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Martin v. United States Department of Agriculture

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

January 10, 2019

SUSAN G. MARTIN, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, Defendant.

          ORDER

          J. RANDAL HALL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is the United States' motion to dismiss. (Doc. 9.) The United States filed a statement of interest in this qui tarn action and represents the interests of the Government, but it does not bring this motion on behalf of Defendant United States Department of Agriculture. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS the Government's motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Susan G. Martin ("Relator"), proceeding pro se, filed this action seeking to remedy alleged abuses by Defendant United States Department of Agriculture (WUSDA") and its subdivision the United States Forest Service ("USFS") in their maintenance and regulation of federal land. (Compl., Doc. 1, at 6.) Relator alleges the USDA and the USFS do not have regulatory authority to manage trails on federal land or to limit recreational mining activities in certain waterways. (Id.)

         Relator's subsequent filings clarified that she was bringing a qui tarn action against the USDA under the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 et seq. (See Doc. 5, at l-2;[1] Doc. 8, at 3-4.) At bottom, Relator contends the USDA filed fraudulent claims to the Government by taking actions that exceeded its regulatory authority. (See Doc. 5, at 2-5.) She focuses on three acts. First, USDA employees allegedly misdirected funds intended to maintain forest roads by installing gates to limit motor vehicle access to certain parts of those roads. (Compl., at 6; Doc. 5, at 2-3.) Second, USDA employees failed to enforce commercial logging permits and bulldozed dirt berms near forest roads, which allowed erosion of mountainsides on federal land. (Doc. 5, at 3-4.) Finally, the USDA exceeded its authority by limiting recreational mining activities in certain streams within the Tellico Ranger District in Tennessee. (Compl., at 2, 5, Ex. B.) Because of these alleged abuses, Relator seeks an order from the Court stripping the USDA of all regulatory authority over recreational activities on federal lands. (Id. at 6.)

         On April 19, 2018, the United States filed a statement of interest pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 517.[2] (Statement of Interest, Doc. 6.) Shortly thereafter, it filed a motion to dismiss this action on behalf of the United States as the real party in interest.[3] (United States' Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. 9, at 1 n.3.) The Government's motion argues there is no case or controversy as required by Article III of the Constitution. Further, the Government contends that the USDA cannot be sued under the False Claims Act because Congress has not waived sovereign immunity for federal agencies.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The False Claims Act (ttFCA") allows the United States to recover damages from those who knowingly make false claims for payment upon the United States. 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a) . To encourage reporting, any person may commence a civil action - more commonly known as a qui tarn action - on behalf of the United States for violation of the FCA. Id. § 3730(b). These persons or "relators" are guaranteed a portion of the recovery of a successful action, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(d), even though the United States is the real party in interest. Timson v. Sampson, 518 F.3d 870, 873 (11th Cir. 2008).

         The FCA requires a relator to bring the action in the name of the Government and file the complaint in camera. 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(2). The complaint cannot be served on the defendant until the court orders. Id. The relator must also serve the Government with a copy of the complaint and a written disclosure of substantially all material evidence regarding the false claims. Id. That service triggers a sixty-day period in which the Government may elect to intervene or decline to take over the action. Id. § 3730(b)(4). The Government also retains the power to dismiss the action notwithstanding the objections of the relator. Id. § 3730(c)(2). Further, the Government need not intervene before filing a motion to dismiss. Ridenour v. Kaiser-Hill Co., LLC, 397 F.3d 925, 933 (10th Cir. 2005); see also Swift v. United States, 318 F.3d 250, 251 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (w[Section] 3730(b)(2) makes intervention necessary only if the government wishes to 'proceed with the action.' Ending the case by dismissing it is not proceeding with the action.").

         At the outset, the Court notes that Relator has not complied with the procedural requirements to bring a qui tarn action under the FCA. Relator did not bring the action in the name of the Government, did not file the complaint in camera or under seal, and has not, to the Court's knowledge, served a written disclosure of all material evidence and information regarding the claims on the Government. See 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b). Relator's failure to serve a written disclosure of all material evidence means the sixty-day period for the Government to intervene was never triggered. Id. § 3730(b)(2). At any rate, whether or not the Government choose to intervene is irrelevant because it need not make that decision in order to seek dismissal. Swift, 318 F.3d at 251.

         Even if Relator complied with all FCA procedures, her claim does not present a justiciable case or controversy as required by Article III of the Constitution. In every case there must bewa real, substantial controversy between parties having adverse legal interests." Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat'l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 298 (1979). A qui tarn action against a federal agency does not present a justiciable case or controversy because it is, in essence, a suit by the United States against the United States. See Juliano v. Fed. Asset Disposition Ass'n, 736 F.Supp. 348, 351-53 (D.D.C. 1990), aff'd, 959 F.2d 1101 (D.C. Cir. 1992). And it is the longstanding practice of federal courts to "not engage in the academic pastime of rendering judgments in favor of persons against themselves." United States v. I.C.C., 337 U.S. 426, 430 (1949) (noting "courts must look behind the names that symbolize the parties to determine whether a justiciable case or controversy is presented").

         Looking behind the curtain here shows Relator's case is a suit by the United States against the United States. The United States is the real party in interest in a qui tain action under the FCA and Relator's allegations are levied against the USDA, a federal agency.[4] Any recovery awarded would simply empty the Government's right pocket to fill its left. Such a redistribution of funds within the federal government does not create a justiciable case or controversy. See Juliano, 736 F.Supp. at 351-53.

         Furthermore, Relator cannot maintain this qui tarn action under the FCA because she is proceeding pro se. Unrepresented individuals are not authorized to bring an action in federal court on behalf of others. See 28 U.S.C. § 1654. Because the United States is the real party in interest in a qui tarn action under the FCA, a relator may not litigate the case on behalf of the Government pro se. Timson, 518 F.3d at 874; see also Stoner v. Santa Clara Cnty. Off, of Educ, 502 F.3d 1116, 1126 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Finally, the Court finds that it is unnecessary to hold a hearing in this case before granting the Government's motion to dismiss. Under the FCA, "[t]he Government may dismiss the action notwithstanding the objections of the person initiating the action if the person has been notified by the Government of the filing of the motion and the court has provided the person with an opportunity for a hearing on the motion." 31 U.S.C. § 3730(c)(2)(A). Objections filed by the relator "may be accompanied by a petition for an evidentiary hearing on those objections." S. Rep. No. 99-345, at 26 (1986) (emphasis added). Congress did not intend, however, for hearings to be granted as a matter of right. Id. The relator must show a * substantial and particularized need" for a hearing, for example, where the relator presents a colorable claim ...


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