Argued January 13, 2015.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed official reporter.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
Reversed in part, affirmed in part, and remanded.
[135 S.Ct. 1971] [191 L.Ed.2d 901] Private parties may file civil qui tam actions to enforce the False Claims Act (FCA), which prohibits making " a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval," 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1), " to . . . the United States," 3729(b)(2)(A)(i). A qui tam action must generally be brought within six years of a violation, § 3731(b), but the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA) suspends " the running of any statute of limitations applicable to any offense " involving fraud against the Federal Government. 18 U.S.C. § 3287. Separately, the FCA's " first-to-file bar" precludes a qui tam suit " based on the facts underlying [a] pending action," § 3730(b)(5).
In 2005, respondent worked for one of the petitioners, providing logistical services to the United States military in Iraq. He subsequently filed a qui tam complaint ( Carter I ), alleging that petitioners, who are defense contractors and related entities, had fraudulently billed the Government for water purification services that were not performed or not performed properly. In 2010, shortly before trial, the Government informed the parties that an earlier-filed qui tam suit ( Thorpe ) had similar claims, leading the District Court to dismiss Carter I without prejudice under the first-to-file bar. While respondent's appeal was pending, Thorpe was dismissed for failure to prosecute. Respondent quickly filed a new complaint ( Carter II ), but the court dismissed it under the first-to-file rule because Carter I 's appeal was pending. Respondent then [135 S.Ct. 1972] dismissed that appeal, and in June 2011, more than six years after the alleged fraud, filed the instant complaint ( Carter III ). The District Court dismissed this complaint with prejudice under the first-to-file rule because of a pending Maryland suit. Further, because the WSLA applies only to criminal charges, the court reasoned, all but one of respondent's civil actions were untimely. Reversing, the Fourth Circuit concluded that [191 L.Ed.2d 902] the WSLA applied to civil claims and that the first-to-file bar ceases to apply once a related action is dismissed. Since any pending suits had by then been dismissed, the court held, respondent had the right to refile his case. It thus remanded Carter III with instructions to dismiss without prejudice.
Held :1. As shown by the WSLA's text, structure, and history, the Act applies only to criminal offenses, not to civil claims like those in this case. Pp. 5-11.
(a) The 1921 and 1942 versions of the WSLA were enacted to address war-related fraud during, respectively, the First and Second World Wars. Both extended the statute of limitations for fraud offenses " now indictable under any existing statutes." Since only crimes are " indictable," these provisions quite clearly were limited to criminal charges. In 1944, Congress made the WSLA prospectively applicable to future wartime frauds rather than merely applicable to past frauds as earlier versions had been. In doing so, it deleted the phrase " now indictable under any statute," so that the WSLA now applied to " any offense against the laws of the United States." Congress made additional changes in 1948 and codified the WSLA in Title 18 U.S.C. Pp. 5-6.
(b) Section 3287's text supports limiting the WSLA to criminal charges. The term " offense" is most commonly used to refer to crimes, especially given the WSLA's location in Title 18, titled " Crimes and Criminal Procedure," where no provision appears to employ " offense" to denote a civil violation rather than a civil penalty attached to a criminal offense. And when Title 18 was enacted in 1948, its very first provision classified all offenses as crimes. In similar circumstances, this Court has regarded a provision's placement as relevant in determining whether its content is civil or criminal. Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346, 361, 117 S.Ct. 2072, 138 L.Ed.2d 501. The WSLA's history provides further support for this reading. The term " offenses" in the 1921 and 1942 statutes, the parties agree, applied only to crimes. And it is improbable that the 1944 Act's removal of the phrase " now indictable under any statute" had the effect of sweeping in civil claims, a fundamental change in scope not typically accomplished with so subtle a move. The more plausible explanation is that Congress removed that phrase in order to change the WSLA from a retroactive measure designed to deal exclusively with past fraud into a permanent measure applicable to future fraud as well. If there were any ambiguity in the WSLA's use of the term " offense," that ambiguity should be resolved in favor of a narrower definition. See Bridges v. United States, 346 U.S. 209, 216, 73 S.Ct. 1055, 97 L.Ed. 1557. Pp. 7-11.
2. The FCA's first-to-file bar keeps new claims out of court only while related claims are still alive, not in perpetuity. Thus, dismissal with prejudice was not called for in this case. This reading of § 3730(b)(5) is in accordance with the ordinary dictionary meaning of the term " pending." Contrary to petitioners' reading, the term " pending" cannot be seen as a sort of " short-hand" for first-filed, which is neither a lengthy nor a complex term. Petitioners' reading would [191 L.Ed.2d 903] also bar even a [135 S.Ct. 1973] suit dismissed for a reason having nothing to do with the merits, such as Thorpe, which was dismissed for failure to prosecute. Pp. 11-13.
710 F.3d 171, reversed in part, affirmed in part, and remanded.
John P. Elwood argued the cause for petitioners.
David S. Stone argued the cause for respondent.
Malcolm L. Stewart argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court.
Wars have often provided " exceptional opportunities" for fraud on the United States Government. See United States v. Smith, 342 U.S. 225, 228, 72 S.Ct. 260, 96 L.Ed. 252 (1952). " The False Claims Act was adopted in 1863 and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in order to combat rampant fraud in Civil War defense contracts." S. Rep. No. 99-345, p. 8 (1986). Predecessors of the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act were enacted to address similar problems that arose during the First and Second World Wars. See Smith, supra, at 228-229, 72 S.Ct. 260, 96 L.Ed. 252.
In this case, we must decide two questions regarding those laws: first, whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act applies only to criminal charges or also to civil claims; second, whether the False Claims Act's first-to-file bar keeps new claims out of court only while related claims are still alive or whether it may bar those claims in perpetuity.