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Old Fraud Claims May Still Be Actionable Under Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act

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Relators who have claims based on frauds that extend farther than the False Claims Act’s statute of limitations are in for good news—a recent decision regarding the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act may mean that claims that would have been time-barred under the False Claims Act may still be actionable.

The False Claims Act provides that a claim under the act cannot be brought: 1) more than six years after the date of the violation, or 2) more than three years after the date when facts underlying the violation are known or reasonably should have been known by the relevant government official, but in no event beyond 10 years from the date of the violation. But a little known statute called the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA), 18 U.S.C. § 3287, provides that the running of any statute of limitations for an offense involving fraud against the United States is suspended when the United States is “at war” and remains suspended until five years after the termination of hostilities.

It has not been clear, however, whether the WSLA applies to relator actions under the act, with a district court holding that it did not. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently issued a decision rejecting that holding and unequivocally finding that the WSLA did apply to actions brought by relators under the False Claims Act.

In United States ex rel. Carter v. Halliburton, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 5309 (4th Cir. March 18, 2013), the relator claimed that a government contractor falsely billed the United States for water purification services in Iraq. The district court held that the claims were time-barred under the act, and the relator argued that the Iraq conflict triggered the WSLA’s “at war” status. The Fourth Circuit agreed, finding that the United States was at war in Iraq from the date that Congress authorized the president to use military force in Iraq in 2002. Moreover, because neither Congress nor the president has terminated the conflict within the meaning of the WSLA, the United States continues to be at war for purposes of the complaint.

Then the court addressed the district court’s holding that the WSLA was inapplicable to relator actions brought under the act because, according to the district court, if the WSLA did apply in such circumstances, the statute would allow fraud claims to extend indefinitely. The Fourth Circuit rejected this holding as “misguided,” noting that the “WSLA tolls the applicable period for a specified and bounded time while the country is at war,” and that, “[b]y offering this rationale, it appears the [district] court was critiquing the purpose of the WSLA itself and not providing a valid basis for excluding relator-initiated claims from the WSLA.”

As a result of this decision, courts will likely be seeing older fraud claims brought under the act. Relators who have these types of claims should determine whether the WSLA might apply to make their claims actionable.

Reetupama (Reena) Dutta is a senior associate in the Business Litigation Practice at Hodgson Russ LLP. You can reach her at rdutta@hodgsonruss.com.

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