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The False Claims Act: Go court hopping when shopping for fraud stories

The False Claims Act: Go court hopping when shopping for fraud stories

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Where do you go to find a False Claims Act case?

False Claims Act lawsuits can be brought in federal courts or, in the case of , Chicago, New York and the District of Columbia, at the state level.

This can make fishing for a fraud case complicated if you just have a suspicion that something funny is going on. Let's say you work in an area where six hospitals are owned by one of the national hospital chains – ripe targets for False Claims lawsuits and frequent losers in court. You would want to check the federal courts in , but you also would want to check for lawsuits filed in each of the relevant states where the hospital chain operates.

, for example, enacted its False Claims Act in 1987. One of the most famous False Claims Act cases in recent history originated there: the Redding Medical Center unnecessary heart surgery case. Ryan Sabalow provides some great background on the complex case in the . And Kelly St. John and Mark Martin at the wrote an interesting piece about the priest who sued Redding Medical Center under the False Claims Act. Here's a taste:

Father John Corapi prepared to die. A cardiologist at Redding Medical Center, Dr. Chae Hyun Moon, had told him he was at death's door unless he had immediate triple bypass surgery. So, Corapi -- once a multimillionaire who tumbled into cocaine addiction and homelessness before becoming a nationally known Catholic priest wrote a will and scheduled emergency heart surgery at a Las Vegas hospital, where a friend promised to take care of him afterward. But as Corapi, 55, lay on a gurney waiting for his chest to be cracked open, the doctor planning to operate looked at his medical records and gave him the shock of his life: He was perfectly fine.

Corapi never had the surgery and, unlike other patients who did actually die following unnecessary procedures, Corapi did not suffer any physical injury as a result of the advice Moon gave him. But, because of the False Claims Act, he was able $2.7 million out of $62.55 million recovered for the federal government. Corapi sued in federal court, but he also brought a case under the , which, like the False Claims Act, allows people to sue as a "qui tam" litigant.

One problem for writers who covered the Redding case was that both Corapi's False Claims Act case and another suit were .

In practice, this can mean that when you go to review a court file, you will find much of the relevant material has been literally sealed inside a manila envelope. Depending on the court clerk, you can actually see the envelope, but you are barred from opening it. Even if you know that a case has been filed under seal, it is always a good idea to go to the court and ask to see the records. I have been given records that were supposed to be sealed but were, in fact, not hidden from public view at all.

Another route at your disposal – if you work for the handful of media outlets that still retain lawyers – is to sue to break the seal. The New York Times and the medical journal PloS Medicine did in a case brought by patients who had taken hormone drugs and were suing Wyeth. When the judge agreed, the resulting documents became a treasure trove for reporters as part of the Drug Industry Document Archive.

Next: Who might be making a false claim on your beat?

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Photo credit: stevendepolo

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