We immediately called for the further appeal and reversal of the hideous decision in In re Fosamax (Alendronate Sodium) Products Liability Litigation, 852 F.3d 268 (3d Cir. 2017). However, we’re just bloggers. Thus, we were greatly pleased when the United States Supreme Court, on December 8, 2017, requested the views of the Solicitor General on whether to grant certiorari in the Fosamax appeal, now known as Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, No. 14-1900 (U.S.).
We’re even more pleased, now that we have read the Solicitor General’s responsive brief, which we have just received. Getting right to the point – the bottom line:
In the view of the United States, the petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted.
United States Amicus br. at 1. Even though “[n]o circuit conflict yet exists,” the issue in its MDL context is sufficiently “significant” to grant certiorari now. Id. at 12.
Although the question is close, . . . this Court should grant certiorari. The underlying issue in this preemption case is a significant one: whether the meaning and effect of an FDA labeling decision is a question of law for courts to resolve or a question of fact for lay juries to determine. The petition cleanly presents that issue in an MDL context in which hundreds of separate cases . . . turn on its proper resolution.
Id. at 22-23.
First, the Solicitor General believes that preemption is a legal issue, not one for the jury, as the Third Circuit held in its unprecedented ruling:
The court of appeals erred in holding that a jury must determine whether FDA’s . . . decision − which declined to approve petitioner’s proposal to revise [the drug’s] Warnings and Precautions section . . . − preempted respondents’ state-law failure-to-warn claims arising from that same type of injury. Where, as here, FDA renders a decision declining to approve a drug-labeling change, the interpretation of that administrative decision and its significance for a failure-to-warn claim are legal questions for a court to resolve, not factual questions for a jury.
Id. at 12. “The meaning and effect of such agency action is a legal question within the exclusive province of a court.” Id. at 13. “Judges, rather than lay juries, are best suited to evaluate the scope of an agency’s legal determination in light of the relevant statutory and regulatory context.” Id. at 14.
Second, the Solicitor General believes that the FDA’s rejection of the defendant’s request for a label change was “clear evidence” supporting preemption:
[B]ecause FDA’s decision here prevented petitioner from modifying the relevant labeling before late 2010, the court of appeals erred in rejecting petitioner’s impossibility-preemption defense.
Id. at 12. “Nothing is ‘hypothetical’ about FDA’s actual 2009 decision in this case.” Id. at 16.
[Levine] did not resolve how to determine the meaning and effect of an actual FDA labeling-supplement decision. . . . [T]he court of appeals erred in transplanting [Levine’s] discussion about a hypothetical regulatory scenario to support a requirement for “clear evidence” about the scope and effect of the actual agency labeling decision in this case.
Id. at 16-17 (emphasis added). The FDA was not quibbling about language when it rejected the label change at issue, but instead the “FDA’s decision thus was based on the lack of adequate data to support a warning.” Id. at 21. “Indeed, nearly a year later, FDA announced − after reviewing further data − that it had yet to find any ‘clear connection’” between the drug and the alleged risk. Id. at 22.
Third, “clear evidence” was used in Levine “not in its ‘strict evidentiary sense’ but merely as a ‘useful reminder’ that a general presumption concerning a legal interpretation should control if substantial doubt exists.” Id. at 18. Thus, the Third Circuit’s “clear and convincing” evidentiary gloss in Fosamax was also error. Rather, “to establish impossibility preemption, a name-brand drug manufacturer cannot rely on speculation or merely plausible interpretations of ambiguous features of FDA’s regulatory framework and practices. Id. at 18-19.
Now we wait. If the Court grants review, Albrecht will likely be the most significant preemption decision since Levine itself.