On July 7, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a federal subcontractor defendant facing False Claims Act (FCA) allegations. Notably, the Seventh Circuit rejected the district court’s original grounds for summary judgment, an “advice-of-accountant” defense, instead finding that applicable regulations and the trial record created ambiguity making it impossible to demonstrate the defendant’s knowing submission of false claims.

The relator’s FCA claims were premised on alleged violations of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that federal construction contractors pay their workers the “prevailing wage.” 40 U.S.C. § 3142(a). US Department of Labor regulations provide further specifics on base wage rates and fringe benefits (i.e., life, dental, vision and health insurance) for varied types of workers. The relator, a union comprised of workers who performed work for the defendant, alleged that its workers had not been paid the prevailing wage under Davis-Bacon due to the defendant’s deduction of $5.00 per hour from each employee to cover fringe benefits. These withholdings were deposited into a trust created by the defendant for its employee insurance benefits, and were withheld from employees whether or not they were eligible for fringe benefits. In the lawsuit, the defendant subcontractor was alleged to have submitted false Certified Payroll Reports to the government including statements attesting compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act, despite the $5.00/per hour withholding which allegedly resulted in payments to workers below the “prevailing wage.”

While upholding the grant of summary judgment for the defendant, the Seventh Circuit based its ruling on different grounds than the district court. The district court had ruled that the defendant’s reliance on the advice of its accountants with respect to withholdings negated any potential showing of knowing submission of false statements. The Seventh Circuit rejected this conclusion, finding that the defendant had failed to demonstrate the facts necessary to provide a basis for an “advice-of-accountant” defense, noting “[w]e do not know precisely what it told its accountants, whether they provided all necessary details, or what exactly the accountants recommended.”

Rather, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for defendant subcontractor on the basis of the “ambiguity” surrounding regulations regarding employer accounting of fringe benefit contributions and absence of evidence as to any withholding requirements contained in the contract. Walking through applicable DoL regulations, the Seventh Circuit found that it was unclear whether the withholdings made by the defendant necessarily violated the Davis-Bacon Act and, further, that the record was unclear as to whether the defendant was contractually obligated to make contributions to the fringe benefit trust for ineligible employees. The Court held, therefore, that it could not be inferred that the defendant “either knew or must have known that it was violating the Davis-Bacon Act.”

In short, the Seventh Circuit embraced the logical premise that contractors cannot reasonably be subjected to multiple damages and penalties under the FCA – which the Supreme Court has characterized as an essentially punitive statute – where the claim is based on alleged violation of an ambiguous statute or regulation.