“Original Source” Rule Disqualifying Some Claims Does Not Bar Remaining Claims

I recently reported on the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of the jurisdictional nature of the “original source” rule in the False Claims Act. See Rockwell Int’l Corp. v. United States, 127 S. Ct. 1397 (2007), discussed here. The Tenth Circuit recently faced a similar issue.

In United States ex rel. Boother v. Sun Healthcare Group, Inc., 496 F.3d 1169 (10th Cir. Aug. 7, 2007), the Tenth Circuit considered whether a relator bringing a qui tam action alleging several counts could proceed even if some of the counts lacked jurisdiction due to the “original source” rule. The court held as a matter of first impression that a deficiency in one claim does not preclude jurisdiction over all other claims joined in the same lawsuit.

The district court had dismissed the case after finding a jurisdictional defect in three claims. However, following the model of Rockwell Int’l Corp., the appellate court remanded the case for an independent jurisdictional analysis of each of the remaining claims.


Mandamus Granted Against Enforcement of Web-Only Amendments To Contract

The Ninth Circuit has addressed as a matter of first impression at the appellate level the question of whether a court should enforce amendments to a contract where the only notice of the changed terms consisted of the amending party posting the revised contract on its website. The court took the case on mandamus and granted the writ, effectively reversing the district court's decision to enforce.

In Douglas v. U.S. Dist. Ct. for the Central Dist. of California, 495 F.3d 1062 (July 18, 2007) (per curiam), plaintiff Douglas had contracted for long distance telephone service. Subsequently, the provider purported to amend the contract to add provisions unfavorable to Douglas, such as additional service charges, a choice-of-law provision applying New York law, a clause requiring disputes to be arbitrated and a waiver of class actions. The new contract was posted to the company's billing website but Douglas alleged that the company never informed its customers of the changes. Only someone who happened to check the posted contract and compared it to a prior one they had saved would have known of the amendments.

After becoming aware of the changes, Douglas filed a class action in federal court. The company moved to compel arbitration, pursuant to the arbitration clause whose addition to the contract was itself in dispute. The district court gave effect to the amendments and granted the motion. Douglas filed a petition for mandamus because he recognized that no ordinary appellate jurisdiction exists over orders compelling arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Applying its five-factor test for mandamus petitions, the Ninth Circuit found that the prerequisites for issuance of the writ had been met. Most importantly, the district court's ruling was "clearly erroneous as a matter of law" because a party simply cannot amend a contract without its counter-party's agreement, and it is elemental that such agreement requires knowledge by the counter-party. The appellate court held:

"Parties to a contract have no obligation to check the terms on a periodic basis to learn whether they have been changed by the other side. FN: Nor would a party known when to check the website for possible changes to the contract terms without being notified that the contract has been changed and how. Douglas would have had to check the contract every day for possible changes. Without notice, an examination would be fairly cumbersome, as Douglas would have had to compare every word of the posted contract with his existing contract in order to detect whether it had changed."

The court distinguished other cases of web-based contractual updates because in each such case the poster had given some form of notice to the counter-party. Moreover, the court found that even if notice of the changes were properly given, the changes probably would not have been enforceable substantively.

The court also found that other mandamus factors were satisfied. Factors amphasizing the absence of remedy on appeal had been met becuase if Douglas were forced to arbitrate he would have had no means to ensure that he could continue as class representative. This case also satisfied the factor favoring mandamus where a district court order raises an issue of law of first impression or raises new and important problems. The Ninth Circuit viewed this case as raising for the first time an issue that would affect a multitude of situations arising from the common practice of communicating with customers through websites.