When a relator files a False Claims Act case, it engages two branches of the government: the federal judiciary, i.e., the district court in which the case is filed, and the executive departments and agencies that work on the case for the government. This includes the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI, and Offices of the Inspector General (OIG) for various agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DOD).
These offices generally rely on funding from the federal government as part of the omnibus spending bills passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.
But if Congress and the president cannot reach an agreement on a spending bill, then the federal government shuts down.
For those seeking counsel from Atlanta whistleblower attorneys, this is understandably frustrating. This is how a government shutdown affects your False Claims Act case.
Government Shutdowns Hit the Brakes on False Claims Act Investigations
Sealed False Claims Act investigations are in limbo until funding is restored, with long-lasting and potentially devastating effects. In fact, the government attorneys and investigators assigned to qui tam cases are often prohibited from working, even voluntarily and without pay.
Therefore, the majority of sealed investigations grind to a halt until an appropriation bill funds the office again.
The federal courts do continue to operate, albeit on a skeleton crew. This is because they have additional sources of funding, such as filing fees and court costs, that allow them a grace period to remain open while the funding issues are resolved. In years past, this has been sufficient, even through the longest shutdowns.
Some courts recognize the strain the federal government is under during these periods, so they take preemptive measures to address this situation. For example, during previous shutdowns, some courts issued orders staying all civil cases in which the United States was a party. That means that whether our cases are sealed or unsealed, intervened or declined, the cases are temporarily frozen.
Government Shutdowns Have Long-Term Impact on US Attorneys
Other courts are less forgiving. Although the courts recognize that the government may not be able to work on the cases, that does not necessarily excuse them from meeting court-ordered deadlines. During past shutdowns, some courts have required the government to meet these deadlines regardless of staffing.
Unfortunately, this has led to the government declining to intervene in promising cases because there was nobody able to work on them.
Moreover, nothing prevents new cases from being filed during the shutdown. And in some U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the civil division attorneys are responsible for not just qui tams and other affirmative civil enforcement actions, but also other types of cases including bankrupt debtors, immigration appeals, and defending the United States from lawsuits.
Thus, not only do the assistant U.S. attorneys fall behind on their False Claims Act cases, but they fall behind on their entire workload.
So even once funding is restored, an impact will be felt. While existing cases and investigations are put on hold, bad guys continue to commit fraud, whistleblowers continue to step forward, and qui tam attorneys continue to prepare and file cases.
Most U.S. Attorney’s offices are already overworked and understaffed; “lack of resources” is one of the leading causes of decline. And so when they return to work and find brand-new complaints on their desks, they may have to triage their cases, potentially limiting investigations and moving more quickly to decline to intervene in cases.
And in general, investigations across the board will undoubtedly slow down until the office has had a chance to catch back up.
Avoid Disastrous Shutdown Delays, Rely on Experienced Counsel
When legislators disagree, there are real consequences for everyday people. Our clients always want to know, “How will this government shutdown affect my False Claims Act case?” These shutdowns exemplify the importance of experienced government fraud attorneys who can keep the investigation moving forward even when the government cannot.
First, if your case has merit and was brought by competent counsel, it will remain high on their list.
Second, your qui tam counsel can continue to work cases in the absence of the government, particularly those in active litigation or with extensive document review projects. They can then assist the government attorneys while they catch up.
And third, the state governments are not affected by the shutdown. Therefore, states with False Claims Acts of their own and MFCU (Medicaid Fraud Control Unit) offices will continue to work those cases.
Both the federal and state government attorneys are more likely to accept the assistance of the relator’s counsel with good reputations. Government shutdowns affect False Claims Act cases, but they don’t have to completely derail them. Bracker & Marcus LLC has the right experience and routinely helps the government conduct its sealed investigations. Call us today at 770-988-5035 for more information.