Monday, July 6, 2015

Violation of Government Contract Does Not Give Rise to False Claim Where Government Knows of Violation and Continues to Pay Claims

Dear Readers:

I commend to you the recent False Claims Act case of U.S. ex rel Thomas v. Black and Veatch Special Projects Corp., 2015 WL 3570661 (D. Kan. June 5, 2015). The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, a government contractor, who contracted with the United States Agency for International Development ("USAID") to provide services and support for power projects in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In a common sense ruling, the Court found that defendant did not falsely certify its compliance with the provisions of the USAID contract because USAID continued to make numerous contract payments to the defendant even after it both learned of the defendant's failure to comply with one of the contract's provisions and was served with a copy of the qui tam complaint together with relators' disclosure of material evidence.

The USAID contract provided for defendant to submit invoices every two weeks to the USAID, which in turn, reviewed and evaluated whether the work was satisfactory, and if it was, authorized periodic payments to the defendant. All work remained subject to USAID's final inspection and acceptance, and the USAID contracting officer was permitted to reduce or suspend payments if he found substantial evidence that the defendant failed to comply with any material requirement of the contract.

Among its many provisions, the USAID contract required the defendant to comply with Afghan law and to obtain work visas and permits for all foreign citizens working for the defendant on the contract in Afghanistan. The relators, employees of the defendant, discovered that forged documents had been submitted to the Afghan government on behalf of seven of the defendant's employees, and they informed the USAID of their discovery. Subsequently, the defendant conducted its own internal investigation and confirmed to USAID that forged educational documents had been provided on behalf of seven employees to the Afghan government in order to obtain work permits for them.  

In their qui tam complaint, Relators alleged that the defendant submitted legally false claims for payment to USAID by impliedly certifying its compliance with Afghan law in its periodic requests for contract payment. Relators cited to a Federal Acquisition Regulation that required defendant and its personnel to comply with all applicable United States and host country laws. Relators asserted that because defendant fraudulently obtained permits and visas in violation of Afghan law, it failed to comply with a contractual prerequisite of payment and as a result falsely certified its compliance with the contract.  

Granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the Court found that the realtors had not provided any facts to show that "USAID may have reduced or refused payments" based on alleged false documents and the violation of Afghan law.  The Court found that compliance with Afghan law "was not material to the government's decision to pay defendant's invoices" because "USAID . . . continued to pay defendant, even though it knew about these allegations and even though . . . it could not determine whether defendant had filed the forged documents."

Remarkably, the Court noted further the government continued to pay the contract even after the relators filed their qui tam suit:  
USAID's conduct after relators filed suit also demonstrates that compliance with Afghan law did not matter to the government's payment decision. Relators commenced this action and provided a copy of the Complaint and a statement of all material facts to the government on August 23, 2011. . . .  . Since then, defendant had submitted at least forty-seven invoices for USAID payment. USAID never demanded that defendant refund any amount paid. Nor has it reduced or withheld payment of any invoice submitted after realtors filed suit. Instead, USAID has accepted and paid for all deliverable components completed by defendant under the contact. . . . . USAID's conduct after relators filed this action demonstrates that defendant's compliance with Afghan work permit and visa requirements did not matter to the government's payment decision. 2015 WL  3570661 *13 (citations omitted).
In short, the Court found that the defendant's compliance with Afghan law provision must not be material to the contract's conditions of payment because USAID continued to make payments on its contract even though it was aware of relators' qui tam suit and the defendant's contractual violation. 

The case illustrates two of the maddening aspects of qui tam litigation. First, the government should have dismissed this case when it was filed on the basis that the agency did not believe the defendant's had violated a material provision of the contract.  Instead, as the government so often does, the relator filed a qui tam suit alleging that the defendant violated some government contractual provision or regulation, the government declined to intervene and of course said nothing and the relator prosecuted the matter in the name of the government --all the while as the government agency in question continued to do business with the defendant in the same manner that is alleged to be a FCA violation in the suit.  Almost assuredly, the U.S. Attorney's Office would have inquired of USAID when relators filed their suit and they should have learned then that USAID did not find the contract violation to be material.  Yet, the government permitted the qui tam to proceed even though the government later permitted the defendant to obtain  statements from the USAID contracting representatives who confirmed that they knew "about the defendant's conduct" but continued to direct that USAID pay defendant's invoices.  

Second, the case offers some hope to defendants who are accused by realtors --but not the government-- of violating some obscure or ambiguous regulation or contractual provision. This case permits the defendant to use the government's knowledge of the alleged violation and its continued payment of claims to show that the so called violation must not be material if the government does nothing in the face of these allegations and continues to pay claims.

Defendant's counsel Kathleen Fisher, Nathan F. Garrett, and Todd P. Graves, (the former U.S. Attorney for Kansas City, Missouri) of the Graves Garrett firm should be commended for their excellent work in securing this decision by the Court.

A. Brian Albritton

July 5, 2015

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