Learning to Speak The Language of the False Claims Act

03/26/2013 // San Francisco, California, US // Justice News Flash: Featured Column // Kathleen Scanlan // (press release)

If you are like most people you never really understand the Latin peppered everywhere in legal writing, or how it relates to the legal process. Since lawsuits involving the False Claims Act tend to be heavy on several Latin phrases, a quick set of definitions can serve both to demystify the terms and explain the process associated with these special lawsuits.

A key feature of the False Claims Act that makes it such a powerful and effective tool in fighting fraud is its “qui tam” provision. The Latin phrase “qui tam” is an abbreviation of “qui tam pro domino rege quam pro sic ipso in hoc parte sequitur” which translates as “who as well for the king as for himself sues in this matter.” Since we don’t have a king in the United States, qui tam in the False Claims Act context is shorthand for a private citizen who brings a lawsuit in the name of the government to recover for sums taken from the government. By this special provision, therefore, the False Claims Act enables the qui tam plaintiff to file a lawsuit on behalf of the federal government against the person or entity who allegedly submitted a false or fraudulent claim for payment. In these qui tam cases, the private citizen and the government are the plaintiff and the party alleged to have violated the law is the defendant. If the lawsuit is successful, the defendant must return amounts improperly taken. The government is also entitled to triple its damages. By law, the qui tam plaintiff is entitled to a percentage of whatever the government recovers.

As for pronunciation of “qui tam,” there are differing views. With “qui,” some say “kwee” (from the Latin) while others say “kee” (from the French meaning who). With “tam,” it can rhyme with “ham” or be “tom” like the nickname for Thomas. Whether you say “kwee tom” or “kee tam,” it’s like tomato/tomatoe – potato/potatoe. They’re talking about the same thing.

The captions for qui tam cases also typically include the phrase “ex. rel.” For example, United States ex. rel. [private citizen] v. Defendant loosely translates: Private Citizen on behalf of the United States versus Defendant. The term “ex rel” is also why the person bringing the qui tam lawsuit is commonly called a “relator.” So, a qui tam lawsuit is one brought by someone, known as a relator, acting on behalf of the government against a defendant who is alleged to have made false or fraudulent claims for payment to the government.

The decidedly un-Latin term “whistleblower” which has become a hot buzz word in the modern effort to fight fraud is also worth defining. A whistleblower can be any person who exposes alleged fraud, waste, abuse or illegal conduct to appropriate authorities. Whistleblowers can expose a variety of things besides fraud – anything from toxic dumping to massive Ponzi schemes. While not all whistleblowers will be qui tam plaintiffs using the False Claims Act, all qui tam plaintiffs using the False Claims Act could be considered whistleblowers.

Finally, there is “carpe diem, ad nauseum.” This is not likely to be in any legal writing, but it could be a mantra for whistleblowers. You’ll have to figure that one out on your own.

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