I blog from Atlanta, Georgia, and have been talking about
whistleblower lawsuits under the False Claims Act.
I have been discussing a recent case out of the Northern District of Georgia,
Harris v. Lockheed Martin Corporation, 1:08-CV-3819-AT (3/9/12). Marietta
company Lockheed Martin had asked the court to dismiss False Claims Act
claims that had been brought against it by former employee Mr. James Michael
Harris. Harris had worked for Lockheed Martin for 27 ½ years in
the Marietta company’s trim department. Harris alleged that Lockheed
fired him because he complained about the fact that Lockheed Martin was
using fraudulent billing practices to overbill the Government in contracts
Lockheed had with the Government.
As is often the case in whistleblower cases, Mr. Harris made two different
claims in the lawsuit that he brought. First, he sued on behalf of the
United States Government, to recover the amounts that had been fraudulently
billed. As a whistleblower, Mr. Harris would receive a percentage of the
recovery that he got for the United States.
Mr. Harris also filed a retaliation case. This claim was personal to Mr.
Harris, and the United States Government was not a party to it. In this
part of the caes, Mr. Harris alleged that Lockheed Martin had retaliated
against him in the terms of his employment because he fought against the
fraudulent billing practices. See
31 U.S.C. § 3730(h). Lockheed urged Judge Totenberg of the United States District Court
of the Northern District of Georgia to dismiss Mr. Harris’ suit,
alleging that Mr. Harris had not “sufficiently alleged that he engaged
in protected activity or that Lockheed Martin terminated him because of
his engagement in a protected activity under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h).”
Judge Totenberg rejected Lockheed’s argument, and refused to dismiss
Mr. Harris’ retaliation claims. She cited to an 11th Circuit case,
United States ex rel. Sanchez v. Lymphatx, Inc., 596 F.3d 1300 (11th Cir. 2010). In that case, the Eleventh Circuit had
explained that an employee could put an employer on notice about “possible
False Claims Act litigation by making internal reports that alert the
employer to fraudulent or illegal conduct.” So long as the employee’s
actions had been “sufficient to support a reasonable conclusion
that the employer could have feared being reported to the government for
fraud or sued in a qui tam action by the employee,” the employee
had sufficiently stated his claim for retaliation, and a court should
not dismiss sit.
In Mr. Harris’ case, the Georgia federal court noted that Mr. Harris
claimed he “had repeatedly related his concerns about Lockheed fraudulently
billing the United States to supervisors and managers.” The supervisors
and managers acknowledged the false billing, but instead of correcting
the problem and changing the practice, they discriminated against Mr.
Harris by moving him to a job where he no longer had access to information
about the fraudulent scheme, and furthermore “threatened him that
if he continued to complain about false billing records, this would be
grounds for his termination.”
Reviewing these allegations, the Georgia judge concluded that the claims
Mr. Harris had made were sufficient, and refused to dismiss the lawsuit
brought by a Georgia False Claims Act lawyer against Lockheed Martin.