The qui tam lawsuit process is very involved and can take a long time to complete. However, it serves as an effective method of finding fraudulent activities and provides a primary way for the government to learn of fraud and prosecute the fraudsters to the full extent of the law.
What Is the Qui Tam Lawsuit Process?
The qui tam lawsuit process is the legal process by which a whistleblower can sue a defendant (usually a government contractor that receives government funding) and allege the defendant is defrauding the government. Normally, it would be the government that would bring this type of lawsuit, but because most fraud against the government is unknown, the whistleblower (called a “relator”) will bring the lawsuit on behalf of the government.
In return for taking on the lawsuit, the government will allow the whistleblower to have a percentage of the money recovered in a successful qui tam lawsuit. This percentage is typically between 15% and 30%.
The qui tam lawsuit process begins with getting an attorney, preferably one experienced in qui tam lawsuits. Qui tam lawsuits are complex and require unusual legal procedures, so finding a qui tam lawyer is important. When looking for a qui tam attorney, whistleblowers need to be very careful to find one qualified in handling qui tam cases, given what’s at stake.
After hiring the right attorney, the first step in the qui tam process is filing a complaint, just like a typical lawsuit. But unlike most lawsuits, qui tam lawsuits require filing in federal district court, not state court. Also, the complaint must be “under seal,” which means it remains secret. This means the defendant doesn’t know about the lawsuit, nor does the general public know a lawsuit is pending against the defendant. With normal lawsuits, the filing of a complaint is public, and the defendant knows about the lawsuit almost immediately.
In addition to filing a complaint, the whistleblower will also need to submit a disclosure statement. This statement sets out all the evidence the whistleblower has that supports the allegations that the defendant has defrauded the government. This disclosure statement is important because it provides a starting point for the government’s investigation into the alleged fraud.
Once the complaint is in the court system and the disclosure statement provided, the government will investigate the fraud allegations. This usually takes a few months to a few years. While this investigation is taking place, the lawsuit will not move forward.
After the government finishes its investigation, it will decide whether to intervene, or join the lawsuit. The decision to intervene is critical to the success of the qui tam lawsuit. Most qui tam lawsuits where the government doesn’t intervene aren’t successful, and it’s easy to see why. Having the full resources of the United States government means a much stronger legal action for a much longer amount of time.
Additionally, when the defendant sees that the government decided not to join the whistleblower in a lawsuit, it sends a strong signal that the whistleblower doesn’t have a solid case. This means it’s more likely the defendant will fight the qui tam lawsuit and less likely it will want to settle.
Once the government decides to intervene (or not), the court lifts the seal on the qui tam lawsuit and the case can proceed. The lawsuit is now public and the defendant is aware of it.
If the government has decided to intervene, it will often try to settle the case with the defendant. Most qui tam lawsuits end in settlement and do not go to trial.
How Long Does the Qui Tam Lawsuit Process Take?
Unfortunately, there is no sure answer to this question. There are many variables, such as the strength of the lawsuit, who the defendant is, whether it goes to trial (or settles), whether it’s appealed, how complex the fraud is and how long the government needs to investigate the fraud allegations.
After a complaint is under seal, the government has at least 60 days to conduct its investigation and decide whether it will intervene. However, most of the time, the government receives extensions and will take as much time as it needs to conduct its investigation. This can take anywhere from a few months to a few years.
Then assuming the government decides to intervene, the lawsuit can proceed. The government contacts the defendant and tries to negotiate a settlement. In the absence of a settlement, the lawsuit will proceed like a typical civil lawsuit. This means it can take years before trial and after the trial, it could be another few years while the case is on appeal.
So what’s the bottom line? A qui tam lawsuit can take anywhere from a few months to decades. However, most whistleblowers who start their qui tam lawsuits should expect it to take several years, at least.
Questions about the Qui Tam Lawsuit Process?
Learn more about the qui tam lawsuit process by contacting the Bothwell Law Group.