10th Circuit: Compliance employees must show they went beyond established protocols to obtain FCA whistleblower retaliation protection
On April 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a former employee’s False Claims Act (FCA) whistleblower retaliation claims, holding that employees with compliance responsibilities bear the burden of showing that their alleged protected activities are not simply part of their job responsibilities. The case concerned a qui tam relator who alleged her former employer systemically violated the FCA when it knowingly and fraudulently billed the government for inadequately or improperly completed work, and then fired her in retaliation for trying to end the alleged fraud. According to the plaintiff—who was previously employed as a senior quality control analyst responsible for reviewing investigators’ work and documenting incomplete investigations—the company violated the FCA by: (i) “falsely certifying that it performed complete and accurate investigations”; (ii) “falsely certifying that it did proper case reviews and quality-control checks”; and (iii) “falsifying corrective action reports.” The district court, however, entered summary judgment for the company on all counts, determining that the plaintiff’s qui tam claims were “‘substantially the same’ as those that had been publically [sic] disclosed” in previous investigations and news reports, and dismissing her claims under the public disclosure bar. Her retaliation claim was dismissed after the district court determined that she had failed to properly plead that the company was on notice that she was engaging in protected activity.
On appeal, the 10th Circuit concluded that the district court erred in its legal determinations on the qui tam claims, vacated the order for summary judgment, and remanded those claims for further proceedings. However, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s whistleblower retaliation claim, stating that in order to establish FCA whistleblower liability, an employer must know that the employee’s actions were connected to a claimed FCA violation, and an employee “must overcome the presumption that her internal reports of fraud were part of her job.” The appellate court held that because the plaintiff’s allegations did not show that she went outside of established protocols or broke her chain of command, she failed to allege adequately that the company was on notice of her claimed FCA-protected activity.