SCOTUS discusses statute-of-limitations question in False Claims Act cases

The Supreme Court engaged in oral argument this week over an issue of the False Claims Act: how two separate statute-of-limitations provisions apply to False Claims Act actions when the federal government has not intervened in the relator’s qui tam suit.

Cochise Consultancy Inc. v. United States, ex rel. Hunt stems from a more recent period of U.S. military history — the deployment of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whistleblower Billy Joe Hunt alleges that Cochise Consultancy and another defense contractor defrauded the federal government in a contract to clean up munitions left behind by Iraqi forces.

The law’s original statute of limitations requires lawsuits to be filed within six years of the alleged fraud. In 1986, Congress added a second statute of limitations, Section 3731(b)(2), which permits suits up to three years after “the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances” learns the “facts material to the right of action,” but not more than 10 years after the alleged fraud. Both statutes of limitations apply to a “civil action under section 3730,” and “whichever occurs last” controls the case.

Hunt’s FCA suit was filed in 2013, more than six years after the alleged fraud, which occurred in 2006 and 2007. Hunt argues that his case qualifies for Section 3731(b)(2)’s alternative statute of limitations because he filed suit less than three years after the relevant “official of the United States” learned of the alleged fraud in 2010. The defendants argue that a relator only receives the benefit of the “three year” rule if the Government intervenes.

If the federal government had intervened in Hunt’s suit, the alternative statute of limitations plainly would have applied. But the government did not intervene. The district court dismissed the suit as untimely, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed, taking a position different from conflicting views in several other circuits. The 11th Circuit held that relators can invoke Section 3731(b)(2) in suits in which the United States is not a party and that Section 3731(b)(2)’s three-year limitations period does not begin until the government learns of the alleged fraud, regardless of when the relator discovers it.

The Supreme Court will now deliberate and issue a written opinion (hopefully) settling this question once and for all.