What Is Qui Tam Law?

Qui tam translates directly to “who as well,” but the two-word phrase has come to stand for a much longer phrase: qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte. The full definition of that phrase is, “[he] who sues in this matter for the king as [well as] for himself.” In general terms, the provisions of qui tam law mean that any individual has the right to sue on behalf of the government.

The History of Qui Tam Outside the U.S.

The general concept of qui tam law dates back to the Middle Ages, when you could assist a prosecution in England and get a share of the penalty that the king might impose. The idea was imported to the United States along with the first English settlers, and today we refer to the qui tam provisions of the various federal and state false claims laws.

Can I Sue Under the Qui Tam Provisions?

Usually, to sue under any law, you have to be the person who was harmed. To sue for a slip and fall case, for instance, it has to be your back or knee that was hurt. If your family member was killed, you may be able to sue for loss of their income and the emotional distress caused to you personally. Generally speaking, however, you must have suffered a direct impact in relation to the incident or problem to file a civil suit.

However, the qui tam provisions of a few special laws provide an exception to this rule. Qui tam provisions let you sue on behalf of the government when it is the government that has suffered the loss through fraudulent schemes or means. Whether you were personally or directly harmed by the act is irrelevant. There are also anti-retaliation provisions in many false claims laws which allow you to sue for any harm that comes to you for reporting the violation. So yes, you can sue for being fired, too. The ultimate purpose of the qui tam provisions, however, is to allow you sue on behalf of the government in some capacity.

Some people think these laws create the right for people to serve as private, individual attorney generals. Maybe the concept of qui tam would be a little easier to understand if we referred to private attorney general laws rather than qui tam laws, but the Latin phrase has stuck. It has stuck even though there are two ways to pronounce it and nobody is sure which is right. It is OK to say “key tam” and it’s just as fine—as far as we know—to pronounce it as, “kwee tam.”

The History of Qui Tam in the U.S.

The Federal False Claims Act including its qui tam provisions, was officially established in the U.S. in 1863 (pdf copy here). During the Civil War, the Lincoln administration was confronted with contractors who were cheating the Union Army every way they could. You name the scam, and the Union Army was losing money under it. The original Lincoln Law included a then-astronomical fine of $2,000, and the person who reported the fraud to the government was able to receive a share of the recovery as well, just like today.

The Federal False Claims Law has been through a long history of amendments. The modern version really came back to life as a result of amendments introduced by then-freshman Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa in 1986. Since that time, there have been billions collected by the government and millions awarded to whistleblowers.

Provisions in State, Federal, and Other Laws

There are currently also 29 states, as well as the District of Columbia, with some form of a False Claims Law modeled on the federal law. That means they have qui tam provisions that let citizens sue on behalf of a state if the state has lost money as a result of fraud. Qui tam lawyers in DC can help with False Claims Act cases and other kinds of whistleblower and qui tam cases.

Qui tam laws reward whistleblowers for helping the government recover money.  There are other kinds of laws which also reward the whistleblower but do not generally allow for an individual to file a case in court. These are important laws with their own advantages too.

For example, The Dodd-Frank Act (pdf copy of the act here) created whistleblower rewards for reporting information to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). While a whistleblower generally cannot go to court to file their allegations of fraud under these laws, they can obtain a reward if the agency recovers money from the defendant. In addition, these whistleblower offices allow a plaintiff to report their information anonymously. There is also an important IRS whistleblower reward law which has resulted in many millions of dollars collected for major tax fraud.