On May 13, 2019, the Supreme Court decided Cochise Consultancy, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Hunt, No. 18-315, holding that the limitations period in 31 U.S.C. § 3731(b)(2) applies to False Claims Act (FCA) lawsuits in which the government declines to intervene, and the limitations period begins to run when the government official responsible for acting, and not the relator, knew or should have known the relevant facts.
The statute of limitations that governs FCA actions brought under 31 U.S.C. § 3730 provides that a civil action cannot be brought “(1) more than six years after the date on which the violation … is committed, or (2) more than three years after the date when facts material to the right of action are known or reasonably should have been known by the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances, but in no event more than 10 years after the date on which the violation is committed,” whichever occurs last. 31 U.S.C. § 3731(b).
Hunt alleged that two government defense contractors (collectively, “Cochise”) submitted false claims for payment in 2006 and 2007. In 2010, he revealed the alleged fraud to government investigators. A little less than three years later, he filed a qui tam action against Cochise. The United States declined to intervene in Hunt’s qui tam action.
Cochise moved to dismiss the lawsuit as barred by the statute of limitations. Hunt conceded that his suit wasn’t timely under the six-year limitation period of § 3731(b)(1), but he argued that he filed it within three years of his 2010 interview with federal agents, so it was timely under § 3731(b)(2). The district court dismissed Hunt’s action as untimely, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that the limitation period in § 3731(b) applies to qui tam suits in which the government does not intervene, and that Hunt’s action was timely because Hunt (the relator) was not “the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances,” so his knowledge did not trigger the three-year limitation period of § 3731(b)(2); only when Hunt revealed the alleged fraud to government officials in 2010 did the limitation period begin to run.
The Supreme Court affirmed. It first concluded that because both government-initiated suits under § 3730(a) and relator-initiated suit under § 3730(b) are “civil actions under section 3730” of the FCA, both of them are governed by the limitation period in § 3731(b) The Court rejected Cochise’s argument that the government must intervene in a relator-initiated suit to trigger § 3731(b).
The Supreme Court then held that the three-year limitation period of § 3731(b)(2) does not start to run when the relator knows of the relevant facts, it starts to run only when “the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances” knew or should have known of the material facts. In other words, the relator cannot be considered the same as “the official of the United States” under § 3731(b)(2).
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.