SCOTUS Vacates First Circuit Ruling, Holds Scope of FCA Materiality Requirement is “Demanding”

On June 16, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion vacating a First Circuit ruling on the grounds that the appellate court’s interpretation of the False Claims Act’s (FCA) materiality requirement to include any statutory, regulatory, or contractual violation is overly broad. Universal Health Servs., Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar, No. 15-7 (U.S. June 16, 2016). In a unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court held that the implied false certification theory can be a basis for liability under the FCA when (i) the defendant submits a claim for payment to the government that makes specific representations about the goods or services provided; and (ii) the defendant’s failure to disclose noncompliance with material statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements make its representations misleading half-truths. However, the Court did not adopt the appellate court’s expansive interpretation of what constitutes a “false or fraudulent claim” under this theory, concluding:

A misrepresentation cannot be deemed material merely because the Government designates compliance with a particular statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirement as a condition of payment. Nor is it sufficient for a finding of materiality that the Government would have the option to decline to pay if it knew of the defendant’s noncompliance. Materiality, in addition, cannot be found where noncompliance is minor or insubstantial.

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Ninth Circuit: Discovery Rule Applies in FDCPA Actions

On June 8, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s complaint alleging that the debt collector defendants’ collection action against her violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), finding that the plaintiff’s complaint was filed within one year of the date on which she first learned of the collection action and was thus timely. Lyons v. Michael & Associates, No. 13-56657 (9th Cir. June 8, 2016). On December 7, 2011, the defendants filed a debt collection action against the plaintiff in Monterey, California, despite the fact that the plaintiff resided in San Diego at the time she incurred the debt. On January 3, 2013, the plaintiff initiated a separate action alleging that the defendants violated the FDCPA by bringing their collection action against her in the wrong judicial district. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint as time-barred, finding that it was filed more than one year after the defendants filed their collection action against plaintiff. The Ninth Circuit reversed, opining that the “discovery rule” applies in FDCPA actions and, therefore, the statute of limitations on the plaintiff’s FDCPA claim did not begin to run until the plaintiff “kn[ew] or ha[d] reason to know of the injury which is the basis of the action.” Because the plaintiff did not have knowledge of the defendants’ collection action until she was served with process—which was less than one year before she filed her action—her FDCPA complaint was timely.


Third Circuit Upholds District Court’s Ruling in its First Case Interpreting the Scope of SCRA Protections

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that protections pursuant to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) do not apply to a business owned by a servicemember. Davis v. City of Philadelphia, No. 15-2937 (3d Cir. May 4, 2016). In 2004, the servicemember plaintiff transferred his and his wife’s property to a Pennsylvania company that he and his wife owned. The plaintiff, having served in the military between 2008 and 2011, claimed that the property’s tax debt should have been reduced under the SCRA. The district court granted the City’s motion to dismiss, holding that because the plaintiff was not personally liable for his company’s debt, the City had not denied him relief under the SCRA.

The Third Circuit affirmed, finding that the plain language of the SCRA’s property tax interest rate cap and its protection against penalties extend only to “property…owned individually by a servicemember or jointly by a servicemember and a dependent or dependents.” 50 U.S.C. § 3991(e) (emphasis added). The SCRA defines “servicemember” as “a member of the uniformed services;” therefore, the court reasoned that property owned by a servicemember is a separate legal entity from the actual servicemember and is ineligible for the SCRA’s protections. The court held that the servicemember failed to prove that an interest in excess of six percent was assessed against him while on active duty or that he actually owned the property. Rather, because the company was the actual owner of the property and was solely liable for tax debt, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

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Special Alert: Second Circuit Reverses SDNY Judgment; Rules Fraud Claim Based on Contractual Promise Cannot Support FIRREA Violation Without Proof of Fraudulent Intent at the Time of Contract Execution

On May 23, in an opinion delivered by Circuit Judge Richard Wesley, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court for the Southern District of New York’s (SDNY) July 30, 2014 judgment ordering a bank and its lender subsidiary to pay penalties in excess of $1.2 billion for alleged violations of section 951 of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA), 12 U.S.C. § 1833a. U.S. v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., Nos. 15-469, 15-499 (2d Cir. May 23, 2016). In relevant part, FIRREA imposes civil penalties for violations of the federal mail and wire fraud statutes that affect a federally insured financial institution. The Government had alleged in the case that the lender subsidiary had defrauded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively, the GSEs), by originating mortgage loans through its High Speed Swim Lane (HSSL) loan origination process that it allegedly knew to be of poor quality, and subsequently selling those loans to the GSEs despite representations in the contracts between the GSEs and lender subsidiary that the loans were of investment quality. At trial, the Government presented evidence that high-level employees of the lender subsidiary “knew of the pre-existing contractual representations, knew that the loans originated through HSSL were not consistent with those representations, and nonetheless sold HSSL Loans to the GSEs pursuant to those contracts.” The defendants argued on appeal that, under common-law principles of fraud the Government’s trial evidence proved, at most, a series of intentional breaches of contract which did not suffice as a matter of law to establish fraud.

The Second Circuit agreed with defendants and reversed the judgment of the district court. The court held that:

a contractual promise can only support a claim for fraud upon proof of fraudulent intent not to perform the promise at the time of contract execution. Absent such proof, a subsequent breach of that promise—even where willful and intentional—cannot in itself transform the promise into a fraud.

Thus, the Second Circuit concluded that under common law principles, which were incorporated into the mail and wire fraud statutes, “the proper time for identifying fraudulent intent is contemporaneous with the making of the promise, not when a victim relies on the promise or is injured by it.” The Second Circuit further held that “where allegedly fraudulent misrepresentations are promises made in a contract, a party claiming fraud must prove fraudulent intent at the time of contract execution; evidence of a subsequent, willful breach cannot sustain the claim.”

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Supreme Court: Special Counsel Using State AG Letterhead Not in Violation of FDCPA

On May 16, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that special counsel using Ohio AG letterhead to collect debts owed to the state is false or misleading in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. §1692. Sheriff v. Gillie, No. 15-338 (U.S. May 16, 2016). In a unanimous 8-0 opinion delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court opined that its “conclusion is bolstered by the character of the relationship between special counsel and the [AG].” Specifically, the Court determined that, because special counsel acts on behalf of the AG to provide legal services to state clients, a “debtor’s impression that a letter from special counsel is a letter from the [AG’s] Office is scarcely inaccurate.” The Court further opined that, being required by the AG’s office to send debt collection communications, special counsel “create no false impression in doing just what they have been instructed to do.” The Court rejects the Sixth Circuit’s argument that consumers may have concern regarding the letters’ authenticity: “[t]o the extent that consumers may be concerned that the letters are a ‘scam,’ the solution is for special counsel to say more, not less, about their role as agents of the [AG]. Special counsel’s use of the [AG’s] letterhead, furthermore, encourages consumers to use official channels to ensure the legitimacy of the letters, assuaging the very concern the Sixth Circuit identified.” The Court concludes by emphasizing the AG’s authority, as the top law enforcement official, to take punitive action against consumers who owe debts, commenting that §1692e of the FDCPA prohibits collectors from deceiving or misleading consumers, but “it does not protect consumers from fearing the actual consequences of their debts.” Read more…