Attorneys as Qui Tam Relators?: False Claims Act Doesn’t Preempt Ethics Laws and Cannons

ethicsGuest Commentary

by Tara Parker, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

A federal district judge in the Southern District of Mississippi recently reaffirmed something that should be intuitively obvious to most attorneys:  the federal False Claims Act (FCA) does not relieve a lawyer who brings a qui tam action under the law of his ethical obligations. The court in United States ex rel. Holmes v. Northrop Grumman Corporation disqualified the attorney from serving as a relator because he had violated his duties of loyalty, candor, and confidentiality, as well as the duty to obey court orders. The case stands as not only a monument to unethical attorney behavior, but it also provides yet another example of how laws that delegate enforcement authority to individuals inspire abuses with the lure of financial profit.

The attorney in question, Donald Holmes, represented Munich Re (Munich), an insurance company, in arbitration proceedings with Northrop Grumman Corporation (Northrop), the insured, in April 2010. Northrop had contracted with the United States Navy to construct ships, some of which were damaged as a result of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Holmes, along with a co-counsel, sought to obtain documents from the Navy professedly for use in the arbitration. Holmes and his co-counsel turned around and used the information to file an FCA suit against Northrop. Continue reading

Eleventh Circuit Weighs in on Need for Consumer Class Actions’ Plaintiffs to be Ascertainable

11th CircuitWhether a class of plaintiffs must be “ascertainable”—i.e. capable of being feasibly identified through an objective process—continues to be one of the most contested legal issues in class-action litigation. We’ve written about ascertainability mostly in the context of food labeling lawsuits (our collection is here) but it has arisen in claims involving other consumer products. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is the latest jurisdiction to weigh in on the issue with a decision that directly addresses one of the common objections to ascertainability—that it dooms small-dollar class-action suits.

The plaintiff in Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals accused the defendant of falsely advertising its dietary supplement, “Meltdown Fat Incinerator,” because it did not in fact incinerate his fat. The federal district court dismissed Karhu’s claims because he failed to demonstrate the class members were ascertainable. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court. Judge Richard Goldberg of the U.S. Court of International Trade, sitting by designation, authored the majority opinion and Judge Beverly Martin wrote a cautionary concurrence. Continue reading

Majority Rule: Standing Continues to be Plaintiffs’ Achilles Heel in Data-Breach Class Actions

securityGuest Commentary

by Spencer Salmon, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

Some years ago, when data breaches first became a problem for the business community, plaintiffs’ lawyers thought class actions on behalf of consumers whose information had been stolen would be the next big moneymaker. To their disappointment, a majority of federal courts across the United States has ruled in favor of data breaches’ most direct and obvious victim—hacked businesses—because plaintiffs have failed to establish standing to sue. In order to establish constitutional standing, plaintiffs must show that the alleged injury is concrete, particularized, actual or imminent, fairly traceable to the action challenged, and redressable. Absent standing, courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over the suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(1).

Recently, federal district courts from Nevada (In re Zappos.com, Inc., Customer Data Security Breach Litigation) and Minnesota (Carlsen v. Gamestop, Inc.) joined most federal courts in dismissing data-breach class-action lawsuits for lack of standing. Continue reading

Copyright Act Submission Hold: Professional Wrestler’s Publicity and Privacy Claims Preempted

copyrightGuest Commentary

by Sara Thornton, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

What do copyright law, a WWE professional wrestler, and ESPN have in common? They were all involved in an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Ray v. ESPN, Inc., decided on April 22, 2015. Steve “Wild Thing” Ray sued ESPN under Missouri law for broadcasting WWE rerun matches featuring Ray in the early 1990s.

The specific claims were for (1) invasion of privacy, (2) misappropriation of name, (3) infringement of the right of publicity, and (4) interference with prospective economic advantage. ESPN moved to dismiss the suit, asserting that federal copyright law preempted the state-law claims. The district court construed Ray’s first two claims as being identical under Missouri law, so analyzed them as one. It also assumed that since Ray did not challenge ESPN’s argument that copyright law preempted his first and fourth claims, Ray had waived those claims. The court concluded that the Copyright Act preempted Ray’s remaining misappropriation and right of publicity claims. Continue reading

FDA Trans-Fat Order Sets the Table for More Food Product “Regulation by Litigation”

Partially hydrogenated oil  chemical structure

Partially hydrogenated oil
chemical structure

To no one’s surprise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed its November 8, 2013 initial determination that the agency no longer considers the main source of trans fat in Americans’ diet, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). In its announcement, FDA emphasizes how the three-year window it has granted food companies to comply with the order would “allow for an orderly [transition] process.” Before anyone applauds FDA for being reasonable or magnanimous, however, consider what else the agency says, and doesn’t say, in its Declaratory Order (“Order”). FDA’s statements and omissions essentially set the table for an explosion of private lawsuits that could require PHO-containing products to be reformulated, or removed from the market, far earlier than June 2018.

What the Order Says. Under federal law, an FDA determination that a substance is no longer GRAS is not the equivalent of it being “unsafe.” It means that because some level of uncertainty has arisen from studies of the substance, food producers must seek approval for its use in specific products through a food additive petition. The Order, however, glosses over this inconvenient nuance, and instead consistently and repeatedly states that FDA has concluded PHOs are unsafe. The media has slavishly echoed FDA’s distorted conclusion to an American public that includes prospective judges and jurors for the lawsuits to come. Continue reading

“Handmade” Liquor: Federal Courts Offer Divergent Views in Two Similar Lawsuits

liquorGuest Commentary

by Tara Parker, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

In recent decisions from opposite sides of the nation—Florida and California—two federal district judges issued contradictory decisions on the same question—whether a liquor manufacturer’s use of “handmade” on its product label is false or misleading to the average consumer. Defendants in mislabeling cases rarely claim total victory at the preliminary level because courts tend to defer the question of whether a label is false or misleading to a later stage in the litigation. The Florida judge’s willingness to dismiss a “handmade” claim shows that courts can beat this trend. If, on the other hand, judges follow the path of least resistance, as seen in the California case, mislabeling claims of questionable merit will continue to proliferate, undermining predictability in the law and raising prices for consumer product purchasers. Continue reading

Sixth Circuit Applies Sanctions Appropriately in Frivolous FCA Case

6th CircuitGuest Commentary

by Spencer Salmon, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

On May 1, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed sanctions imposed by a lower court in a suit filed under the False Claims Act (FCA). The decision, United States ex rel. Jacobs v. Lambda Res., Inc., is an encouraging development given the ease with which the FCA can be abused and the federal judiciary’s general aversion to punishing frivolous plaintiffs and their lawyers. Continue reading