In a decision released yesterday in U.S. ex rel. Bogina v. Medline Industries, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) complaint, holding that the complaint’s allegations had been publicly disclosed in a prior, settled lawsuit and the relator was not an original source. The opinion, authored by Judge Richard Posner, described FCA relators as “bounty hunters” and observed that the FCA imposes obstacles on parasitic bounty-hunting relators who seek to “be handsomely compensated if the[ir] suit succeeds.” Among those obstacles is the FCA’s public disclosure bar, which Judge Posner’s opinion ensures has sharp teeth in the Seventh Circuit.

First, the court held that the 2010 amendments to the original source exception the public disclosure bar, requiring a relator to “materially add” to publicly disclosed allegations in order to surmount the bar, could be applied retroactively because the amendments merely clarified the prior version of the exception. Accordingly, parties litigating in courts within the Seventh Circuit can expect that the current version of the public disclosure bar’s original source requirement will apply, regardless of when the relator acquired his or her knowledge.

Second, the court rejected the argument of the relator, August Bogina, that he had materially added to the allegations made by a prior relator, Sean Mason, in a prior FCA case that the government had settled. Both suits alleged that defendant Medline had made kickbacks to induce purchases of medical equipment. Bogina’s subsequent suit before the Seventh Circuit added a defendant (the Tutera Group, a nursing home chain that allegedly accepted kickbacks) that had not been mentioned in Mason’s prior, settled suit. Bogina also argued that the release provided by the government in the prior suit only concerned false claims submitted to Medicare Part A and Medicaid, but not to other government healthcare programs such as Medicare Part B and Tricare. The Seventh Circuit held that these differences were “unimpressive” from an original source standpoint, observing:

The government was thus on notice of the possibility of a broader bribe-kickback scheme before Bogina sued. Had it wanted to broaden the case against Medline beyond the Mason settlement, it could have gone after, among other Medline customers, nursing home companies such as the Tutera Group that received (if Bogina is correct) Medline kickbacks. …. Moreover, a settlement is a compromise; and it is notable that among the claims the government released as part of the Mason settlement were some of the very claims alleged in Bogina’s complaint.

The Seventh Circuit’s focus on the extent to which the prior suit put the government on notice of the alleged fraud is of crucial importance for defendants faced with copycat claims based on allegations that are similar to allegations they previously settled. Adding defendants or payors not involved in the prior suit is not a material addition sufficient to survive the public disclosure bar, where the prior suit put the government on notice of the allegations. Future defendants should thus focus their public disclosure and original source arguments on the concept of government notice; under the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit, the overlap between the two suits need not be even close to identical.

The Seventh Circuit also rejected Bogina’s assertion that his allegation that the fraud was continuing to the present (versus through 2009 as alleged in the prior suit) was sufficient to give him original source status, because Bogina made such allegation merely on “information and belief.”  Such allegations do not satisfy Rule 9(b), and the court observed that “a public accusation of fraud can do great damage to a firm before the firm is exonerated in litigation.”

The moral of the story is that relators seeking to establish original source status in the Seventh Circuit must truly be original.