Whistleblower Suit Chugs Forward Over Time-Limit Debate

WASHINGTON (CN) – Advancing a suit where a defense contractor is said to have taken advantage of a legally blind official, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the whistleblower claims were not brought too late.

Billy Joe Hunt brought suit here in 2013 over a contract meant to clean up munitions left behind by retreating forces during the war in Iraq.

Though the contract went to Parsons Corp., which in turn tapped Cochise Consultancy for security work, Hunt pointed out that the security job was initially awarded to a different, cheaper company.

Hunt says Cochise bribed someone within the government to send the contract its way, managing to unravel the first contract by putting a forged document in front of a legally blind official.

Critical to the statute-of-limitations conundrum, Hunt says the conduct occurred between 2006 and 2007, and he first made his allegations known to federal agents in a Nov. 30, 2010, interview.

The False Claims Act specifies meanwhile that complaints must be filed within six years of an alleged violation or within three years of the date a U.S. official has been presented with an alleged violation. 

Hunt insisted his suit was timely because he brought it within three years of his interview, but Cochise argued before the high court that the government’s lack of intervention in the case makes this window inapplicable.

The justices were unanimous Monday in siding with Hunt.

“We see nothing unusual about extending the limitations period when the government official did not know and should not reasonably have known the relevant facts, given that the government is the party harmed by the false claim and will receive the bulk of any recovery,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. 

Thomas wrote later that “the statute provides no support for reading ‘the official of the United States’ to encompass a private relator.” 

“Regardless of precisely which official or officials the statute is referring to, [the False Claims Act]’s use of the definite article ‘the’ suggests that Congress did not intend for any and all private relators to be considered ‘the official of the United States,’” Thomas said.

Gibson Dunn attorney Ted Boutrous argued for Cochise.

“We have many additional arguments for dismissal of this baseless lawsuit and look forward to making them when we get back to the district court,” Boutrous said Monday in an email.

Hunt’s attorney, Trey Mayfield of Juris Day, said in an email that he was gratified that the Supreme Court overruled 32 years of rulings from lower courts that had defied Congressional intent.

“With this decision, whistleblowers will have the same ability as the government to protect taxpayers against fraud by government contractors, just as the law intended,” Mayfield said in an email.

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