In Universal Health Services Inc. v. U.S. et al. ex rel. Escobar et al., case number 15-7, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the viability and scope of the “implied certification” theory of liability under the False Claims Act. That theory has been upheld in various circuits, resulting in FCA liability and penalties, including treble damages, for government contractors’ reimbursement claims where the contractor has failed to comply with a statute, regulation, or contractual provision that does not state that it is a condition of payment. For the healthcare industry, whose participants are generally subject to a gauntlet of federal and state regulations, statutory requirements, and contractual provisions, the significance of the implied certification theory of FCA liability is obvious.
The FCA imposes liability on any person who “knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” See 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(A)-(G). “Knowingly” requires actual knowledge of false information, deliberate ignorance of the truth or falsity of information, or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of information.” Id. § 3729(b)(1)(A)(i)-(iii). The FCA imposes a mandatory civil penalty of between $5,500 and $11,000 for each violation of the Act, as well as treble damages. 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1); 28 C.F.R. § 85.3(a)(9).
Under the implied certification theory, a defendant may be held liable under the FCA where it knowingly violates a statute, regulation, or contractual provision, even if that provision has nothing to do with payment. In Universal Health, for example, the Petitioner, a mental health facility, was held liable under the FCA for failing to comply with Massachusetts regulations governing the scope of services and staffing requirements, including staff qualifications, certification, and supervision, at mental health facilities. Unlike other provisions in the Massachusetts regulations, these provisions did not condition reimbursement on their being complied with. The specific injury in Universal Health alleged by the Relators was that their daughter experienced an adverse reaction to a drug that was prescribed by a nurse who was not supervised in accordance with the Massachusetts regulations; namely, the requirement that she be supervised by a board certified psychiatrist. Among other things, the First Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Petitioner’s lack of understanding of the regulatory requirements regarding supervision was sufficient to constitute a “knowing” violation of the FCA.
The Supreme Court will decide whether the implied certification theory of liability is ever viable, and, if so, whether it can be applied to claims for payment where the alleged falsity resulted from failing to comply with a regulatory, statutory or contractual provision that is not explicitly a condition of payment by the government.
The facts in Universal Health are not uncommon in the healthcare industry. Indeed, among other amici, the American Hospital Association, Federation of American Hospitals and Association of American Medical Colleges have jointly filed an amicus brief in support of Petitioner.