461 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006), 04-16247, United States ex rel. Hendow v. University of Phoenix

Docket Nº:04-16247.
Citation:461 F.3d 1166
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, ex rel. Mary HENDOW; Julie Albertson, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. UNIVERSITY OF PHOENIX, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:September 05, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
 
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461 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006)

UNITED STATES of America, ex rel. Mary HENDOW; Julie Albertson, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

UNIVERSITY OF PHOENIX, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 04-16247.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

Sept. 5, 2006

Argued and Submitted Feb. 15, 2006.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Nancy G. Krop, Law Offices of Nancy G. Krop, Redwood City, CA and Daniel Robert Bartley, Law Offices of Daniel Robert Bartley, Counsel for the plaintiffs-appellants.

Timothy J. Hatch, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Los Angeles, CA, for the defendant-appellee.

Charles W. Scarborough, Department of Justice, Civil Division, Washington, DC, for the amicus.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California; Garland E. Burrell, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-03-00457-GEB.

Before: HALL, SILVERMAN, and GRABER, Circuit Judges.

HALL, Senior Circuit Judge:

The False Claims Act makes liable anyone who "knowingly makes, uses, or causes to be made or used, a false record or statement to get a false or fraudulent claim paid or approved by the Government." 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(2). In this case, relators have raised allegations that the University of Phoenix knowingly made false statements, and caused false statements to be made, that resulted in the payment by the federal Department of Education of hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite this axiomatic fit between the operative statute and the allegations made, respondent claims that relators' legal theory holds no water. The district court agreed, dismissing the suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We reverse.

I.

When an educational institution wishes to receive federal subsidies under Title IV and the Higher Education Act, it must enter into a Program Participation Agreement with the Department of Education (DOE), in which it agrees to abide by a panoply of statutory, regulatory, and contractual requirements. One of these requirements is a ban on incentive compensation: a ban on the institution's paying recruiters on a per-student basis. The ban prohibits schools from "provid[ing] any commission, bonus, or other incentive payment based directly or indirectly on success in securing enrollments or financial aid to any persons or entities engaged in any student recruiting or admission activities or in making decisions regarding the award of student financial assistance." 20 U.S.C. § 1094(a)(20). This requirement is meant to curb the risk that recruiters

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will "sign up poorly qualified students who will derive little benefit from the subsidy and may be unable or unwilling to repay federally guaranteed loans." United States ex rel. Main v. Oakland City Univ., 426 F.3d 914, 916 (7th Cir.2005), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 126 S.Ct. 1786, 164 L.Ed.2d 519 (2006). The ban was enacted based on evidence of serious program abuses. See S.Rep. No. 102-58, at 8 (1991) ("Abuses in Federal Student Aid Programs") (noting testimony "that contests were held whereby sales representatives earned incentive awards for enrolling the highest number of student[s] for a given period"); H.R.Rep. No. 102-447, at 10, reprinted in 1992 U.S.C.C.A.N. 334, 343 (noting that the "new provisions include prohibiting the use of commissioned sales persons and recruiters").

This case involves allegations under the False Claims Act that the University of Phoenix (the University) knowingly made false promises to comply with the incentive compensation ban in order to become eligible to receive Title IV funds. Appellants, Mary Hendow and Julie Albertson (relators), two former enrollment counselors at the University, allege that the University falsely certifies each year that it is in compliance with the incentive compensation ban while intentionally and knowingly violating that requirement. Relators allege that these false representations, coupled with later claims for payment of Title IV funds, constitute false claims under 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1) & (a)(2).

First, relators allege that the University, with full knowledge, flagrantly violates the incentive compensation ban. They claim that the University "compensates enrollment counselors ... based directly upon enrollment activities," ranking counselors according to their number of enrollments and giving the highest-ranking counselors not only higher salaries but also benefits, incentives, and gifts. Relators allege that the University also "urges enrollment counselors to enroll students without reviewing their transcripts to determine their academic qualifications to attend the university," thus encouraging counselors to enroll students based on numbers alone. Relator Albertson, in particular, alleges that she was given a specific target number of students to recruit, and that upon reaching that benchmark her salary increased by more than $50,000. Relator Hendow specifically alleges that she won trips and home electronics as a result of enrolling large numbers of students.

Second, relators allege considerable fraud on the part of the University to mask its violation of the incentive compensation ban. They claim that the University's head of enrollment openly brags that "[i]t's all about the numbers. It will always be about the numbers. But we need to show the Department of Education what they want to see." To deceive the DOE, relators allege, the University creates two separate employment files for its enrollment counselors--one "real" file containing performance reviews based on improper quantitative factors, and one "fake" file containing performance reviews based on legitimate qualitative factors. The fake file is what the DOE allegedly sees. Relators further allege a series of University policy changes deliberately designed to obscure the fact that enrollment counselors are compensated on a per-student basis, such as altering pay scales to make it less obvious that they are adjusted based on the number of students enrolled.

Third and finally, relators allege that the University submits false claims to the government. Claims for payment of Title IV funds can be made in a number of ways, once a school signs its Program Participation Agreement and thus becomes eligible. For instance, in the Pell Grant context, students submit funding requests

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directly (or with school assistance) to the DOE. In contrast, under the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which includes Stafford Loans, students and schools jointly submit an application to a private lender on behalf of the student, and a guaranty agency makes the eventual claim for payment to the United States only in the event of default. Relators allege that the University submits false claims in both of these ways. They claim that the University, with full knowledge that it is ineligible for Pell Grant funds because of its violation of the incentive compensation ban, submits requests for those funds directly to the DOE, resulting in a direct transfer of the funds into a University account. They further claim that the University, again with knowledge that it has intentionally violated the incentive compensation ban, submits requests to private lenders for government-insured loans.

On May 20, 2004, the district court dismissed the relators' complaint with prejudice under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Relators appealed on June 15, 2004. The United States Department of Justice submitted a brief as amicus curiae supporting the reversal of the district court. Because this case comes to us on a motion to dismiss, we assume that the facts as alleged are true, and examine only whether relators' allegations support a cause of action under the False Claims Act under either of two possible theories. See Zimmerman v. City of Oakland, 255 F.3d 734, 737 (9th Cir.2001) ("We review dismissals under Rule 12(b)(6) de novo, accepting as true all well-pleaded allegations of fact in the complaint and construing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs."). We hold that they do, and that either theory is viable.

II.

The district court below rejected both of relators' theories for why they have validly alleged that the University submitted false or fraudulent claims to the government in violation of the False Claims Act. First, the court rejected relators' claim under the "false certification" theory, as treated by this court in United States ex rel. Hopper v. Anton, 91 F.3d 1261, 1266 (9th Cir.1996), because the operative statute here "only requires that [the University] enter...

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