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State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. United States ex rel. Rigsby

Justia Summary

Before Hurricane Katrina, State Farm issued federal government-backed flood insurance policies and its own homeowner policies. Relators, former claims adjusters for a State Farm contractor (Renfroe) filed a complaint under seal in April 2006, claiming that State Farm instructed adjusters to misclassify wind damage as flood damage to shift its insurance liability to the government. The district court extended the seal several times at the government’s request, lifting it in part in January 2007 for disclosure to another district court hearing a suit by Renfroe against the relators. In August, the court lifted the seal. The government declined to intervene. State Farm moved to dismiss on grounds that the relators’ attorney had disclosed the complaint’s existence to news outlets, which issued stories about the fraud allegations, but did not mention the False Claims Act (FCA, 31 U.S.C. 3729) complaint and the relators had met with a Congressman who later spoke against the purported fraud. Under the FCA: “The complaint shall be filed in camera, shall remain under seal for at least 60 days, and shall not be served on the defendant until the court so orders.” The court decided against dismissal, balancing actual harm to the government, severity of the violations, and evidence of bad faith. The Fifth Circuit and a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. A seal violation does not mandate dismissal. The FCA has several provisions expressly requiring the dismissal, indicating that Congress did not intend to require dismissal for a violation of the seal requirement. This result is consistent with the purpose of section 3730(b)(2), which was enacted to “encourage more private enforcement suits,” and to protect the government’s interests when a relator filing a civil complaint could alert defendants to a pending federal criminal investigation.

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