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Vermont Agency of National Resources v. United States ex rel Stevens

May 22, 2000

VERMONT AGENCY OF NATURAL RESOURCES, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES EX REL. STEVENS



Court Below: 162 F. 3d 195

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 1999

VERMONT AGENCY OF NATURAL RESOURCES v.UNITED STATES ex rel. STEVENS

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

VERMONT AGENCY OF NATURAL RESOURCES v. UNITED STATES ex rel. STEVENS

Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Second Circuit

No. 98-1828.

Argued November 29, 1999

Decided May 22, 2000

Under the False Claims Act (FCA), a private person (the "relator") may bring a qui tam civil action "in the name of the [Federal] Government," 31 U. S. C. §3730(b)(1), against "[a]ny person" who, inter alia, "knowingly presents ... to ... the ... Government ... a false or fraudulent claim for payment," §3729(a). The relator receives a share of any proceeds from the action. §§3730(d)(1)-(2). Respondent Stevens brought such an action against petitioner state agency, alleging that it had submitted false claims to the Environmental Protection Agency in connection with federal grant programs the EPA administered. Petitioner moved to dismiss, arguing that a State (or state agency) is not a "person" subject to FCA liability and that a qui tam action in federal court against a State is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The District Court denied the motion, and petitioner filed an interlocutory appeal. Respondent United States intervened in the appeal in support of respondent Stevens. The Second Circuit affirmed.

Held: A private individual may not bring suit in federal court on behalf of the United States against a State (or state agency) under the FCA. Pp. 4-21.

(a) A private individual has standing to bring suit in federal court on behalf of the United States under the FCA. Stevens meets the requirements necessary to establish Article III standing. In particular, he has demonstrated "injury in fact" -- a harm that is both "concrete" and "actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical." Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U. S. 149, 155. He contends he is suing to remedy injury in fact suffered by the United States -- both the injury to its sovereignty arising from violation of its laws and the proprietary injury resulting from the alleged fraud. The concrete private interest that Stevens has in the outcome of his suit, in the form of the bounty he will receive if the suit is successful, is insufficient to confer standing, since that interest does not consist of obtaining compensation for, or preventing, the violation of a legally protected right. An adequate basis for Stevens' standing, however, is found in the doctrine that the assignee of a claim has standing to assert the injury in fact suffered by the assignor. Because the FCA can reasonably be regarded as effecting a partial assignment of the Government's damages claim, the United States' injury in fact suffices to confer standing on Stevens. This conclusion is confirmed by the long tradition of qui tam actions in England and the American Colonies, which conclusively demonstrates that such actions were "cases and controversies of the sort traditionally amenable to, and resolved by, the judicial process." Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U. S. 83, 102. Pp. 4-11.

(b) The FCA does not subject a State (or state agency) to liability in a federal-court suit by a private individual on behalf of the United States. Such a State or agency is not a "person" subject to qui tam liability under §3729(a). The Court's longstanding interpretive presumption that "person" does not include the sovereign applies to the text of §3729(a). Although not a hard and fast rule of exclusion, the presumption may be disregarded only upon some affirmative showing of statutory intent to the contrary. As the historical context makes clear, various features of the FCA, both as originally enacted and as amended, far from providing the requisite affirmative indications that the term "person" included States for purposes of qui tam liability, indicate quite the contrary. This conclusion is buttressed by the ordinary rule of statutory construction that if Congress intends to alter the usual constitutional balance between States and the Federal Government, it must make its intention to do so unmistakably clear in the statute's language, and by the doctrine that statutes should be construed so as to avoid difficult constitutional questions. The Court expresses no view as to whether an action in federal court by a qui tam relator against a State would run afoul of the Eleventh Amendment, but notes that there is "a serious doubt" on that score. Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U. S. 288, 348. Pp. 11-21.

162 F. 3d 195, reversed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a concurring statement. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Breyer, J., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, J., joined.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Scalia

Opinion of the Court

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Second Circuit

This case presents the question whether a private individual may bring suit in federal court on behalf of the United States against a State (or state agency) under the False Claims Act, 31 U. S. C. §§3729-3733.

I.

Originally enacted in 1863, the False Claims Act (FCA) is the most frequently used of a handful of extant laws creating a form of civil action known as qui tam.*fn1 As amended, the FCA imposes civil liability upon "[a]ny person" who, inter alia, "knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, to an officer or employee of the United States Government ... a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval." 31 U. S. C. §3729(a). The defendant is liable for up to treble damages and a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per claim. Ibid. An FCA action may be commenced in one of two ways. First, the Government itself may bring a civil action against the alleged false claimant. §3730(a). Second, as is relevant here, a private person (the "relator") may bring a qui tam civil action "for the person and for the United States Government" against the alleged false claimant, "in the name of the Government." §3730(b)(1).

If a relator initiates the FCA action, he must deliver a copy of the complaint, and any supporting evidence, to the Government, §3730(b)(2), which then has 60 days to intervene in the action, §§3730(b)(2), (4). If it does so, it assumes primary responsibility for prosecuting the action, §3730(c)(1), though the relator may continue to participate in the litigation and is entitled to a hearing before voluntary dismissal and to a court determination of reasonableness before settlement, §3730(c)(2). If the Government declines to intervene within the 60-day period, the relator has the exclusive right to conduct the action, §3730(b)(4), and the Government may subsequently intervene only on a showing of "good cause," §3730(c)(3). The relator receives a share of any proceeds from the action -- generally ranging from 15 to 25 percent if the Government intervenes (depending upon the relator's contribution to the prosecution), and from 25 to 30 percent if it does not (depending upon the court's assessment of what is reasonable) -- plus attorney's fees and costs. §§3730(d)(1)-(2).

Respondent Jonathan Stevens brought this qui tam action in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont against petitioner Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, his former employer, alleging that it had submitted false claims to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in connection with various federal grant programs administered by the EPA. Specifically, he claimed that petitioner had overstated the amount of time spent by its employees on the federally funded projects, thereby inducing the Government to disburse more grant money than petitioner was entitled to receive. The United States declined to intervene in the action. Petitioner then moved to dismiss, arguing that a State (or state agency) is not a "person" subject to liability under the FCA and that a qui tam action in federal court against a State is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The District Court denied the motion in an unpublished order. App. to Pet. for Cert. 86-87. Petitioner then filed an interlocutory appeal,*fn2 and the ...


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