We have always thought that the False Claims Act resides in some sort of alternate universe when it comes to pharmaceutical products. The central concept behind the FCA is easy:  The FCA penalizes anyone who presents, or causes to be presented, to the federal government “a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.”  31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1).  In other words, you can’t swindle the government.  That is the basic point you need to know to understand the Act, but if you want more detail you can review our recent FCA primer here.

It starts to get fuzzy when a plaintiff (or more accurately the “relator” under the FCA) tries to append the FCA to allegations of off-label promotion of prescription drugs. In the case of truthful off-label promotion, there is no falsity.  And, the defendant drug manufacturer has usually made no claim to the government for payment.  So where is the eponymous “false claim”?  Add to that the increasingly common practice of applying Rule 9(b)’s particularized pleading standard to FCA allegations across the board, and you see an increasing number of opinions holding that plaintiffs cannot use off-label promotion as the basis for their FCA claims.

That is what a divided Sixth Circuit panel decided in United States ex re. Ibanez v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., No. 16-3154, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 21328 (6th Cir. Oct. 27, 2017).  In Ibanez, two former sales representatives brought a qui tam action on behalf of the government alleging that the defendants “engaged in a complex, nationwide scheme” to improperly promote the prescription drug Abilify through off-label promotion and illegal kickbacks to physicians. Id. at *2.  Their claims failed, however, for the same reason that most FCA claims fail in this context:  The relators could not allege with particularity a connection between the manufacturers’ alleged conduct and a claim for payment made to the government.  The court’s synopsis of the pleading standard highlights how a relator has to allege facts linking it all together:

A claim under [the FCA] “requires proof that alleged false or fraudulent claim was ‘presented’ to the government.” At the pleading stage, this requirement is stringent:  “where a relator alleges a ‘complex and far-reaching fraudulent scheme,’ in violation of [the FCA] it is insufficient to simply plead the scheme; [s]he must also identify a representative false claim that was actually submitted to the government.”

. . . . Rule 9(b) requires relators to adequately allege the entire chain—from start to finish—to fairly show defendants caused false claims to be filed.

Id. at *9-*10 (citations omitted, emphasis added). When applied to alleged improper promotion of prescription drugs, the causal chain gets sketchy:

First, a physician to whom [the manufacturers] improperly promoted Abilify must have prescribed the medication for an off-label use or because of improper inducement. Next, that patient must fill the prescription.  Finally, the filling pharmacy must submit a claim to the government for reimbursement on the prescription.

Id. at *10. According to the Sixth Circuit, this chain “reveals just what an awkward vehicle the FCA is for punishing off-label promotion schemes.” Id.

“Awkward vehicle.” Those are the Sixth Circuit’s words, not ours, but the description is apropos.  These relators were unable to allege a single representative false claim, because they could not allege the causal chain from beginning to end.  Although they alleged that the defendants made false statements in order increase Abilify prescriptions, they could not allege any connection between the alleged statements and any claim to the government. Id. at *14.  They could not allege a conspiracy to violate the FCA either because having a plan to increase prescriptions through improper promotion “may be condemnable,” but it does not amount to an agreement “made in order to violate the FCA.” Id. at *16 (emphasis in original).  The court acknowledged an exception to this stringent pleading requirement—the so-called Prather exception—where a relator has personal knowledge directly related to billing practices, supporting a “strong inference that a false claim was submitted.” Id. at *11-*12.  But these relators were former sales representatives with no involvement in government billing.  The majority held that their lack of personal knowledge negated the Prather exception, although the dissenting judge disagreed. Id. at *13, *34-*37.

The relators therefore failed to state a claim, and the Sixth Circuit also rejected their proposed amended complaint because it had all the same problems as the former complaint: The relators alleged that various pharmacies submitted claims to Medicaid for Abilify prescriptions, but they could not identify the prescribing physicians or otherwise connect the claims to the defendants’ alleged conduct. Id. at *23-*24.  They alleged that certain physicians prescribed Abilify covered by Medi-Cal, but could not allege that the prescriptions were off label or resulted from any improper promotion. Id. at *24.  They alleged that a certain patient was prescribed Abilify off label, but they could not allege that the prescription was presented to the government for payment or was connected to the alleged improper promotion. Id. at *24-*26.

The proposed conspiracy claim in the amended complaint failed for similar reasons: The claims were not adequately tied to any allegedly false statements made by the defendants.  “Thus, the connection between the false statements and claims submitted to the government remains ‘too attenuated to establish liability.’” Id. at *27-*28.

There are other wrinkles in the opinion, but we have covered the essentials. If there is one takeaway from the opinion (and this blogpost), it is this:  An FCA claim based on improper promotion of prescription drugs will almost always fail because there are too many links in the causal chain leading from the alleged promotional activity to a claim for payment submitted to the government.  The first link may be the most difficult.  Physicians exercise their independent medical judgment in writing prescriptions every day, including prescribing drugs for off-label uses.  Who is say whether any one decision was actually influenced by off-label promotion?  When adding in the patient’s decision to fill the prescription and the pharmacy’s decision to submit a claim for government reimbursement, the connection becomes “too attenuated.”  Or, as the Sixth Circuit put it, awkward.

Happy birthday to Stan Lee, the main man behind Marvel Comics. He wrote the stories for The Amazing Spider Man which, when we were 10 years old, we read with a good deal more enthusiasm than we presently feel when encountering the deathless prose in (a) a plaintiff motion to compel, or (b) pretty much any opinion out of the Missouri state courts. When we were at Comic Con in San Diego last Summer, the only autograph we wanted was Stan Lee’s. But the line was indecently long. Hundreds of Thors, Daredevils, and X-men stood between us and the object of our adoration. We knew any hope of meeting our hero was pure fantasy. Anyway, if our friends at the Abnormal Use blog do not have a picture of a Marvel comic at the top of today’s post, we will be very much disappointed.

Happy birthday, also, to Denzel Washington. Most of you probably know him from his movies, such as Glory, Malcolm X, Training Day, and, currently, Fences. But we first laid eyes on Washington when he appeared in the very fine television show, St. Elsewhere. That program was set in a Boston hospital. It ran from 1982 to 1988. Denzel Washington was in the cast all six years. The entire cast was superb, and the writing was inventive. It is possible that the ending of St. Elsewhere (cleverly titled “The Last One”) was a little too inventive. It turned out that everything that happened in the series was the fantasy of an autistic child. To our eyes, it seemed a bit of a cheat. But maybe it was a commentary on art. Art is artifice. It is a lie in service of some bigger truth. It is a fine falsehood.

So fantasy and falsehood seem to be our themes for the day. Massachusetts has an interesting history of falsehoods in legal history. The Salem Witch trials had their origin in a silly girl’s lies. It is easy to read the trial transcripts of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, or the trial of Lizzy Borden, and conclude that great injustices were done. More recently, and more to the point for the sort of law we practice, the history of False Claim Act cases against drug and device companies in the Bay State has been inglorious. Cases have marched forward and cost companies many millions of dollars in the absence of any actual falsehoods. We are even more dismayed when we consider the overly aggressive and incoherent positions sometimes adopted by our former employer, the Department of Justice. But maybe, just maybe, courts in the Bay State are starting to exercise some control over, and impose reasonable limits on, False Claims Act cases.

Continue Reading First Circuit Affirms Dismissal of False Claims Act Case

Ever since Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001), held that state-law claims alleging fraud on the FDA are preempted, plaintiffs have been attempting to find some other way of bringing claims that attribute FDA actions to a defendant’s false pretenses.  Since preemption is based on the Supremacy Clause, and the constitutional relationship between the federal and state legal systems, the doctrine doesn’t apply where recovery is sought under a federal statute.  Since the False Claims Act (“FCA”) is a federal statute, sporadic attempts have been made to bring private fraud-on-the FDA-claims under that statute.  Bexis, who invented what became the Buckman fraud-on-the-FDA/implied-preemption defense in the Bone Screw litigation, even worked on an amicus brief in one such case, United States ex rel. Gilligan v. Medtronic, Inc., 403 F.3d 386 (6th Cir. 2005), that was ultimately decided (favorably to the defense) on other grounds.

A little less than a year ago we reported on an excellent FCA result in United States ex rel. D’Agostino v. EV3, Inc., 153 F. Supp.3d 519 (D. Mass. 2015).  Ever since we’ve been holding our breath, because the First Circuit has been known for pro-plaintiff rulings in cases against our drug and medical device clients.  Indeed, the First Circuit once led our list the worst drug/medical device cases of the year for two years running – in 2012 and 2013.  Whether something’s changed since then in the First Circuit, we can’t say.  But we can report that the district court’s dismissal of fraud-on-the-FDA-based FCA claims in D’Agostino has just been affirmed with an excellently reasoned decision.  See D’Agostino v. EV3, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, 2016 WL 7422943 (1st Cir. Dec. 23, 2016).

The facts in D’Agostino were thoroughly explained in our prior post.  Briefly, the relator (a fired sales rep) alleged that the defendants pulled fast ones on the FDA with respect to the approvals/supplemental approvals of two medical devices, one called “Onyx” and the other “Axium” (these defendants evidently like “x” as much as did the former Standard Oil of New Jersey).  The relator-plaintiff claimed that the defendants:  (1) sought approval of Onyx for a narrow indication, but intended to promote it more broadly off-label (exactly the claim in Buckman); (2) failed to live up to promises made to the FDA concerning extensive surgeon training in using Onyx (also a form of fraud on the FDA); (3) concealed the failure of Onyx’s active ingredient in a different device (ditto); and (4) failed to recall earlier versions of Axium after obtaining FDA approval (not fraud on the FDA, but a theory that could dangerously penalize innovation).  See D’Agostino, 2016 WL 7422943, at ??? (for some reason WL has omitted star paging, so we’ll also cite to the slip opinion), slip op. at 4-8.  Critically, although the FDA was informed of all of these claims, the Agency never instituted any enforcement action, nor did the government elect to join the D’Agostino FCA action.  Id. at 9, 15.  As discussed in the prior post, the district court dismissed all of these claims with prejudice as futile.

Continue Reading Fraud on the FDA Doesn’t Fly Under the FCA Either

It took us a long time to understand how off-label promotion of prescription drugs had anything to do with the False Claims Act, and we’re still not so sure that the two are a fit. The FCA penalizes anyone who presents, or causes to be presented, to the federal government “a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.”  31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1).  Easy, right?  As we explained just last month in this quick primer on the FCA, Congress enacted the FCA after the Civil War to curb abuses in government procurement.  That part we get.  If you sell the Army 1,000 horses and send them a bill for 2,000 horses, that’s a false claim.

We’re writing about this today because the First Circuit issued an opinion last month that comes to the correct result and also illustrates how FCA claims are alleged in connection with off-label promotion—and how they fail. In Lawton v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals Co., No. 16-1382, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 20943 (11th Cir. Nov. 22, 2016), a patent lawyer filed a qui tam action against the manufacturer of a prescription diabetes medication.  He did not actually use the medication, nor did he buy or sell it.  So what did he allege?  He alleged that the manufacturer engaged in an elaborate scheme to promote the drug for un-approved uses—off-label promotion—and that the manufacturer thereby induced medical providers to make allegedly false claims for reimbursement to Medicare and Medicaid. Id. at **4-7.

It’s a two-step process. The manufacturer did not itself make a false claim, but rather engaged in alleged conduct that induced someone else to make a claim, whether the claimant knew it was false or not.  The problem for the plaintiff (or more accurately, the “relator”) is that he alleged neither falseness nor a claim.  We call that a double whammy.  Or maybe it’s a double fault.

Continue Reading This Is How A False Claims Act Case Works—And Fails

People supplement a lot of things. You can supplement your diet with a multivitamin. You can supplement your income with a part-time side job. On the DDL Blog, we are always supplementing our scorecards and cheat sheets. Generally speaking, supplement is a pretty common word and has a fairly universally accepted definition. A supplement is an add-on. Something you do to make something more complete. Does the food you eat contain vitamins and minerals? Sure. But that multivitamin adds to it. It’s a boost.

In litigation too, we do a lot of supplementing. In fact, we are required to do so. Federal Rule 26(e) requires a party to supplement its discovery responses if it “learns that in some material respect the disclosure or response is incomplete or incorrect.” This duty to supplement extends to expert reports as well. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(e)(2). But what does it mean to “supplement” an expert report? And when does supplementing to make a correction or completion go too far?

Plaintiffs got the answer to that question in U.S. ex. rel. Brown v. Celgene Corp., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156826 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 23, 2016). Plaintiff-Relators brought a False Claims Act and Medicare Anti-Kickback Statute case against defendant alleging it illegally marketed Thalomid and Revlimid off-label and paid kick-backs to physicians for prescribing off-label. Id. at *6. The court set a deadline for the expert reports and relators timely served a report from their damages expert. Shortly thereafter, however, relators sought leave to supplement that expert report based on late produced Medicare data. Id. at *6-8. Relators wanted to time to analyze the data and supplement the report with that analysis. Relators also represented that while the supplement would be based on new data, the opinions were not expected to differ significantly. Id. at *8. The court granted the leave requested. Defendant was likewise given an opportunity to amend its expert reports in rebuttal and relators’ expert was deposed after his supplemental report was served. Id. at *11.

Continue Reading Plaintiffs Learn Supplementing Isn’t a Second Bite at the Apple

People send us things to consider discussing in our posts. Usually, those things are court decisions in drug and device cases.  Sometimes, they are so far afield from our comfort zone that we do not give them much consideration.  This week, we received a motion from a False Claims Act case that we thought was interesting enough to enlist a colleague to add some subject matter expertise while we fretted about the election, work, the election, and some other stuff (i.e., the election).  Much of the credit for this post goes to Andy Bernasconi, a fine lawyer for a crazy Red Sox and Patriots fan.

While we do dabble in the FCA on this blog, we lean on Andy for a quick primer on the FCA’s provisions.  Congress originally passed the FCA in 1863 as a way to deter and punish government contractors’ fraud against the U.S. and Union troops during the Civil War.  The statute (as amended) generally creates liability for any person who knowingly submits a materially false claim demanding payment from the United States. See 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1). An FCA violation is punishable by treble damages, civil penalties of up to $21,563 for each false claim, and an award of attorneys’ fees. Id. §§ 3729(a)(1) &(3); id. § 3730(d)(1); 81 Fed. Reg. 42491 (June 30, 2016).

One of the most notable aspects of the FCA is that it contains unique qui tam provisions that permit a private whistleblower, also known as a “relator,” to file FCA claims on behalf of the federal government. Id. § 3730(b)(1). In doing so, the relator files the case under seal, at which point the Justice Department investigates the allegations and decides whether the government will intervene and take over the case to litigate for itself. Id. §§ 3730(b)(2), (4).  If the government declines to intervene in the case, the relator may litigate the case in the name of, and on behalf of, the government. Id. § 3730(c)(3).

Continue Reading Putting the False in False Claims Act Cases

Recently, we noted that one of the first decisions we wrote a post about had been affirmed by the Second Circuit.  Of the district court decision, we had penned “It is nice to see a judge with a proper understanding of how drug labels, FDA, and cockamamie theories about off-label marketing should fit together.  We would like to see more of the judges handling product liability cases with similar issues follow the lead of the judges handling FCA cases and dismiss complaints premised on nonsensical interpretations of labels and regulations.”  In discussing U.S. ex rel. Polansky v. Pfizer, Inc., No. 14-4774,  2016 U.S. App. Lexis 8974 (2d Cir. May 17, 2016), we could be lazy and swap in “a panel” for “a judge” in the preceding quote.  That would be true, but it would be incomplete.  A few weeks after the district court’s decision in Polansky, the Second Circuit decided U.S. v. Caronia, 703 F.3d 149 (2d Cir. 2012), where it vacated the conviction (conspiracy to sell a misbranded drug under 21 U.S.C. §§ 331(a) and 333(a)(1)) of a sales representative for promoting a prescription drug for off-label use.  Then, a few months before the Polansky appeal was argued, the Southern District of New York enjoined the FDA from prohibiting a manufacturer’s truthful off-label promotion concerning a (generic) prescription drug.  Next, a few months later, FDA reached a well-publicized settlement with that manufacturer, preserving that “Amarin may engage in truthful and non-misleading speech promoting the off-label use” of its drug without risking prosecution for misbranding.  While there are still decisions like Neurontin out there and many cases still seek to impose liability under the FCA or other statutes for truthful off-label promotion, the off-label landscape has clearly changed.

With that in mind, we turn back to Polansky.  For eight years and through multiple amended complaints, the plaintiff pursued a FCA claim that Pfizer’s promotion of Lipitor for use within the approved indications was actually off-label—and therefore allegedly led to false claims for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement—because of references in the label to the National Cholesterol Education Program Guidelines.  We will be blunt—shocking to our readers, we know—this was always a dubious claim because any common sense reading of the label does not come close to supporting the contention that the Guidelines narrowed what was “on-label” compared to the five indications that were approved and described in the label.

The NCEP Guidelines, which came out of NIH and were expressly not intended to trump clinical judgment, set out an algorithm for  recommendations for the general type of treatment (e.g., just lifestyle modifications) depending on risk categories derived from lab results and clinical history.  2016 U.S. App. Lexis 8974, **7-9.  The Indications section in the pre-Physician Labeling Rule label referenced the Guidelines in conjunction with stating that lipid-altering agents should be used only when response to diet and other lifestyle modifications “has been inadequate” and included a summary of the Guidelines. Id. at **10-11.  When PLR changes went into effect in 2009, the reference and summary were omitted, which suggested something about the relative importance of these references. Id. at *9.  Both before and after PLR, the Dosage section of the label had a cite to the Guidelines when stating, for one subcategory of patients, that “The starting does and maintenance doses of Lipitor should be individualized according to patient characteristics such as goal of therapy and response.” Id. at *11.

Continue Reading A Blow Against False Claims Act Liability For Off-Label Promotion

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Reed Smith’s Lindsey Harteis. She’s been following the big-deal UHS v. Escobar False Claims Act that the Supreme Court could decide any day now (or could wait until the end of June), which involves the existence and (perhaps) extent of the so-called “implied certification” theory of FCA liability.

As always our guest posters deserve all the credit, and any blame, for the contents of their posts.

Finally – be sure to read the IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT at the end of this post. DDLaw blog is getting ready to move, and that means you’ll have to resubscribe to continue getting our posts. But don’t worry, it’s easy.

******************

We spent this past weekend chasing our ten-week old Samoyed puppy around the backyard, where he ventured “down in the weeds” more than a few times. This caused the OCD in us to go over him multiple times with a fine-toothed comb: We reasoned that he was bound to pick up some ticks. Lucky for us, he didn’t. But it got us thinking that when courts go down in the weeds like our dog did, they are bound to pick up a few nasty buggers themselves. In the oral argument for the appeal in United Health Services v. Escobar, 780 F. 3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015), the Court definitely took a run through the weeds. (We blogged briefly on the case here). We’re taking our fine tooth comb through the oral argument to look for ticks, and we fear we’re bound to find in this ruling another “corpus juris festooned with various duties.”

That’s a quote from a Justice we missed dearly while listening to the oral argument in this case. Justice Scalia used it in his concurring opinion in Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358 (2010), which limited a fraud statute in the criminal context due to vagueness and via the 5th Amendment Due Process route.

Skilling reminds us of United Health Services for a couple of reasons: (1) It dealt with defining the contours of a sort of fraud – honest services fraud – for which the lower courts took an expansive view that wasn’t foreseeable based on the plain language in the statute; (2) Scalia was accusing the Courts of Appeals of invention of law rather than interpretation in their rulings on what constituted honest services fraud; and (3) the case involved a fusion of Restatement and black letter law in an unrelated area (Agency and Trusteeship) but was a criminal case.

Continue Reading Guest Post − Implied Certification: An Eradicated Pest or Here to Stay?

How much is “enough?” Will we have enough money to retire someday? Did the Drug and Device Law College Sophomore study enough for her computer science midterm? Is there enough salt in the matzo ball soup? In the realm of summary judgment, we who represent defendants are painfully familiar with courts that dodge this question, allowing claims to proceed and avoiding the complicated issues of admissibility that determine whether a plaintiff has presented enough evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact.

Not so in United States of America ex rel. John King and Tammy Drummond, et. al. v. Solvay S.A., et al.. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43133 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 31, 2016). In King, a False Claims Act case, the Relators claimed that the defendant promoted three drugs for off-label uses, and that the off-label promotion resulted in false claims being submitted for prescriptions paid for by government health care programs. King, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS at *5. The defendants moved for summary judgment on these claims, arguing that the relators did not have any admissible evidence of false claims. Specifically, the defendants argued that the Relators relied on inadmissible Texas and New York claims data to create summary charts of supposed false claims and didn’t disclose who created the charts or explain how they were created. Further, the defendants objected to the Relators’ reliance on sales representatives’ “call notes,” arguing that the call notes contained hearsay and lacked foundation. Id. at *8-9.

New York Claims Data

The Relators claimed that the New York claims data was self-authenticating because it was produced in response to a subpoena. The court disagreed, holding, “. . .[W]hile certainly Relators’ assertion that the State of New York produced the New York Claims Data pursuant to a subpoena must be what was requested in the subpoena,” documents produced pursuant to a subpoena are not always self-authenticating. Id. at *13. In contrast to a case cited by the Relators, which involved documents that were going to be used against that producing party, the Relators, who sued on behalf of the State of New York, were using the documents to benefit New York. The court concluded that the New York claims data was not self-authenticating “simply because it was produced pursuant to a subpoena.” Id. at *13-14.

Continue Reading Summary Judgment for Defendants in FCA Action: No Admissible Evidence of False Claims

Usually, when res judicata comes up in our cases, we are trying to fend it off. Luckily, non-mutual offensive res judicata is rarely recognized, so plaintiffs usually fail when trying to preclude the drug or device manufacturer from putting up a full defense based on a prior ruling or verdict in a different case. Occasionally, in serial product liability litigation, we find a plaintiff trying to sue over the same injury twice, but that rarely requires motions, let alone motions based on res judicata. Today, however, we are discussing a Georgia state court case where a drug company’s settlement with Georgia and other governmental entities in a longstanding federal case precluded eight Georgians from suing the same company on behalf of Georgia. Were we to channel a fellow blogger, we might draw some parallel to “The Walking Dead,” which is filmed in Georgia and had been based in Georgia until season 5 (when the gang headed up to Virginia). We might say something about how related cases that pop up after an adjudication on the merits are like “walkers” and have to be disposed of accordingly. We might inject some spoilers by mentioning which main character got shot in the most recent episode and which main character is rumored to die in the next episode. We might even connect these events to an earlier failure to resolve an earlier dispute more definitively. Instead, we will just stick to the case.

Jordan v. State, No. A15A1733, 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 176 (Ga. App. Mar. 23, 2016), does not have the drug manufacturer as a party to the appeal because it was the State of Georgia that filed and won the motion to dismiss below (although treated as a motion for summary judgment on appeal). This procedural quirk flows from the nature of qui tam litigation. In 2004, a relator named Starr filed a suit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against her former employer claiming that its marketing of a prescription anti-psychotic for off-label uses created liability under various statutes, including the federal False Claims Act for reimbursement by various governmental entities. (Some of this background is presented in Jordan, but some details are added from public information.) Over time, other relators filed similar cases, the United States intervened, and Starr’s complaint was amended to include claims under the later-enacted Georgia False Medicaid Claims Act (GFMCA) and various similar state statutes. In late 2013, there was a massive settlement of criminal and civil cases between the manufacturer, the United States, and a number of states—including Georgia—resulting in, among other things, payment of millions of dollars to Georgia and a dismissal with prejudice of the Starr case.

Continue Reading Some Good Georgian Res Judicata