Last week, in United States ex rel. Wildhirt v. AARS Forever, Inc., No. 09-C-1215, 2013 WL 5304092 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 19, 2013), a federal district court in Illinois issued an important decision that helps to clarify the rights of employers to bring counterclaims against employees who misappropriate confidential company information and later use that information as the basis of an FCA suit.

The Defendants, two business affiliates, were parties to contracts with the Veterans Administration (“VA”) to provide home health care services and equipment to patients with respiratory illnesses. Two former employees filed a qui tam action against Defendants, alleging, inter alia, that Defendants breached performance requirements under their VA contracts and, thereby, submitted false claims to the VA’s Medicare and Medicaid programs. Litigation on those FCA claims remains pending.

In the meantime, Defendants asserted counterclaims against the Relators. As Defendants’ employees, Relators signed a confidentiality agreement, in which they agreed not to disclose confidential company information to third parties and to indemnify Defendants for any losses arising from their unauthorized disclosures. Id. at *1-*2. Separately, Relators periodically signed internal-reporting agreements, in which they declared that they were responsible to report any “suspect business practices” to Defendants and were “unaware” of any such practices. Id. *3.

In their counterclaims, Defendants alleged that Relators breached the confidentiality agreement by disclosing confidential company information to the VA and the public, and breached the internal-reporting agreements by failing to report the alleged “suspect business practices” that formed the basis of their FCA complaint. Id. at *3-*4. Defendants sought indemnification for damages suffered as a result of Relators’ disclosures, including legal expenses. Id. at *4.

Relators moved to dismiss the counterclaims, arguing that the confidentiality agreement was contrary to public policy, and therefore unenforceable, because it sought to “thwart” important policy interests in the “detection and exposure of potential fraud against the United States.” Id. at *5. The court (Judge Feinerman) refused to dismiss the counterclaims outright on that basis. Joining the conclusion of another district court, the court held that “‘an FCA defendant found liable of FCA violations may not pursue a counterclaim” that has “the equivalent effect of contribution or indemnification.’” Id. at *5 (quoting United States ex rel. Miller v. Bill Harbert Int’l Constr., Inc., 505 F. Supp. 2d 20, 26 (D.D.C. 2007)). But an FCA defendant may pursue counterclaims against the qui tam relator that are “not dependent on a finding that the [FCA] defendant is liable.’” Id.

Applying this rule, the court dismissed Defendants’ counterclaims to the extent they sought indemnification for damages or penalties that may be imposed on them in the FCA suit. Id. But the court held that the counterclaims were otherwise “independent of the FCA claim.” Id. at *6. The court noted the “extremely broad scope of the documents that Relators are alleged to have retained and disclosed,” and ruled that Defendants could pursue counterclaims against Relators for violating the confidentiality agreement to the extent Relators’ “retentions and disclosures went beyond the scope of those necessary to pursue their qui tam suit.” Id. In addition, the court held that Defendants could recover legal expenses from Relators if Defendants prevail on the merits of the FCA suit and persuade the court that Relators’ FCA claims were “frivolously pursued given [Relators’] alleged lack of relevant knowledge of the VA contracts and Defendants’ performance thereunder.” Id. Finally, the court held that Defendants could pursue counterclaims for breach of the internal-reporting agreements if Defendants prevail in the FCA suit and demonstrate a “causal relationship between Relators’ failure to report and their filing of the qui tam action.” Id. at *7.

As this decision demonstrates, employers in highly-regulated industries, in which FCA exposure is an ever-present risk, can obtain at least some protection by requiring employees to sign confidentiality and internal-reporting agreements. At a minimum, these agreements serve as valuable elements of any effective FCA compliance program by emphasizing to employees the importance of properly handling confidential information and promptly reporting potentially unlawful conduct to superiors. In addition, such agreements can serve as a valuable tool in qui tam litigation initiated by former employees and, specifically, may provide a basis for a counterclaim against the relator. Although such agreements cannot insulate employers from liability for actual FCA violations, they can protect against frivolous qui tam suits and unauthorized disclosures of confidential information that are not reasonably necessary to inform the government of potential fraud.