GRAHAM COUNTY SOIL, WATER v. US ex rel. Wilson, No. 08-304.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation130 S.Ct. 1396,176 L. Ed. 2d 225
Docket NumberNo. 08-304.
Decision Date30 November 2009

130 S.Ct. 1396
559 US __
176 L. Ed.
2d 225

Karen T. WILSON.

No. 08-304.

Supreme Court of United States.

Argued November 30, 2009.
Decided March 30, 2010.

130 S.Ct. 1397


130 S.Ct. 1398


130 S.Ct. 1399


130 S.Ct. 1400

Christopher G. Browning, Jr., Solicitor General, Roy Cooper, Attorney General of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC, for Petitioner.

Mark T. Hurt, Abingdon, VA, for Respondent.

Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, for United States as amicus curiae.

Zeyland G. McKinney, Robbinsville, NC, for Petitioner Keith Orr.

Sean F. Perrin, Womble Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, for Petitioners Graham County, Raymond Williams, Dale Wiggins and Lynn Cody.

Brian S. McCoy, Rock Hill, SC, for Respondent.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Since its enactment during the Civil War, the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733, has authorized both the Attorney General and private qui tam relators to recover from persons who make false or fraudulent claims for payment to the United States. The Act now contains a provision barring qui tam actions based upon the public disclosure of allegations or transactions in certain specified sources. § 3730(e)(4)(A). The question before us is whether the reference to "administrative" reports, audits, and investigations in that provision encompasses disclosures made in state and local sources as well as federal sources. We hold that it does.1


In 1995 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) entered into contracts with two counties in North Carolina authorizing them to perform, or to hire others to perform, cleanup and repair work in areas that had suffered extensive flooding. The Federal Government agreed to shoulder 75 percent of the contract costs. Respondent Karen T. Wilson was at that time an employee of the Graham County Soil and Conservation District, a special-purpose government body that had been delegated partial responsibility for coordinating and performing the remediation effort. Suspecting possible fraud in connection with this effort, Wilson voiced her concerns to local officials in the summer of 1995. She also sent a letter to, and had a meeting with, agents of the USDA.

Graham County officials began an investigation. An accounting firm hired by the county performed an audit and, in 1996, issued a report (Audit Report) that identified several potential irregularities in the county's administration of the contracts. Shortly thereafter, the North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources issued a report (DEHNR Report) identifying similar problems. The USDA's Office of Inspector General eventually issued a third report that contained additional findings.

In 2001 Wilson filed this action, alleging that petitioners, the Graham County and

130 S.Ct. 1401

Cherokee County Soil and Water Conservation Districts and a number of local and federal officials, violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by knowingly submitting false claims for payment pursuant to the 1995 contracts. She further alleged that petitioners retaliated against her for aiding the federal investigation of those false claims. Following this Court's review of the statute of limitations applicable to Wilson's retaliation claim, Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409, 125 S.Ct. 2444, 162 L.Ed.2d 390 (2005), the Court of Appeals ordered that that claim be dismissed as time barred. 424 F.3d 437 (C.A.4 2005). On remand, the District Court subsequently dismissed Wilson's qui tam action for lack of jurisdiction. App. to Pet. for Cert. 95a-105a. The court found that Wilson had failed to refute that her action was based upon allegations publicly disclosed in the Audit Report and the DEHNR Report. Id., at 95a-98a. Those reports, the District Court determined, constituted "administrative ... report[s],... audit[s], or investigation[s]" within the meaning of the FCA's public disclosure bar, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A).

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court because the reports had been generated by state and local entities. "[O]nly federal administrative reports, audits or investigations," the Fourth Circuit concluded, "qualify as public disclosures under the FCA." 528 F.3d 292, 301 (2008) (emphasis added). The Circuits having divided over this issue,2 we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 557 U.S. ___, 125 S.Ct. 823, 160 L.Ed.2d 609 (2009).


We have examined the FCA's qui tam provisions in several recent opinions.3 At issue in this case is the FCA's public disclosure bar, which deprives courts of jurisdiction over qui tam suits when the relevant information has already entered the public domain through certain channels. The statute contains three categories of jurisdiction-stripping disclosures. Following the example of the Court of Appeals, see 528 F.3d, at 300-301, we have inserted Arabic numerals to identify these categories:

"No court shall have jurisdiction over an action under this section based upon the public disclosure of allegations or transactions [1] in a criminal, civil, or administrative
130 S.Ct. 1402

hearing, [2] in a congressional, administrative, or Government Accounting Office [ (GAO) ] report, hearing, audit, or investigation, or [3] from the news media, unless the action is brought by the Attorney General or the person bringing the action is an original source[4] of the information." § 3730(e)(4)(A) (footnote omitted).

This dispute turns on the meaning of the adjective "administrative" in the second category (Category 2): whether it embraces only forums that are federal in nature, as respondent alleges, or whether it extends to disclosures made in state and local sources such as the DEHNR Report and the Audit Report, as petitioners allege.

In debating this question, petitioners have relied primarily on the statute's text whereas respondent and the Solicitor General, as her amicus, have relied heavily on considerations of history and policy. Although there is some overlap among the three types of argument, it is useful to discuss them separately. We begin with the text.


The term "administrative" "may, in various contexts, bear a range of related meanings," Chandler v. Judicial Council of Tenth Circuit, 398 U.S. 74, 103, n. 8, 90 S.Ct. 1648, 26 L.Ed.2d 100 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring in denial of writ), pertaining to private bodies as well as to governmental bodies. When used to modify the nouns "report, hearing, audit, or investigation," in the context of a statutory provision about "the public disclosure" of fraud on the United States, the term is most naturally read to describe the activities of governmental agencies. See Black's Law Dictionary 49 (9th ed. 2009) (hereinafter Black's) (defining "administration," "[i]n public law, [as] the practical management and direction of the executive department and its agencies"). Given that "administrative" is not itself modified by "federal," there is no immediately apparent textual basis for excluding the activities of state and local agencies (or their contractors) from its ambit. As the Court of Appeals recognized, "the statute by its express terms does not limit its reach to federal administrative reports or investigations." 528 F.3d, at 301. "[T]here is nothing inherently federal about the word `administrative,' and Congress did not define the term in the FCA." Id., at 302.

The Court of Appeals' conclusion that "administrative" nevertheless reaches only federal sources rested on its application of the interpretive maxim noscitur a sociis. See id., at 302-305. This maxim, literally translated as "`it is known by its associates,'" Black's 1160, counsels lawyers reading statutes that "a word may be known by the company it keeps," Russell Motor Car Co. v. United States, 261 U.S. 514, 519, 58 Ct.Cl. 708, 43 S.Ct. 428, 67 L.Ed. 778 (1923). All participants in this litigation acknowledge that the terms "congressional" and "[GAO]" are federal in nature; Congress is the Legislative Branch of the Federal Government,5 and the GAO is a federal agency.6 Relying on our opinions

130 S.Ct. 1403

in S.D. Warren Co. v. Maine Bd. of Environmental Protection, 547 U.S. 370, 126 S.Ct. 1843, 164 L.Ed.2d 625 (2006), and Beecham v. United States, 511 U.S. 368, 114 S.Ct. 1669, 128 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994), the Court of Appeals reasoned that "the placement of `administrative' squarely in the middle of a list of obviously federal sources strongly suggests that `administrative' should likewise be restricted to federal administrative reports, hearings, audits, or investigations." 528 F.3d, at 302. In so holding, the Court of Appeals embraced what we might call the Sandwich Theory of the Third Circuit. Both courts "`f[ou]nd it hard to believe that the drafters of this provision intended the word "administrative" to refer to both state and federal reports when it lies sandwiched between modifiers which are unquestionably federal in character.'" Ibid. (quoting United States ex rel. Dunleavy v. County of Delaware, 123 F.3d 734, 745 (C.A.3 1997)).

We find this use of noscitur a sociis unpersuasive. A list of three items, each quite distinct from the other no matter how construed, is too short to be particularly illuminating. Although this list may not be "completely disjunctive," 528 F.3d, at 302—it refers to "congressional, administrative, or [GAO]" sources, § 3730(e)(4)(A), rather than "congressional, or administrative, or [GAO]" sources— neither is it completely harmonious. The substantive connection, or fit, between the terms "congressional," "administrative," and "GAO" is not so tight or so self-evident as to demand that we "rob" any one of them "of its independent and ordinary significance." Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 338-339, 99 S.Ct. 2326, 60 L.Ed.2d...

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1 practice notes
  • Merck & Co., Inc. v. Reynolds, No. 08-905.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • November 30, 2009
    ...apart from reading the text. See Graham County Soil and Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 559 U.S. ___, ___, 130 S.Ct. 1396, ___ L.Ed.2d ___ (2010) (SCALIA, J., concurring in part and concurring in The only way in which the Circuits' pre-2002 decisions might bear on ......
1 cases
  • Merck & Co., Inc. v. Reynolds, No. 08-905.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • November 30, 2009
    ...apart from reading the text. See Graham County Soil and Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 559 U.S. ___, ___, 130 S.Ct. 1396, ___ L.Ed.2d ___ (2010) (SCALIA, J., concurring in part and concurring in The only way in which the Circuits' pre-2002 decisions might bear on ......

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