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Court clarifies False Claims Act

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, by a vote of 6-2, that a person bringing a lawsuit to recover misspent federal funds must have direct and independent knowledge of the facts behind the claim in order to be eligible to sue. The facts for which that individual must be the original source, the Court declared, are the facts underlying the specific claims asserted, rather than being the source for information that came out in public through government action. Thus, if the facts change as the claim proceeds in court, the suing individual must still know personally of the facts underlying the changing claims.

The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, clarified the meaning of the False Claims Act requirement that an individual bringing a so-called “qui tam” lawsuit must be able to show that he or she is the “original source” of the information about the false claim, and thus is not relying upon information previously disclosed to the public. The ruling, in Rockwell International v. U.S.ex rel. Stone (05-1272, opinion), concluded that the suing individual must satisfy the “original source” requirement in all stages of the lawsuit, and not just in the original complaint.

Lower courts had been divided on the meaning of the “original source” requirement. In spelling out what that means, the Court rejected the “qui tam” claim of a former employee of Rockwell International Corp. who had won a $4.1 million judgment after claiming radioactive contamination at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Golden, Colo. (Boeing North American Inc. has since acquired Rockwell.)

This was one of two decisions on the merits announced Tuesday. In the other, the Court decided that the Territory of Guam must calculate its borrowing limit based upon the assessed value of property in the Territory, not the appraised value. There were four partial dissents in Limtiaco v. Camacho (06-116, opinion). Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion. The decision resolved a dispute between the two top officials of Guam’s government about its debt limit.

The decision interpreted the Guam Organic Act.