The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its first civil settlement under the False Claims Act (FCA) against a Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) borrower. This likely marks the beginning of a new trend of civil enforcement cases under the FCA, separate from criminal cases, against PPP recipients. (See prior post here discussing recent criminal prosecutions.) DOJ’s use of the FCA also aligns with an acceleration in these types of cases toward the end of 2020, following a previous lull.
The settlement involved straightforward allegations of fraud by an Internet retail company, SlideBelts, Inc., and its president and CEO, Brigham Taylor. According to the facts in the settlement agreement, Taylor submitted back-to-back applications to several lenders for PPP loans in April 2020 for SlideBelts while the company was in bankruptcy. In the applications, Taylor, on behalf of SlideBelts, answered “no” to the question regarding the company’s solvency. The first lender rejected SlideBelt’s application because it was aware that SlideBelts was in bankruptcy; however, SlideBelts obtained a $350,000 PPP loan from a different lender, by Taylor again falsely certifying that the company was not in bankruptcy proceedings.
At the end of April, SlideBelts filed a motion in the bankruptcy court seeking retroactive approval of the loan but did not inform the court that he failed to disclose SlideBelts’s bankruptcy in the loan applications. The Small Business Administration (SBA), the government agency overseeing the PPP loan program, along with Taylor’s lender, opposed the motion and sought return of the loan funds. Rather than return the loan, SlideBelts asked the court to dismiss the case, stating he intended to refile an application for the PPP loan. The court dismissed the case at the end of June; SlideBelts, however, did not return the funds until over a week later. On January 12, 2021, DOJ announced the settlement with both SlideBelts and Taylor of potential civil claims against them under the FCA and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA).
As part of the settlement, DOJ required SlideBelts and Taylor to pay $100,000, with $17,500 coming from Taylor as restitution. On the one hand, this figure is substantial, representing nearly one-third of the amount of the fraudulently obtained loan. On the other, DOJ contended in the settlement agreement that defendants were liable for damages and penalties in the amount of nearly $4.2 million for violations of the FCA and FIRREA. Notably, however, the DOJ obtained this settlement without the filing of a complaint or instituting any formal proceedings. The settlement agreement also makes clear that DOJ’s claims were based at least in part on the interim rules issued by the SBA and April 2020 about PPP loan eligibility – the agreement referenced the provision of a rule that made clear that bankruptcy precludes eligibility for PPP loans.
Several other aspects of the settlement agreement and the case overall are also noteworthy. As noted above, this is the first civil FCA case involving a PPP loan recipient and shows that DOJ will in fact rely on the FCA to pursue PPP fraud, though this case is different from a typical false claim case. The majority of FCA cases are brought by a private qui tam relator – often a whistleblower alleging fraud – with the filing of a sealed complaint. Here, in contrast, the DOJ conducted an investigation with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the SBA. It is unclear from the DOJ press release what spurred the investigation in the first instance, but it may well be that the DOJ and SBA OIG are actively investigating PPP loan recipients.
The SlideBelts settlement shows that, as predicted, DOJ will rely on the civil FCA provisions to pursue PPP fraud in addition to criminal charges. It also shows that, perhaps even more than expected, the DOJ and the SBA OIG will be proactive and aggressive in pursuing FCA claims.