A federal judge has awarded $600,000 in attorney fees and costs to a group of whistleblowers following their settlement with one of two defendants in a qui tam suit in Erie.

Four doctors had brought the action in 2004 under the False Claims Act against Bradford Regional Medical Center and V & S Medical Associates with allegations that an equipment sublease between the two had violated anti-kickback laws and that they had run afoul of a ban on physician self-referrals, resulting in submissions for fraudulent reimbursement from the U.S. government, according to the opinion granting the relators’ motion requesting attorney fees.

After formally intervening in the action in late 2011, the government settled with Bradford Regional Medical Center, sometimes called BRMC, for $2.75 million, according to the opinion from U.S. District Senior Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. of the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“BRMC has not challenged the applicable law and has not challenged the reasonableness of the attorney fees or expenses,” Cohill said, responding to the medical center’s bid to reduce the amount of attorney fees and costs it would be required to pay to the relators.

“While BRMC presents a sympathetic plea, the fact of the matter is that an award of reasonable attorney fees and reasonable expenses is statutorily mandated, and none of the arguments presented by BRMC are sufficient to permit the court to lower the requested award,” Cohill said.

The False Claims Act includes a provision that requires a losing defendant to pay attorney fees and costs, Cohill said.

The judge had issued an opinion on summary judgment in 2010 against the medical center.

“Specifically, in a case where the government has intervened and the claims have been settled, the relators are entitled to a portion of the proceeds of the settlement and ‘shall also receive an amount for reasonable expenses which the court finds to have been necessarily incurred, plus reasonable attorney fees and costs. All such expenses, fees, and costs shall be awarded against the defendant,’” Cohill said, quoting from the statute.

Since this was a case in which the government didn’t intervene for seven years, the lawyers for the relators worked all that time, through discovery and summary judgment, on their own, said Andrew Stone, of the Stone Law Firm in Pittsburgh, who represented them.

“So, this is to pay us for all that work we did on behalf of the government,” before it officially intervened, he said.

The hourly fee for both Stone and Gregory Simpson, of the Simpson Law Firm in Fayetteville, Ga., who also represented the relators, is $475.

They each were given the amount that they had asked for — Stone’s firm got $303,762 in attorney fees and $2,294 in expenses; Simpson’s firm got $257,355 in attorney fees and $2,854 in expenses; Simpson’s work while he was at the law firm of Bothwell Bracker was compensated at $16,007 for attorney fees; and the relators were reimbursed $17,224 for expenses.

Cohill rejected arguments from the Bradford Regional Medical Center that it would suffer “real and extreme hardship” if the full amount of the requested fees were charged to it.

“The answer to this is simply that the court is awarding fees under a mandatory fee-shifting statute, rather than a discretionary fee-shifting statute,” Cohill said.

The judge also noted that the relators can submit requests for the attorney fees to cover the cost of litigating for attorney fees.

Daniel Mulholland III of Horty, Springer & Mattern in Pittsburgh represented the Bradford Regional Medical Center and couldn’t be reached for comment.

V & S Medical Associates, the other defendant, is scheduled to have a settlement conference today, about a month ahead of the trial date, which is set for November 18.

“It’s on both tracks,” Stone said of V & S being scheduled for mediation and trial, adding that setting a trial date is sometimes the most “expedient” way to get parties to talk seriously at a settlement conference.

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or sspencer@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.

(Copies of the eight-page opinion in Singh v. Bradford Regional Medical Center, PICS No. 13-2733, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)