Sixth Circuit Clarifies When Statute of Limitations Commences in False Claims Act Whistleblower Retaliation Cases
On January 10, 2022, the Sixth Circuit held in El-Khalil v. Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., 2022 WL 92565 (6th Cir. Jan 10, 2022) that the statute of limitations period for a False Claims Act whistleblower retaliation case commences when the whistleblower is first informed of the retaliatory adverse employment action.
El-Khalil’s False Claims Act Whistleblower Retaliation Claim
While working as a podiatrist at Oakwood Healthcare, El-Khalil saw employees submit fraudulent Medicare claims, which he reported to the federal government. In 2015, Oakwood’s Medical Executive Committee (MEC) rejected El-Khalil’s application to renew his staff privileges. After commencing a series of administrative appeals, El-Khalil found himself before Oakwood’s Joint Conference Committee (JCC) on September 22, 2016. The JCC, which had the authority to issue a final, non-appealable decision, voted to affirm the denial of El-Khalil’s staff privileges. On September 27, 2016, the JCC sent El-Khalil written notice of its decision.
Three years later, on September 27, 2019, El-Khalil sued Oakwood for retaliation under the False Claims Act whistleblower retaliation law. Oakwood moved for summary dismissal on the basis that the claim was not timely filed in that the JCC’s decision became final when it voted on September 22, 2016 and therefore the filing on September 27, 2019 was outside of the 3-year statute of limitations. The district court granted Oakwood’s motion and El-Khalil appealed.
Sixth Circuit Denies Relief
In affirming the district court, the Sixth Circuit held that the text of the FCA anti-retaliation provision (providing that an action “may not be brought more than 3 years after the date when the retaliation occurred”) is unequivocal that the limitations period commences when the retaliation actually happened. It adopts “the standard rule” that the limitations period begins when the plaintiff “can file suit and obtain relief,” not when the plaintiff discovers the retaliation. The retaliation occurred on September 22 when the JCC voted to affirm the denial of El-Khalil’s staff privileges, and the JCC’s September 27 letter merely memorialized an already final decision.
In addition, the Sixth Circuit held that the False Claims Act’s whistleblower protection provision does not contain a notice provision. As soon as Oakwood “discriminated against” El-Khalil “because of” his FCA-protected conduct, he had a ripe “cause of action triggering the limitations period.” The court noted that if an FCA retaliation plaintiff could show that the employer concealed from the whistleblower the decision to take an adverse action, the whistleblower might be able to avail themself of equitable tolling to halt the ticking of the limitations clock.
Implications for Whistleblowers
Some whistleblower retaliation claims have a short statute of limitations and therefore it is critical to promptly determine when the statute of limitations starts to run. For most whistleblower retaliation claims that are adjudicated at the U.S. Department of Labor, the clock for filing a complaint begins to tick when the complainant receives unequivocal notice of the adverse action. Udofot v. NASA/Goddard Space Center, ARB No. 10-027, ALJ No. 2009-CAA-7 (ARB Dec. 20, 2011). If a notice of termination is ambiguous, the statute of limitations may start to run upon the effective date of the termination as opposed to the notice date. Certain circumstances may justify equitable modification, such as where:
the employer actively misleads or conceals information such that the employee is prevented from making out a prima facie case;
some extraordinary event prevents the employee from filing on time;
the employee timely files the complaint, but with the wrong agency or forum; or
the employer’s own acts or omissions induce the employee to reasonably forego filing within the limitations period.
See Turin v. AmTrust Financial Svcs., Inc., ARB No. 11-062, ALJ No. 2010-SOX-018 (ARB March 29, 2013).
When assessing the statute of limitations for whistleblower retaliation claims, it is also critical to calculate the deadline to timely file a claim for each discrete adverse action or each act of retaliation. However, in an action alleging a hostile work environment, retaliatory acts outside the statute of limitations period are actionable where there is an ongoing hostile work environment and at least one of the acts occurred within the statute of limitations period. And when filing a retaliation claim, the whistleblower should consider pleading untimely acts of retaliation because such facts are relevant background evidence in support of a timely claim.