We all know the phrase “the elephant in the room.” There are some things that do not get mentioned that are so obviously relevant that silence about them, or willful ignorance of them, can be humorous or frustrating. Based on our not-so-extensive research, we see that the origin of the fairly widespread use of this phrase is disputed, possibly dating to Russian fable that was referenced in a Russian novel. Not being terribly invested in the issue, we did not go to the original sources to try to understand the facts. We also are not going to detail all of our prior discussion on why the First Amendment cannot be ignored in evaluating claims of liability based on alleged off-label promotion of approved/cleared drugs and devices. Because of the First Amendment, activities “promoting” an off-label use are not automatically wrongful, like they were once construed to be. Truthful statements are protected commercial speech. False and misleading statements are not. Whether in a criminal case brought by FDA, a False Claims Act case where the United States has intervened, a consumer fraud class, a third-party payor case, a product liability case, or something else, we would think that a presiding court would be wise to go beyond the label “off-label promotion” and see if the liability is supposed to be based on truthful statements or false statements.

The First Circuit decision in In re Celexa and Lexapro Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, — F.3d –, 2019 WL 364019 (1st Cir. Jan. 30, 2019), does not mention the First Amendment. It makes no attempt to distinguish between purportedly culpable conduct that involved statements that were truthful versus those that were false. Versions of the word “truthful” are missing, “false” only appears in discussing cases under the False Claims Act, and “misleading” appears once. Back when the First Circuit issued its lousy trilogy of Neurontin decisions, before Amarin had played out and FDA effectively acknowledged truthful off-label promotion was lawful, we might have expected such inattention to this distinction. It is hard to justify it now, however. It is also hard to justify how the decision glossed over the underlying facts.

The district court issued a number of decisions before the appeal, including the denial of class certification we discussed here and the granting of summary judgment we discussed here. Only two of the plaintiffs from below perfected their appeal and the appellate decision did a little picking and choosing of what it addressed. We will do the same and focus on the summary judgment part, which was reversed. (The class certification denial was upheld because the class claims were time-barred. If you want to read about American Pipe tolling and how unsealing a FCA complaint where the U.S. had intervened can start the RICO clock, then check out 2019 WL 364019, **8-10.) The remaining plaintiffs sought recovery under RICO and Minnesota state consumer fraud and unfair trade practice statutes, although only RICO is analyzed. The first plaintiff is described by the First Circuit as having “purchased Celexa and Lexapro for her young son from February 2003 through March 2010 on the recommendation of her son’s neurologist.” Id. at *3. We know from the decision below that these were prescriptions to treat autism from age 8 through 15 and that the treating physician testified that the drugs were effective in the boy’s case. The second plaintiff was a union health fund that included pediatric use of Celexa and Lexapro on its formulary, but had paid for a small portion of pediatric claims for all indications submitted for Celexa from 1999 to 2004 (16/72, 22%) and for Lexapro from 2002 to 2015 (31/234, 13%). Id. at *2 & n. 8-9. Each sought reimbursement—an unknown amount for the first plaintiff and about $26,000 for the second—and RICO penalties for paying for these prescriptions under the theory that defendants had promoted the use of Celexa and Lexapro for depression in patients under 18 and that payment for these drugs constituted an economic injury because they allegedly were not proven to be effective for depression in patients under 18.

If you are following along, then you might see some issues here and why we pointed out that not going to the original sources to get the facts can hamper an analysis. In the manner of a lazy orator, we will pose some of these issues as questions we will not answer. What sort of economic injury exists when you get the product you paid for at the price you intended to pay? For a third-party payor that negotiates the prices it pays and obviously decided whether to pay on a claim-by-claim basis—choosing not to do so 78-87% of the time—how can there be an economic injury and how could it be analyzed except on a claim-by-claim basis? How can the use of a drug for autism, effective per the doctors who kept prescribing it, be based on whether the drug was effective for depression in any age population? Why would cases involving such low amounts of purported actual damages get pursued so aggressively? Given that every off-label prescription here was written by a doctor who knew it was off-label and had the right to write the prescription anyway, how can there be liability? The court did not provide clear answers to most of these questions either.

Operating under the Neurontin framework, the court started with the premise that all promotion (undefined) for off-label uses was wrongful and proceeded to characterize the record as “strongly suggest[ing] that Forest engaged in a comprehensive off-label marketing scheme from 1998 through 2009 aimed at fraudulently inducing doctors to write pediatric prescriptions of Celexa and Lexapro when Forest had insufficient reason to think that these drugs were effective for the treatment of depression in children and adolescents.” Id. at *2. More specifically, the defendant was alleged to have promoted the use of both drugs for pediatric depression in various ways and to have concealed “negative clinical studies concerning Celexa’s efficacy and safety.” Id. Again, none of the allegations seemed limited to false and misleading statements or focused on the impact on the particular prescriptions—for autism and more general pediatric use—for which plaintiffs claimed injury. In addition to recounting that the manufacturer pled guilty to criminal FCA charges on off-label promotion and settlement of related civil FCA claims—before the First Amendment shift—the court noted some relevant FDA history. “In 2009, the FDA approved Lexapro for the treatment of depression in adolescents (i.e., individuals of ages twelve through seventeen).” Id. at *1. FDA also determined that one of the pivotal studies that it considered in approving Lexapro as safe and effective for depression in adolescents also applied to use of Celexa for pediatric depression. Id. at *4. Plaintiffs offered various criticisms of this and other studies, which the court generally credited as supporting that the drugs were ineffective for pediatric depression. It failed to note something the district court had noted when it granted summary judgment: FDA had and considered all the study evidence that plaintiffs claimed showed the opposite of what FDA found. That makes it really hard to prove their case without inviting the jury to conclude that FDA got it wrong.

Preemption, you say. RICO is a federal statute, so the Supremacy Clause does not apply. Whether the Minnesota statutes would be preempted was not examined. What was examined, without labeling it primary jurisdiction, was whether “the FDA’s various pronouncements or actions close the door on any effort to convince a jury that either Celexa or Lexapro was ineffective.” Id. We do not think that was the right question to ask, but the court got the wrong answer anyway. In concluding that the plaintiffs were free to invite the jury to second-guess the FDA’s conclusion that Lexapro was effective for pediatric depression (and related conclusions), the court missed the big picture. The court found its ruling in D’Agostino, which affirmed the dismissal of a FCA case predicated on fraud-on-the-FDA, did not apply because the manufacturer “could not have pleaded on FDA approval” when it allegedly promoted off-label use. Id. at *5. We do not see what reliance has to do with allowing second-guessing of FDA. The court also found its ruling in an earlier appeal from the same litigation, which held that a consumer claim based on an approved label and no new safety information was preempted, did not apply because, well, it was about preemption.

From there, the court’s reasoning escapes us—although we do appreciate the nod toward the relevance of FDA evidence to state law claims:

The common law has long recognized that agency approval of this type is relevant in tort suits. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Prod. Liab. § 4 (Am. Law Inst. 1998) (“[C]ompliance with an applicable product safety statute … is properly considered in [a product defect case].”). But the common law also recognizes that such evidence is not always preclusive. Id. (“[S]uch compliance does not preclude as a matter of law a finding of product defect.”). And while there are strong reasons for treating such evidence as preclusive when the challenged sales are made in reliance on agency approval, those same reasons cut the other way when the sales are made without approval, and certainly when made unlawfully, as we must assume they were here.

Id. at *5. Consistent with such fuzzy reasoning, it was not unexpected that the court would find that the evidence of lack of efficacy that plaintiffs had was enough to raise a question of fact.

The leap from a dispute about efficacy in general to economic injury for the plaintiffs was not really explored. Nor was how the individual plaintiff—the mother of autistic child—could prove causation. How the union health fund could prove causation was addressed and we will not dwell too much on it here. Suffice it to say evidence tending to say promotion increased prescriptions in general was seen as more probative than evidence about what the fund actually did in connection with the less than fifty prescriptions it reimbursed. Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room.