Relator counsel are continuing to find creative applications for the False Claims Act and to expand its reach. A recent Note by University of Texas law student Ralph C. Mayrell, Blowing the Whistle on Civil Rights: Analysing the False Claims Act as an Alternative Enforcement Method for Civil Rights Laws, 91 Tex. L. Rev. 449 (2012), advocates the use of the False Claims Act (FCA) to enhance the enforcement of antidiscrimination laws against local governments. In this thoughtful Note, the author asserts that the "FCA provides civil rights litigators with another avenue for enforcing antidiscrimination laws," and he sets out to "explain the legal theory through which civil rights litigators can effectively litigate claims against local government discriminators using the FCA." The author explains that civil rights laws frequently limit damages from local governments and require that a litigant be injured by a discriminatory practice in order to obtain standing. The FCA, he notes, is not hampered by such limitations.
It should come as no surprise that the article advocates basing FCA liability against local governments on the certifications of compliance with antidiscrimination laws that are commonly found in federal grants to local governments. As a concrete example, the Note focuses on "Community Oriented Policing Services" (COPS) grants that are given by the U.S. Department of Justice to local governments for the hiring of police officers and the creation of crime prevention programs. As is common with most federal grants, the COPS grants require that the grantee will not deny benefits or employment or discriminate against any person based on "race, color, religion, national original, gender, disability, or age" and make compliance with this condition a basis for termination of the grant or suspending funding. The grantee's failure to adhere to these conditions serves as the basis for the false claim, i.e., the relator alleges that the grantee defrauded the federal government of grant funds when it falsely certified that it was in compliance with the grant's antidiscrimination provision.
The Note observes that in a "few limited situations, litigators have attempted to use the FCA, with varying degress of success" to enforce civil rights and antidiscrimination laws. The largest settlement to date appears to be a $52 million Fair Housing Act case against a local municipality, but that appears to be the high point thus far in these cases. Still, the author argues that "FCA liability based on violations of antidiscrimination laws gives another tool to litigators both for individually injured plaintiffs as well as groups interested in institutional-change litigation."
Overall, the Note rightfully points out that the FCA may be employed in the fight against discrimination by local governments. At the same time, it also illustates the common complaint by the defense bar that the FCA is becoming an heavy handed enforcement mechanism for compelling compliance with governmental regulations.
A. Brian Albritton
January 3, 2013