Whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act tolls the six-year statute of limitations for civil claims under the False Claims Act will soon be addressed by the Supreme Court. In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel Benjamin Carter, No. 12-1497 (July 1, 2014), the Court will have the opportunity to address several important questions about the application of the WSLA. Should it apply to civil claims or be limited to criminal actions? Does the tolling specified in the WSLA require a formal declaration of war? And does the WSLA apply to a qui tam claim in which the United States declines to intervene?
[Note: The case also asks the Court to address whether the FCA’s “first-to-file” bar applies to cases filed after the first case is dismissed. We’ll look at that question in another post.]
The case comes to the Supreme Court following the Fourth Circuit’s decision in U.S. ex rel Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013). In that case, the Fourth Circuit held that the WSLA tolled all civil actions—including civil FCA claims brought by qui tam relators—until the President or Congress declared a “termination of hostilities.” The Supreme Court accepted Halliburton’s petition for certiorari and will hear the case in 2015.
We believe the Fourth Circuit’s opinion represents a significant expansion of the WSLA. As Judge Agee points out in his dissenting opinion, a particularly troublesome aspect of the Fourth Circuit’s decision is its application of the WSLA to civil qui tam actions in which the United States has not intervened. The underlying purpose of the WSLA is to allow the law enforcement arm of the United States government to focus on its “duties, including the enforcement of the espionage, sabotage, and other laws’” in times of war. Id. (citing Bridges v. United States, 346 U.S. 209, 219 n. 18 (1953). In a qui tam action initiated by a private citizen, the rationale for tolling the limitations period is diminished.
Another issue in the case is how to determine when the war is over (and thus when WSLA tolling is concluded). Despite President Obama’s plans to end the war in Iraq and remove troops from Afghanistan, he has not formally proclaimed the termination of hostilities. An end to the war on terror is increasingly difficult to envision as the U.S. deploys troops to Iraq to train Iraqis against the ISIS militia and protect the U.S. embassy in Bagdad. Indefinite tolling until there is a formal end to this conflict could require contractors to defend against violations that occurred more than 10 years prior— in direct contravention of the FCA. 31 U.S.C. § 3731(b)(2) (prohibiting claims “more than 10 years after the date on which the violation is committed”).