BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
Not many people speak - or read - Latin anymore, except for lawyers. "Qui tam" is a Latin phrase which means, literally, "who as well for the king as for himself sues in this matter." Qui tam is a means by which private persons act to prosecute fraud claims on their own, but on behalf of the federal government. Sometimes these "private attorneys general" take a share of any monetary compensation that is awarded.
- Private citizens can act on their own in a "qui tam" action to act against fraud within or upon federal agencies
- The response of the US Department of Justice will play a critical role in whether the suit continues
- Understanding pertinent federal rules, regulations and laws is essential to pursuing a qui tam action
The Role of Private Citizens to Fight Fraud
The US Congress passed the False Claims Act in 1863. This law allows private citizens to file suit, in the name of the US government, claiming fraud by persons who receive or use federal government funds. The incentive is that the citizen bringing the qui tam action will receive a share in the money recovered, if any.
Most of the first lawsuits were against defense contractors. Everyone has heard of the outrageous dollar amounts charged by some defense contractors for parts and supplies.
Qui tam actions for fraud by various other federal agencies have become common recently. These agencies have included the Departments of Transportation, Education, and Energy and NASA.
The Department of Justice Role as a Key Player
The US Department of Justice has prosecuting attorneys, known as "Assistant US Attorneys" at offices around the country. They prosecute a variety of civil and criminal actions (especially federal drug crimes) under the supervision of US Attorneys. Whether the US Attorneys' office in the area, or the US Attorney General, takes an interest in joining in the qui tam suit will greatly impact the future course of the suit. They might choose to intervene in - i.e., join in - the suit, and might start their own action after intervening.
If you're aware of a fraud being committed by or against a federal agency, seek the advice of an attorney as to: 1) whether to pursue a qui tam action; and 2) when and how to notify the US Attorneys' office of the fraud. The attorney will be able to give you advice on the likelihood of prevailing and whether the US Attorneys' Office will take an interest. At a minimum, if you've informed that office of a potential fraud, you may have helped bring a halt to wrongdoing against the American public.
Interpretation of Federal Law Will be Important
In order to prove a case of fraud by or against a federal agency, it's necessary to prove an intentional act or intentional course of conduct whereby the federal government was wrongfully deprived of its resources or property. In practical terms, the dollar loss to the government agency is a factor, as a lawsuit won't be worthwhile unless government losses are significant.
The federal agency might collect and use evidence to act on its own. An employee could be disciplined or fired for committing internal fraud. If a contractor or supplier is committing fraud, the agency can stop doing business with it.
An Attorney's Role in a Qui Tam Action
An attorney's advice will be essential to help you understand whether fraud exists and can be proved. The attorney will:
- Analyze federal rules, regulations and law for possible violations
- Consider the likelihood of proving a claim under rules of evidence
- Act as a liaison to the US Attorneys' Office in gauging government interest in the lawsuit
- Navigate the detailed process of a qui tam suit
The US Department of Justice Web site is a helpful resource. It contains a memorandum with a general overview of qui tam suits under the False Claims Act. There's also other background information about the process and about the work of the Department.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What types of evidence can be used in a qui tam lawsuit?
- Can I bring a qui tam lawsuit if I'm a federal employee?
- What's the share of a citizen who brings a suit if money damages are awarded in a qui tam action?