Omnibus Rule’s mandate that all protected health information (“PHI”) maintained in any format (not just that in the electronic health record) by a covered entity be delivered to third parties at the request of an individual, as well as the 2016 limitation on fees that can be charged to third parties for copies of protected health information (“PHI”).

As enacted, HIPAA’s Privacy Rule limits what covered entities (or business associates acting on behalf of covered entities)[2] may charge an “individual” requesting a copy of their medical record to a “reasonable, cost-based fee”[3] (the “Patient Rate”). The Privacy Rule did not, however, place limitations on the fees that can be charged to other requestors of this information, such as other covered entities that need copies of the records for treatment purposes or for disclosures to attorneys or other third parties.  In order for some of these third parties to obtain the records, the patient would have to provide the covered entity with a valid HIPAA authorization.  
Continue Reading HHS Addresses Federal Court Invalidation of Certain Provisions of the HIPAA Rule Relating to the Third-Party Requests for Patient Records

GenomeDx Biosciences Corp., which markets a genomic test (Decipher®) intended to assess the aggressiveness of prostate cancer, has agreed to pay $1.99 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. §§ 3729 et seq.)(“FCA”) by submitting claims to Medicare for tests conducted to

The federal government continues to secure significant recoveries through settlements and court awards related to its enforcement of the False Claims Act (FCA), particularly resulting from actions brought by qui tam relators. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, the federal government reported that it recovered $2.5 billion from the health care industry. Of that $2.5 billion,

In 2008, Ambac v. Countrywide defendants Bank of America Corporation and Countrywide Financial Corporation merged into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bank of America.  In discovery, Bank of America withheld communications between Bank of America and Countrywide that occurred before the merger, on the basis that they were privileged attorney-client communications that were protected from disclosure

Stuart GersonThe U.S. Supreme Court has rendered a unanimous decision in the hotly-awaited False Claims Act case of Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar.  This case squarely presented the issue of whether liability may be based on the so-called “implied false certification” theory.  Universal Health Service’s (“UHS) problem originated when it was

In its recent decision in U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell,[1] the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Obama administration’s payment of cost-sharing subsidies for enrollees in plans offered through the Affordable Care Act’s Exchanges is unauthorized for lack of Congressional appropriation. The decision would affect future cost-sharing subsidies,

On December 14, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied the Texas Medical Board’s (“TMB”) motion to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit brought by Teladoc, one of the nation’s largest providers of telehealth services.[1]  Teladoc sued the TMB in April 2015, challenging a rule requiring a face-to-face visit before a