A recent decision by the Supreme Court was relatively little noticed in the national news media.
But it was striking decision for its clear and vivid signal to anyone aware of fraud against the federal government. In this case, the Supreme Court firmly sided with whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers and the qui tam principle
Given the size and complexity of the federal government, it needs help guarding what’s done with its multi-trillion-dollar budget.
That’s a major reason it protects the principle of qui tam.
Qui tam refers to your right to file a lawsuit against someone committing fraud against the government, even when the fraud doesn’t directly affect you at all.
Let’s say you’re a whistleblower filing such a suit. You may be doing your patriotic duty, but you also stand to get a cut of whatever funds are recovered if the alleged fraudster pays damages.
The percentage you receive depends on whether the federal government joins the lawsuit. If it does, a victory would get you 15 to 25 percent of what’s recovered, and if the government sits this one out, you may receive 25 to 30 percent.
The relevant federal and state laws are complex, as are the lawsuits filed under them. This should probably not be attempted without counsel.
But consider the broad principle. Maybe you’re suing your employer for defrauding the federal government. You could make up to 30 percent of what’s recovered if the government declines to join your lawsuit.
And federal whistleblower protections aim to stop your employer from firing, harassing, or demoting you in retaliation.
Clarence Thomas writes for a unanimous court
Before the recent decision, you had a short time in which to file suit if the government didn’t join you. With the government joining your suit, the window was a full 10 years after the alleged violation.
On March 13, Justice Thomas wrote for all nine justices in granting you the same 10 years you would’ve had with the government joining your suit.
Bloomberg quoted one attorney as saying, “The court affirmed that whistleblowers … are fulfilling a function on par with cases the government brings or joins,” he said.
A second attorney emphasized the Justice Department’s recently attempts to get dismissals of suits by whistleblowers without government involvement. He called the decision “a ray of sunshine for the whistleblower who has brought a declined qui tam.”