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June 16, 2014

Florida AG Moves to Assert Control over State False Claims Act Claims

In a positive step forward that would empower states to diminish frivolous False Claims Act cases, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office is arguing that “it has the authority to dismiss a False Claims Act suit brought against Motorola Inc. [which] it deemed frivolous, saying it does not need approval from the relator who filed suit.”

As Law360 reports, “Russell S. Kent, of the Office of the Attorney General’s Special Counsel For Litigation, urged a panel of three judges at Florida’s First District Court of Appeal to prohibit a trial court from hearing a motion to strike a July 2013 voluntary dismissal notice by Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose previous attempts to block the hearing were denied by the Leon County Circuit Court.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi “contends the attorney general has the unconditional right to dismiss a qui tam action under the Florida False Claims Act.”

This is an important development for several reasons:

  • First, more than thirty states and territories have False Claims Acts with qui tam provisions which allow private individuals — “relators” — to bring lawsuits on behalf of the state. The plaintiffs’ bar is using these provisions very aggressively to collect damages and, as a result, state AG’s offices have been flooded with such cases. In each case, the burden of review (to determine if the suits are meritorious, the cost of discovery, etc.) falls upon the individual AG’s office. As a result, many state AG’s are unable to complete full reviews and often leave such cases pending without any action by the state — leaving the plaintiffs’ attorneys free reign to pursue these lawsuits on behalf of the state, which are often based on specious claims. 

  • Second, Attorney General Bondi’s actions in this case will help shine a needed spotlight on this issue, while also working to dismiss a specious claim that was brought in the name of the state. The AG’s position is an important one: That under Florida law, the AG is the arbiter of which claims are appropriate to be brought in its name, and that it has a right to dismiss a qui tam claim for frivolity (or on other grounds). 

  • Third, Bondi’s actions could have an impact on plaintiffs’ law firms who file qui tam lawsuits as a means to circumvent legal or ethical prohibitions on being hired by state attorneys general for contingency fee contracts to sue private businesses on behalf of the state. If Bondi is successful, it will make it harder for future state AG’s to claim they have no power to stop politically-connected law firms from reaping windfall settlements on behalf of the state. 

We are hopeful that Attorney General Bondi’s efforts are successful, and that other AGs will follow Florida’s example in their own states.

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