We sometimes sit around trading stories about the dumbest lawsuits we have ever seen. Our personal favorite is a class action that the Drug and Device Law Spouse defended years ago seeking damages against a national shipping company because items sent by “Second Day Air” did not always go in an airplane.  The packages arrived as promised, but the plaintiffs were shocked, shocked to learn that items sent from San Francisco to Palo Alto were carried in an ordinary (and Earth-bound) truck.  There is also the one about the guy who sued his dry cleaner for $67 million after the cleaner lost his pants.  It was reported that the cleaner showed up in court and tendered the trousers—cleaned and pressed.  The plaintiff was unimpressed.

Many cite the famous McDonald’s coffee spill case of the 1990s as a dumb and frivolous lawsuit, but at least that plaintiff suffered a serious injury—third degree burns that required skin grafts and an extended hospital stay. It was uncontested that the coffee drinker had standing to sue, regardless of what you think about the ultimate allocation of fault.

We cannot say the same for the plaintiff in a class action that an MDL judge in New Jersey dismissed last year for lack of standing, which the Third Circuit has now affirmed. In In re Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Products Marketing, Sales Practices and Liability Litigation, No. 17-2980, 2018 WL 4225028 (3d Cir. Sept. 6, 2018), the plaintiff used the defendants’ talcum powder, which worked exactly as it was supposed to without any ill effect.  She did not allege any defect in the product; she did not allege any injury or disease; she did not allege any increased risk of injury or disease; and did not allege any fear of developing any injury or disease in the future. Id. at *2.  She also allegedly used up the product. Id. In other words, there was no durable good or remaining product that she claimed she could not use.  Whatever she purchased, she used it until it was gone. Id.

What a frivolous lawsuit that no intelligent and scrupulous lawyer ever should have filed, right? Well, not exactly.  The district court’s order dismissing the case and the Third Circuit’s opinion affirming that result are clearly correct.  And, “frivolous” is probably a fair description.  Be that as it may, this class action was not a random misfire conceived in the minds of attorneys who didn’t know any better.  This class action was a deliberate and calculated attempt to test the limits of Article III standing and to stretch even further the wrongly decided opinion on standing in Cottrell v. Alcon Laboratories, the Third Circuit opinion that we ranked as the fourth worst drug and device decision of 2017.  That was the opinion where the Third Circuit held that purchasers of eye drops had standing to sue, even when the product labeling was indisputably accurate and the product worked exactly as expected.  How then did the eye drop purchasers suffer any compensable injury?  The bottle dispensed drops that were too big, allegedly resulting in the users paying more than they should have.  We are being charitable in our description of Cottrell.  In fact, the allegations of injury there were too speculative to support standing, as other another Circuit has found and as we have explained here, here, and here.

But at least the plaintiffs in Cottrell attempted to plead an economic injury.  The plaintiff in the J&J Talcum Powder case wanted to take Cottrell one step further by establishing standing to sue while affirmatively pleading no injury at all.  She and her lawyers lost.  The plaintiff in J&J alleged that she suffered an economic injury because, had she been informed that using baby powder could lead to an increased risk of ovarian cancer, she would not have purchased the powder in the first place. Id. at *2.  In other words, she had buyer’s remorse and sincerely wished she had not purchased the product after she consumed it with no harm or worry. Id. at *1.

Those facts did not allege an economic injury. As the Third Circuit explained, there are generally three ways to plead an economic injury.  A plaintiff can allege an “alternate product theory” by alleging that, but for the defendant’s conduct, he or she would have purchased an alternative, less expensive product.  A plaintiff can also allege a “premium price theory,” under which he or she claims that wrongful advertising of a product as “superior” induced the plaintiff to pay an unfair premium.  Finally, a plaintiff can allege that he or she was deprived of the “benefit of the bargain” and did not get what he or she paid for.

The plaintiff’s allegations missed all of these theories. She did not allege that any cheaper alternative existed, and she did not identify any unlawful “premium” paid for her powder. Id. at *2-*3.  As for the “benefit of the bargain,” she alleged only that she was promised that the baby powder was “safe,” when it allegedly was “unsafe” because of an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Id. at *3.

Let’s keep one thing straight. We do not believe there is any reliable scientific evidence that talcum powder can cause ovarian cancer, and we reported on a California court finding exactly that here.  But even taking the plaintiff’s allegations as true, conclusory allegations of purchasing an “unsafe” product did not establish an economic injury sufficient to support Article III standing.  Distinguishing Cottrell, the Third Circuit held that “a plaintiff must do more than offer conclusory assertions of economic injury in order to establish standing.  She must alleged facts that would permit a factfinder to value the purported injury at something more than zero dollars without resorting to mere conjecture.” Id. at *4.

Having used the product, and having failed to allege any injury or even an increased risk or fear of injury, the plaintiff did not have the facts. So what did she offer instead?  A promise of “models for calculating damages and restitution that are linked to her theory or relief and are based on the evidence in the case.” Id. at *6.  Aha, the experts will take care of it all in “models.”  Forgive us for being skeptical, but also give the Third Circuit credit for insisting that a plaintiff still must allege facts:

[E]ven at the pleading stage, a plaintiff must set forth sufficient factual allegations that, if proven true, would permit a factfinder to determine that she suffered at least some economic injury.  . . .

[Plaintiff] fails to allege even that the Baby Powder provided her with an economic benefit worth one penny less than what she paid. We must, therefore, conclude that she received the benefit of her bargain and has suffered no economic injury.

Id. at *7.  The Third Circuit also ruled that an alleged increased risk to others did not count because the plaintiff’s “references to Baby Powder being unsafe to others are not relevant to determining whether [she] has standing herself.” Id. at *8 (emphasis in original).

The Third Circuit found the plaintiff lacked standing to sue for restitution and injunctive relief for similar reasons: Her restitution claim rested on mere conjecture, and her claim for injunctive relief made no sense because she was not at risk of suffering an economic injury.  We don’t blame the plaintiffs’ lawyers for trying to stretch Cottrell beyond the breaking point, but in the end they did not succeed.  The Third Circuit summed it up this way:  “[Plaintiff’s] wish to be reimbursed for a functional product that she has already consumed without incident does not itself constitute an economic injury within the meaning of Article III.”  Amen.

If  clients get sued by someone where physical or financial injury seems remote, unclear, or speculative, consider raising the defense of lack of standing.  Courts are for resolving actual disputes among parties.  As we said a little more than a month ago in another post on standing, courts are not debate halls.  The standing issue was front and center in the recent case of Center for Responsible Science v. Gottlieb, 2018 WL 1997266 (D.D.C. April 27, 2018).  Because the plaintiffs lacked standing, the case was dismissed.

The plaintiffs were three individuals and one organization, the Center for Responsible Science (CRS).  They sued over the FDA’s rejection of their Citizen Petition, which demanded that three specific warnings be added to standard informed consent forms for clinical trials.  The proposed warnings would have told trial participants that (1) animal tests might not be predictive of human safety, (2) some participants in clinical trials for investigative drugs died or were seriously injured, and (3) the drugs in the trial might end up proving to be unsafe or ineffective in humans. The FDA denied the Petition because the additional language applied only to drugs, whereas the standard informed consent forms apply to all clinical trials.

Who were the plaintiffs?  How were they harmed by the FDA’s denial of the Petition?  The three individuals included two people who had previously participated in clinical trials, though it seems nothing bad happened to those two.  The third individual lost a son as a result of his participation in a clinical trial.  The organization, CRS, is a non-profit, non-member organization that promotes advances in regulatory science and advocates better results for patients.

Did the individuals have standing?  No, they did not.  The lawsuit sought injunctive relief, so past harm was irrelevant.  The problem for the individuals was that they could not establish future harm traceable to the FDA’s denial of the Petition.  Any future injury would stem from lack of information, but these individuals clearly had the information (that animal tests are not completely predictive of human safety/efficacy, and that clinical trials pose the risk of death/injury).  Oddly, just by bringing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs demonstrated their lack of standing.  You might put this ruling down to sophistry, but the logic is inescapable.

Does the organization have standing?  Not here, not based on the allegations in the complaint.  An organization can bring a lawsuit on behalf of itself or its members.  But remember that CRS does not have members.  So we are thrown back onto organizational standing, the law concerning which is, as the court admits, “not a model of clarity.”  An organization must show the same things an individual must show: injury, causation, and redressability.  The injury must be concrete and demonstrable.  There must be a consequent drain on the organization’s resources.  A setback to the organization’s social interests will not suffice.  Here, CRS alleged standing “because the interests at stake are germane to [its] purposes, and FDA’s response will require further extensive advocacy work on [its] part, placing a significant train on its limited resources, causing a diversion of its resources, and the frustration of its mission.”  The court held that these allegations, plus others, were too conclusory and vague.  You might chalk this conclusion up to TwIqbal, but it is actually a tougher test for plaintiffs to meet because lack of standing is a Rule 12(b)(1) motion that goes to the court’s subject matter jurisdiction.  Thus, the plaintiff’s factual allegations will be subject to “closer scrutiny.”  CRS’s allegations could not survive such closer scrutiny, but the court permitted CRS to amend the complaint to show programmatic, concrete harms that truly would be above and beyond the organization’s day-to-day advocacy mission.

We will not speculate as to whether CRS can satisfy this test on the next go around.  We leave speculation to plaintiffs.

 

We recently read an editorial in The New York Times advocating lawsuits as a means of regulating an industry. Politicians are gripped by paralysis – so the argument goes – thus we must entrust the issue to litigators, smart judges, and good-hearted jurors.  After all, hadn’t years of product liability litigation resulted in safer products?

Well, … no.  Data doesn’t  show that litigation leads to safer products.  Fewer products, probably.  More expensive products, definitely.  But litigation is a perfectly awful way to impose safety regulations on an industry.  Say what you will about politicians, but at least they are somewhat representative of people’s will.  Say what you will about regulators, but at least they possess some expertise.  If there is paralysis in the halls of a legislature or government agency, that paralysis reflects a lack of consensus, a clash of passions, or a genuine conflict in the science.  Litigation is an eccentric means of ruling on general issues – it is off-center.  The peculiarities of one lawyer’s eloquence, or one judge’s bent for social engineering or twelve jurors’ emotions can produce a verdict with profoundly puzzling and profoundly enormous implications.  It is a rotten way to lay out general safety rules.  (Mind you, we are not talking about constitutional issues that may require judicial intervention.)  The various say-sos of jurors or even judges can be unpredictable, unbalanced, and inconsistent.  Lawsuits are not designed to determine safety science or policy.  Instead, they resolve disputes between parties.

Enter the judicial doctrine of standing. You cannot pursue a lawsuit merely because you are sure you have the right idea of How It’s Got to Be.  Rather, you must be actually injured in fact.  Injured sensibilities are not enough.  Not every Nosy Nellie qualifies as a plaintiff.  The doctrine of standing means that lawsuits pertain to actual disputes.  Courtrooms are not debating societies.  If there are judges anywhere in the land, say, in Brooklyn or Boston or Los Angeles or anywhere else who think they have a great idea about how to regulate consumer products, great; write a letter or comment to a legislator or regulator, but don’t glom onto a lawsuit as a way of playing the role of Philosopher King.  Maybe the judiciary is not always the “least dangerous branch,” but limiting doctrines such as standing are intended to make it so.

Standing is the key issue in today’s case, Debernardis v. IQ Formulations, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52445 (S.D. Fla. March 29, 2018).  Debernardis was a purported class action alleging that certain dietary supplements contained a stimulant that was unlawful and, therefore, rendered the supplements “adulterated” or “misbranded.”  The plaintiffs parsed the FDCA regulations to justify this allegation.  While the FDCA does not provide for a private right of action, there are a number of state consumer protection laws that incorporate FDCA labelling provisions and provide a mechanism for private suits.  Accordingly, the plaintiffs in Debernardis contended that the makers of the supplements had violated Florida, Illinois, and New York deceptive practices acts and other laws.  The plaintiffs alleged that they suffered economic injury because they would not have purchased the supplements had they known that one of its ingredients had not been approved by the FDA. Importantly, the plaintiffs did not allege that they had suffered any physical harm or that the supplements did not work as advertised.

The defendants moved to dismiss the class complaint, arguing, inter alia, that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the action.  The Debernardis court began with an overview of the standing requirement, describing the actual injury requirement, as well as the need for plaintiffs to demonstrate “a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of.”  As we argued in a recent post, it is remarkable how many cases come down to the issue of causation.  The Debernardis court also mentioned the requirement that plaintiffs must show “a likelihood that a court ruling in [the plaintiff’s] favor would remedy [his] injury.”  These standing requirements are in no way relaxed for class actions.  The named plaintiffs still must still allege that they personally have been injured such as to satisfy the test for standing.
We are pleased to report that the key standing cases cited by the defendants in Debernardis were three cases residing within the Third Circuit.   One in particular, Hubert v. Gen. Nutrition Corp., 2017 WL 3971912 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 8, 2017), was very similar to Debernardis and arrived at a dismissal for want of standing.  In Hubert, the plaintiffs offered only a “threadbare allegation” that they paid more for supplements than they would have if the supplements had been accurately labeled.  Without supporting factual allegations, such conclusory statements did not establish injury in fact.  Moreover, the Hubert court rejected a benefit-of-the-bargain theory because the plaintiffs alleged no adverse health consequences nor that the supplements failed to perform as advertised.  Exactly the same weaknesses bedeviled the Debernardis complaint.  No actual, concrete injury was set forth in the complaint.  (The plaintiffs in Debernardis relied on two cases from the Eleventh Circuit. That circuit was the winner of a big, fat No-Prize from us last year, as it generated the most cases in our Bottom Ten list.  In any event, the Eleventh Circuit cases had some meat to their price differential theories – something wholly lacking in Debernardis.)
The Debernardis court confronted the issue of standing squarely and concluded that the plaintiffs did not have it:  “The broad claim that they would not have purchased the Supplements at all had they known that [the defendant] had failed to follow the FDA’s approval procedure regarding an ingredient is insufficient to confer standing.” Similar reasoning might apply to some of the drug and device cases we encounter.

Class actions hold our interest, even though we do not see them all that often anymore in the drug and medical device space. Maybe we are the rubbernecking motorists who can’t resist slowing down to gaze at someone else’s fender bender.  Maybe we are the children at the zoo who rush to the reptile house to gawk at creatures charitably described as unsightly.  Or maybe it’s because class actions are such odd ducks.  Our civil litigation system is conceived around concepts of due process.  Yet, a class action defendant can be compelled under threat of state authority to pay money to people who have never proved a claim or an injury, and an absent class member can be bound to the result of a proceeding in which he or she has never appeared.  What could possibly go wrong?

We expect many of you are like us, so we have gathered here a trio of significant class action opinions that caught our eye over the last few weeks. All hail from California.  All are important for unique reasons.  None involves drugs or medical devices, but the opinions are relevant generally to class settlements, expert opinion, and standing to appeal—topics that readily cross over.  So, without further delay, here we go.

Nationwide Class Settlements and Choice of Law: In re Hyundai and Kia Fuel Economy Litig., No. 15-56014, 2018 WL 505343 (9th. Cir. Jan. 23, 2018).  We will start with the opinion that has received the most attention and is probably the most important—the Ninth Circuit’s opinion reversing a nationwide class settlement because the district court did not consider the impact of varying state law. Id. at **12-13.  The procedural history for these multiple class actions resulting in a nationwide settlement is long and dizzying.  The important point is that the district court certified a settlement class that offered benefits to class members (automobile purchasers allegedly defrauded by representations regarding fuel mileage) and substantial fees to class counsel.

However, in certifying the class, the district court overly relied on a well-worn principle—that the inquiry on whether common issues of law predominate is relaxed with a settlement class.  Because the district court was certifying a class for settlement only, it ruled that a choice-of-law analysis was unnecessary. Id. at *11.

That was the district court’s mistake. As the Ninth Circuit explained:

Because the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance inquiry focuses on “questions that preexist any settlement,” namely, “the legal or factual questions that qualify each class member’s case as a genuine controversy,” a district court may not relax its “rigorous” predominance inquiry when it considers certification of a settlement class.  To be sure, when “[c]onfronted with a request for settlement-only class certification, a district court need not inquire whether the case, if tried, would present intractable management problems, for the proposal is that there be no trial.” But “other specifications of the Rule—those designed to protect absentees by blocking unwarranted or overbroad class definitions—demand undiluted, even heightened, attention in the settlement context.

Id. at *5 (emphasis added, citing Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 (1997)).  The district court’s error therefore was threefold.  First, it failed to conduct a choice-of-law analysis to determine the controlling substantive law. Id. at *12.  Second, the district court failed to acknowledge that laws in various states materially differed from California law.  Third, the district court did not consider whether material variations in state law defeated predominance under Rule 23(b)(3).

This is not to say that the district court lacks discretion on remand to certify another nationwide settlement class. We do know, however, that the district court will have to subject any newly proposed nationwide settlement to choice-of-law analysis and will have to decide whether state laws differ and whether any differences defeat the predominance of common legal issues.

Class Certification and Admissibility of Expert Opinions: Apple, Inc. v. Superior Court, No. D072287, 2018 WL 579858 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 29, 2018). Our second case held that a trial court can consider only admissible expert opinion evidence submitted in connection with a class certification motion and that California has only one standard for admissibility of expert opinion, Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. University of So. Cal., 55 Cal. 4th 747 (2012).  In other words, Sargon applies at the class certification stage, a point about which we have often wondered, but for which we never had a clear answer.

Until now.  We wrote about Sargon here when it came out in 2012.  The opinion moved California away from its unique “Kelly/Leahy” test and toward a more Daubert-like standard.  In the new California Court of Appeal case, the trial court certified a class of consumers, but expressly refused to apply Sargon to the declarations of the plaintiffs’ experts. Id. at *1.  You will not be surprised to learn that the experts in question were damages experts who offered the opinions that damages could be calculated on a classwide basis.  Id. at **2-5.  Over multiple rounds of briefing, the defendant objected to the opinions and urged the trial court to apply Sargon.  The plaintiffs resisted.

In the end, the trial court ruled that “[t]he issues [the defendant] raises with respect to the materials Plaintiffs’ experts will rely upon in forming their opinions and whether Plaintiffs’ experts’ analyses rely on accepted methodologies and whether the analyses are correct are issues for trial.” Id. at *6.  The court therefore certified the class. Id.

In reversing, the California Court of Appeal issued a very straightforward holding:

[T]he court may consider only admissible expert opinion evidence at class certification.  The reasons for such a limitation are obvious.  A trial court cannot make an informed or reliable determination on the basis of inadmissible expert opinion evidence.  And certifying a proposed class based on inadmissible expert opinion evidence would merely lead to its exclusion at trial, imperiling continued certification of the class and wasting the time and resources of the parties and the court.

Id. at *8 (internal citations omitted). The Sargon case involved expert opinion presented at trial, but the Court of Appeal saw “no reason why Sargon should not apply equally in the context of class certification motions.” Id. at *9.

Moreover, although the plaintiffs argued that the result would have been the same even if the trial court had applied Sargon, the Court of Appeal disagreed.  The experts’ opinions were crucial to the trial court’s order, and there were significant individual issues for each consumer that the experts attempted to brush over. Id. at *11.  The Court of Appeal found that if the trial court had applied Sargon to these opinions, “there is a reasonable chance it would have excluded these declarations and found plaintiffs’ showing to be lacking.” Id. The Court of Appeal found similar deficiencies with the experts’ estimate of the size of the class, making it “difficult to see on the current record how plaintiffs’ formula could be found reliable.” Id. at *12.

Class Actions and Standing to Appeal: Hernandez v. Restoration Hardware, Inc., No. S233983, 2018 WL 577716 (Cal. Jan. 29, 2018). Our final class action opinion for today is Hernandez v. Restoration Hardware, where the issue was whether an unnamed class member has standing to appeal from a class action judgment under California procedure.  The California Supreme Court decided that an unnamed class member does not have standing to appeal without first intervening as a party in the trial court.  In Hernandez, the plaintiff sued a retailer for violating credit card laws, and after several years of litigation, the trial court certified a class and held a bench trial resulting in a substantial award.  An unnamed class member received notice of the class action, but she neither intervened as a party nor opted out.  Instead, her attorney filed a notice of appearance on her behalf. Id. at *1.

The controversy began when class counsel requested a 25 percent fee. Again the absent class member did not formally intervene, but instead appeared through counsel at the fairness hearing and argued mainly procedural points. Id. at *2.  The trial court nonetheless granted the fee request, and the unnamed class member appealed. Id. at *3.

In holding that the unnamed class member was not a “party aggrieved” and had no standing to appeal, a unanimous California Supreme Court followed Justice Traynor’s 75-year-old decision in Eggert v. Pacific Sales S&L Co., 20 Cal. 2d 199 (1942).  The Court’s main point was that absent class members have ample opportunity to become parties of record in class actions, either by filing a complaint in intervention or by filing an appealable motion to set aside and vacate a class judgment. Id. at *4.  This appellant did neither, making her neither a “party” nor “aggrieved.”  The Supreme Court also rejected the invitation to follow Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which gives class members who informally object to settlement the right to appeal. Id. at *5.  The federal approach does not address California’s statutory requirement for appeal, and it cannot be reconciled with the controlling authority, Eggert.  As the California Supreme Court concluded,

Following Eggert and requiring intervention does not discourage unnamed class members from filing a meritorious appeal.  Rather, it continues a manageable process under a bright-line rule that promotes judicial economy by providing clear notice of a timely intent to challenge the class representative’s settlement action.  Formal intervention also enables the trial court to review the motion to intervene in a timely manner. . . .  By filing an appeal without first intervening in the action however, [the appellant] never became an “aggrieved party” of record to the action as our law requires.

Id. at *7. According to the California Supreme Court, this absent class member made the strategic decision to wait and see if she agreed with the result in the trial court, and that was not sufficient to perfect the right to appeal. Id. The Court also reasoned that the prevailing rule protects against wasteful and meritless objections, recognizes the fiduciary duties of class representatives and their counsel, and respects the doctrine of stare decisis. Id. at **7-8.

There you have it—all you need to know about three important decisions. Someday you might need them.

Just two days ago, Bexis lowered the boom on the Third Circuit’s recent decision in Cottrell v. Alcon Labs, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 4657402 (3d Cir. Oct. 18, 2017).   In a 2-1 decision, the Cottrell court permitted the plaintiffs to proceed on the notion that making eye drop drips bigger than they have to be is a consumer protection violation.  To Bexis’s eyes, that decision was blind to the lack of standing, the absence of any “substantial economic injury,”  and the FDA’s non-approval of eye drop drips of the “smaller” size plaintiffs claim it is somehow illegal not to make under state law.  It turns out that there is someone else out there even more unhappy with the Cottrell decision than Bexis: the defendant.  Now we have the defendant’s Petition for Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc,  https://www.druganddevicelawblog.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/30/2017/11/Cottrell-rehearing-petition.pdf which makes an insightful and compelling case for undoing the panel’s decision.

 

Two preliminary matters are worthy of comment before we tell you what the Petition said. First, we have been so unkind about the Third Circuit’s error in the Fosamax case that we managed to attract the attention of the excellent CA3 blog.   In that blog, the author wondered whether our dissection of Fosamax was perhaps a bit more violent than necessary.  The author also wondered whether we were coming close to accusing the court of bad faith.  Yes to the former, but definitely No to the latter.  As we told the CA3 blog, we took issue with what we saw as bad reasoning, but never-ever thought there was any bad faith.  (The CA3 blog was generous enough to print our disclaimer.  Thanks for that.)  By and large, we are mighty proud of our home circuit.  We know several of the judges, and every one of them is honorable, hard-working, and much smarter than we are.  Sometimes we are not going to agree with the court’s decisions.  Luckily for us we work in a profession and live in a country where debate and criticism are allowed.  Second, succeeding on a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc is not easy.  When we clerked for Ninth Circuit Judge William Norris, it seemed there was a presumption against such petitions.  Who wants to admit they were wrong?  And yet we remember one time our judge was on a panel where things strayed from the norm.  Another member of the panel (who will remain unnamed) loved to decide cases before oral argument and draft a memorandum disposition rather than a bench memorandum.  This judge prided himself on having almost no backlog.  He pushed for deciding a particular contract dispute via a mere memorandum disposition, not a published opinion, because he saw the issues as being too obvious and insignificant for the Federal Reporter.  And so a memo dispo issued.  But then the losing party filed a petition for rehearing that was not only insistent, but it made a lot of sense.  We met with our Judge in his chambers to talk it over.  The telephone rang.  It was the third member of the panel, who began by saying, “Bill, I think maybe we got one wrong.”  The two judges confabbed, and then set about persuading the third to change his mind and change the outcome.  It took some arm-twisting, but in the end, justice was done.  A mistake led to a proud moment.  By the way, the Ninth Circuit Judge who called our Judge was Anthony Kennedy.  He is now on the U.S. Supreme Court.  So whenever we hear criticisms of Justice Kennedy for fence-sitting, or for grounding some of his opinions in “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” or, much worse, international law, we recall his extraordinary integrity and modesty, and how he was supremely interested in getting things right.

 

Back to the Cottrell Petition. The main points in favor of revisiting the Third Circuit’s decision are that it is contrary to Finkelman v. National Football League, 810 F.3d 187 (3d Cir. 2016), it “radically expands Article III standing,” and that it directly conflicts with Eike v. Allergan, Inc., 850 F.3d 315 (7th Cir. 2017).  Moreover, the plaintiff’s inherently speculative theory of injury in fact was rejected by federal courts in Massachusetts and Missouri.  (When a court comes out with a more pro-plaintiffy position than courts in Massachusetts and Missouri, that’s really saying something.)  That theory was also rejected by the district court in Cottrell.  And then the Third Circuit reversed that rejection.  

 

Remember that the Cottrell plaintiffs did not claim that the medications caused them physical harm or were ineffective in treating their eye conditions, or that the defendants misrepresented or omitted any information about the medications or the number of doses expected.  Rather, the plaintiffs simply insist that smaller eye drops would have cost them less.  How is that any different from the Third Circuit’s earlier, controlling Finkelman case, where the plaintiffs had purchased two Super Bowl tickets on the resale market for $2,000 each, and contended that the National Football League had violated New Jersey’s ticket law by not offering at least 95% of tickets to the general public and instead withholding most tickets for league insiders?  The plaintiff in Finkelman alleged that the NFL’s conduct had caused him injury by reducing the supply of tickets, thereby driving up the cost of tickets on the resale market.  The Third Circuit in Finkelman held that the plaintiff lacked standing because the injury was wholly speculative.  Sure, maybe the NFL’s withholding of tickets increased prices on the resale market, but “it might also be the case that it had no effect on the resale market,” and indeed tickets might even have been more expensive in plaintiff’s hypothetical resale market, as members of the general public may have greater incentives than league insiders to resell at high prices.  (We have to admit that, as residents of Philadelphia, where the local team has the best record in the entire NFL, the availability of Super Bowl tickets is a much, much bigger issue to us right now than the size of eye drops.)

The Petition makes the point that, just as in Finkelman, other market effects might have produced a result very different from what the plaintiffs theorized.  In Cottrell, the plaintiffs essentially presumed that the defendants price their products solely according to volume, such that “changing the eyedropper size would not change the price of the medicine, while extending the useful lifespan of each bottle, driving down [the plaintiffs’] aggregate costs.” But it is just as likely that use of smaller drops would prompt use of different sized containers, or that smaller drops would result in a higher price – because of more doses – for the same container.  Who knows?  All we do know is that the allegations of the complaint do not “affirmatively and plausibly” add up to an “injury” caused by the defendant’s conduct.  

The Petition nicely captures the absurdity of the Third Circuit’s analysis, under which consumers suffer Article III injury from “unfairness” whenever they “walk into a supermarket and buy a product — from toothpaste, to ketchup, to deodorant, to hairspray — so long as they can then conceive of a way that the product might be dispensed more efficiently.”  The Petition also nicely exposes the weakness in the Third Circuit’s effort to distinguish away the Seventh Circuit decision in Eike.  According to the Cottrell majority, Eike “seemed to begin its standing analysis with a determination that the plaintiffs had ‘no cause of action.’” But while it is true that the Seventh Circuit did (correctly) conclude that the plaintiffs had “no cause of action,” the Seventh Circuit also separately held that there was no Article III injury, without ever suggesting a causal connection between the two.  Eike, 850 F.3d at 318.  The Seventh Circuit got it fundamentally right when it held that the fact that a seller does not sell the product that you want, or at the price you’d like to pay, is not an actionable injury; “it is just a regret or disappointment.” 

As residents in, and fans of, the Third Circuit, the Cottrell decision certainly is cause for “regret and disappointment.” We called this post a “second look” at the eye-drop litigation.  It is the second look we have taken at the Cottrell case.  We hope that the Third Circuit takes a second look.      

 

 

Last month we brought you word of an excellent result (preemption) in a ridiculous case − a class action claiming that the drops in eye-drops are too big.  That decision was in accord with an earlier decision likewise dismissing such claims on preemption grounds. See Thompson v. Allergan USA, Inc., 993 F. Supp.2d 1007 (E.D. Mo. 2014) (discussed here).

However, there is another ground on which these bottom-feeding actions have been dismissed – lack of sufficient injury to support standing.  After all, the concept of some sort of ideal “price” for a product, above which it is improper to charge is a will-o-wisp, apparently knowable only to plaintiff-side experts (just ask them, they’ll tell you).  This is called “benefit of the bargain” by such experts.  Courts tend to use a different description – “absurd.”

[Plaintiff] received the drug she was prescribed, the drug did the job it was meant to do . . ., and it caused no apparent physical injuries. Under such circumstances, there could be no ascertainable loss. . . .  The Court believes Plaintiffs’ proposed liability theory, which requires no demonstrable loss of any benefit, would lead to absurd results and holds that Plaintiffs fail to state a claim as a matter of law.

In re Avandia Marketing Sales Practices & Products Liability Litigation, 639 F. Appx. 866, 869 (3d Cir. 2016) (citations and quotation marks omitted), affirming, 100 F.Supp.3d 441, 446 (E.D. Pa. 2015), also holding  “absurdity is inherent in the nature of Plaintiff’s claimed loss” because it was “based only on the idea that [the product] is inherently worth some unspecified amount less than whatever Plaintiff might have paid for it”).

That was essentially how the Seventh Circuit reacted to these same eye drop allegations in Eike v. Allergan, Inc., 850 F.3d 315 (7th Cir. 2017) (discussed here).  We described the absurd theory that the plaintiffs were pursuing in our Eike post, and because we’re lazy, we’ll simply repeat that here:

The plaintiffs sued pharmaceutical manufacturers of eye drops used for the treatment of glaucoma because the drops were bigger than they needed to be.  The theory is that the plaintiffs were paying more than they would have if the drops were smaller.  The plaintiffs alleged no conspiracy among the defendants.  This was not an antitrust case. . . .  Nor did the plaintiffs allege any misrepresentations.  Rather, the plaintiffs simply sought, because they thought it would be less expensive, a smaller dose product that nobody made.

The Seventh Circuit essentially agreed: “The fact that a seller does not sell the product that you want, or at the price you’d like to pay, is not an actionable injury; it is just a regret or disappointment − which is all we have here, the class having failed to allege ‘an invasion of a legally protected interest.’”  850 F.3d at 318 (citations omitted).  Accord Carter v. Alcon Laboratories, Inc., 2014 WL 989002, at *4-5 (E.D. Mo. March 13, 2014) (also dismissing identical claim for lack of any cognizable injury).

Apparently, however, the inherent triviality of that claim is no deterrent to today’s class action lawyers, who seem to have nothing better to do than measure the comparative value of eye drop drips.  After several attempts, they seem to have found a couple of judges credulous enough to allow one of these non-injury cases to survive – at least on the standing/injury issue.  That’s today’s case, Cottrell v. Alcon Labs, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 4657402 (3d Cir. Oct. 18, 2017).   Looking to the “scientific consensus on eye drop size,” the majority is willing to let plaintiffs proceed on the notion that making eye drop drips bigger than they have to be is a consumer protection violation.  Id. at *2.  They may proceed even though “no defendant has reduced their products’ drop sizes,” and thus there is no competing product, priced at any price, against which to ascertain the plaintiffs’ purportedly “substantial economic injury.”  Id.  Nor does it appear that the FDA has ever approved – or even had submitted to it – eye drop drips of the “smaller” size plaintiffs claim it is somehow illegal not to make under state law.

The standing question focused on “injury in fact,” and as the party bringing the claim, plaintiffs had the burden of proving standing.  Id. at *4.  To find standing here, the majority (conceding that the district court’s no-standing analysis had “some persuasive appeal”) went deep into the weeds – breaking “injury in fact” into various “components.”  Id. at *5.  The first was a “legally protected interest.”  Conveniently, this allowed the Cottrell majority to base their result on something that prior precedent had “not defined” or even “clarified whether [it] does any independent work in the standing analysis.”  Id.  Presto!  A clean slate on which to build a standing castle in the air.  “[W]hether a plaintiff has alleged an invasion of a ‘legally protected interest’ does not hinge on whether the conduct alleged to violate a statute does, as a matter of law, violate the statute.” Id.  Impressive – this is a holding that the merits don’t matter. We’ll come back to that.

The second aspect of Cottrell’s drawing on a clean slate is “that financial or economic interests are ‘legally protected interests’ for purposes of the standing doctrine.”  Id. at *6.  Well, duh.  That seems like a platitude.  Third, “legally protected interests” can be created by statute, including a state statute.  Id.  That also sounds platitudinous – except Cottrell separates that proposition from any injury.  That comes in the fourth factor – that “interest must be related to the injury in fact” as opposed to being “a byproduct of the suit itself.”  Id.

Having set up this thicket on its clean slate, the court’s actual analysis of the injury requirement’s application to overly large eye drop drips takes only a paragraph:

Plaintiffs claim economic interests: interests in the money they had to spend on medication that was impossible for them to use.  They seek monetary compensation for Defendants’ conduct that they allege caused harm to these interests.  Plaintiffs’ claimed interests arise from state consumer protection statutes that provide monetary relief to private individuals who are damaged by business practices that violate those statutes.  These claims fit comfortably in categories of “legally protected interests” readily recognized by federal courts.

Id. (citing Cantrell v. City of Long Beach, 241 F.3d 674, 684 (9th Cir. 2001)).  Wow!  At that level of generality, any claim that anything for any reason should have been made differently or priced differently confers standing.  That no such alternative product exists is of no bearing.  This breathtakingly broad holding means that the amount of harm to the “economic interest” being undefinable has no bearing.  That the “business practices” at issue were a consequence of the FDA-approved design of the product has no bearing.  These are presumably “merits questions” that court already divorced from standing by putting that rabbit in the hat in its “first” stroke on the blank slate – that merits don’t matter.

We’ve seen this sort of credulous avoidance of merits questions before in class actions before.  Remember how courts for decades misinterpreted Eisen v. Carlyle & Jacqueline, 417 U.S. 156 (1974), to find that class certification can’t look at the merits?  That was finally interred once and for all in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 351 & n.6 (2011), but now we see it popping up again on this supposed standing blank slate.

It’s not really a blank slate, however.  The Third Circuit, and many other courts, have held that TwIqbal “plausibility” requirements apply to the analysis of standing questions.  “With respect to 12(b)(1) motions in particular, the plaintiff must assert facts that affirmatively and plausibly suggest that the pleader has the right he claims.”  In re Schering Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Class Action, 678 F.3d 235, 244 (3d Cir. 2012) (applying TwIqbal pleading requirements to standing analysis in RICO drug pricing class action).  TwIqbal “teach that standing cannot rest on mere ‘legal conclusions’ or ‘naked assertions.’”  Finkelman v. National Football League, 810 F.3d 187, 194 n. 55 (3d Cir. 2016) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Because Lujan mandates that standing “must be supported in the same way as any other matter on which the plaintiff bears the burden of proof,” it follows that the TwomblyIqbal facial plausibility requirement for pleading a claim is incorporated into the standard for pleading subject matter jurisdiction.  Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561.  Therefore, we join many of our sister circuits and hold that when evaluating a facial challenge to subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), a court should use TwomblyIqbal’s “plausibility” requirement, which is the same standard used to evaluate facial challenges to claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

Silha v. ACT, Inc., 807 F.3d 169, 174 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Schering Plough along with many other cases).  “Just as the plaintiff bears the burden of plausibly alleging a viable cause of action, so too the plaintiff bears the burden of pleading facts necessary to demonstrate standing.”  Hochendoner v. Genzyme Corp., 823 F.3d 724, 730 (1st Cir. 2016) (Iqbal citation omitted) (also providing string citation of TwIqbal standing cases).

Along these lines, we also point out that the sole citation in Cottrell supporting its one-paragraph injury in fact analysis, Cantrell, supra, is a Ninth Circuit case, and the Ninth Circuit is the only circuit that does not follow TwIqbal in standing cases. See Maya v. Centex Corp., 658 F.3d 1060, 1068 (9th Cir. 2011) (cited as lone exception in Silha).

Having thus improperly insulated the inherently ridiculous nature of the alleged injury from TwIqbal inspection on standing questions – without even mentioning TwIqbalCottrell then disagrees with Eike for precisely that reason.  To do so, Cottrell splits another hair – distinguishing business practices that are “unfair” under a consumer protection statute from those “that are fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading.”  2017 WL 4657402, at *6.

The plaintiffs in Eike explicitly alleged that the defendants’ practices in manufacturing and selling eye medication were “unfair”. . . .  The Court was obliged to take these allegations as true for purposes of the standing inquiry.

Id.

That is, to be charitable, garbage. “Unfair” by itself is your classic legal conclusion.  Under TwIqbal, legal conclusions have to be accompanied by some factual basis to survive dismissal.  Eike rightly pointed out that, in the absence of any allegation of anything false or misleading about how these products were marketed, an “unfairness” allegation amounted to mere “dissatisfaction with the defendants’ products or their prices.”  2017 WL 4657402, at *6 (describing Eike).

Having thus improperly given the plaintiffs’ inherently implausible theory on “legally protected interest a TwIqbal free pass, Cottrell also waved it through the other injury in fact factors it created.  Most interestingly – because of the dissent – Cottrell attempted to distinguish a prior standing precedent, Finkelman, supra.

[Plaintiffs’] pricing theory is far less speculative than . . . the theory of financial harm we rejected in Finkelman . . ., [where t]he plaintiff claimed that this policy reduced the number of tickets available in the resale market.  Under the basic economic principle of supply and demand then, the policy resulted in an inflated ticket price in the resale market, according to the plaintiff.  We rejected plaintiff’s theory, as the plaintiff pled no facts to support their assertion that [defendant’s] policy would actually reduce the number of tickets in the resale market.

Id. at *9.  Since a “reduced size” of the eye drop drip (produced by a different sized hole in the tip) was the “only change from the status quo” that plaintiffs’ theory in Cottrell required in the majorities eyes, it was less “speculative” than the too-remote theory in Finkleman, and thus “sufficient to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.”  Id. at *10.

The dissent saw things differently.  Finkleman was dispositive (“I believe that Finkelman all but decides this case”).  Cottrell, 2017 WL 4657402, at *12 (dissenting opinion).  “We properly recognized that markets operate in complex ways.”  The market forces in Finkleman “made clear that any potentially unlawful conduct by the [defendant] did not necessarily result in higher prices to the plaintiff” and “concluded that we have no way of knowing whether [defendant’s] withholding of tickets would have had the effect of increasing or decreasing prices on the secondary market.”  Id.

[F]or purposes of analyzing economic injuries in the context of marketwide effects, we cannot do precisely what the plaintiffs here ask of us:  isolate and change one variable while assuming that no downstream changes would also occur.  These cases . . . reflect courts’ skepticism about plaintiffs’ ability to satisfy the case or controversy requirement of Article III by relying on such imaginative economic theories.  Thus, contrary to the Majority’s assertion, the plaintiffs’ pricing theory does in fact depend on exactly the sort of presumption rejected by us and by other courts − namely, the presumption that no other aspects of the market would change once the defendants’ conduct did. . . .  Finkelman makes clear that [standing analysis] distinguishes “between allegations that stand on well-pleaded facts and allegations that stand on nothing more than supposition.” . . .  The plaintiffs . . . ask us to assume certain facts about other actors’ behavior − exactly the sort of assumption that cannot be proven at trial. Accordingly, I would reject the plaintiffs’ alleged economic injury as overly speculative and untenable under existing precedent.

Id. at *13 (multiple citation footnotes omitted).

The Cottrell dissent goes on to discuss multiple reasons why plaintiffs’ attenuated economic assumptions are “a particularly bad fit for the market for pharmaceuticals.”  Id.

  • Pharmaceuticals are not priced “by volume;” “unit-based pricing is too one-dimensional for the [pharmaceutical] marketplace.”
  • Pharmaceutical pricing is “value-based”; “measured in part by effective doses.”
  • This pricing “shift . . . sever[s] the link between volume and price upon which the plaintiffs’ alleged injury depends.”
  • “[T]he price of each bottle could actually increase if each bottle provided more doses.”
  • Because plaintiffs’ assumption “does not reflect market conditions and pressures in the pharmaceutical industry,” it would “draw an unreasonable inference about the downstream consequences of” the design change they are demanding.
  • “[U]nreasonable” inferences cannot be accepted “at face value.”

Id. at *13-14 (dissenting opinion).

The dissent is of the view that the majority’s decision conflicts with Finkleman.  We agree, but go further.  We think the entire construct in Cottrell conflicts with prior Third Circuit precedent applying TwIqbal in standing cases because of its holding that the merits – and thus the facts that must be pleaded to establish the “plausibility” of the claim on the merits – don’t matter in standing cases.  Cottrell thus represents, with In re Fosamax (Alendronate Sodium) Products Liability Litigation, 852 F.3d 268 (3d Cir. 2017), the second abrupt pro-plaintiff lurch by the Third Circuit this year, which is less surprising than it might seem, considering the both of the judges in the majority in Cottrell also decided Fosamax.

About the only good thing that can be said about Cottrell is that it did not purport to decide that preemption issue that has also defeated these half-baked dropper drip size allegations.  Id. at *11.  That argument is that design changes affecting the dosage of medication delivered – which is necessarily what plaintiffs’ drop size allegations depend on – are “major” changes that require prior FDA approval, and thus are “impossible” to carry out with the immediacy that state law demands. See Gustavesen v. Alcon Laboratories, Inc., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 4374384, at *5 (D. Mass. Sep. 29, 2017), and Thompson, 993 F. Supp.2d at 1013-13, as discussed in our prior posts.

We’re pleased to report the demise of a plaintiff’s firm’s attempt to punish the FDA for rejecting the firm’s attempt to force the agency to create evidence helpful to plaintiffs in litigation. The ploy began in 2012, when “a law firm that represents hundreds” of plaintiffs in prescription drug mass tort litigation “on a contingency fee basis” “filed a citizen petition with the [FDA].”  Sheller, P.C. v. U.S. Dep’t of HHS, 119 F. Supp.3d 364, 368 (E.D. Pa. 2015). Plaintiff sought agency action that it could, in turn, parade before juries in the underlying mass tort, specifically: “that the FDA immediately revoke the [relevant] indication for the . . . [d]rugs” at issue or alternatively “require that labeling for those drugs include a black box warning based on the lack of sufficient data to prove their safety.”  Id.  In addition, the plaintiff law firm sought to enlist the FDA in evading a confidentiality order (originally agreed to by the law firm) that protected discovery which the defendant in the underlying litigation had provided.  Id.

So far, so what?  While annoying, attempts of this nature to embroil the FDA in mass tort prescription medical product litigation are part of the other side’s play book.  (((Bexis))) recalls similar machinations during the Bone Screw litigation whereby the plaintiffs did everything they could (ultimately unsuccessfully) to prevent the Agency from adding to those products’ labeling previously off-label uses that had become the medical standard of care – because the Bone Screw plaintiffs’ litigation strategy was based on the procedures in question being off label.

The Bone Screw plaintiffs failed, 63 Fed. Reg. 40025-41 (FDA Jul. 27, 1998) – as did the law firm plaintiff in Sheller (119 F. Supp.3d at 368) – since the FDA normally has little patience for the junk science that the other side routinely peddles in mass tort litigation.  The plaintiff law firm in Sheller would have been off not filing the petition at all, since according to plaintiff, “the FDA decision to deny its petition “has been used as the basis to assert federal preemption and other [defense] arguments against [plaintiff’s] clients in [mass-tort] litigation.”  Id.

No kidding.  That’s the down side this sort of litigation strategy.  Attempts to involve the FDA in litigation have the risk that, if one loses, the FDA’s actions can create a positive narrative for the other side.

But plaintiffs believe in the doctrine of “heads I win; tails you lose.”

So in Sheller the plaintiff law firm attempted to gin up, from their failed strategy, a tort cause of action – not an administrative claim – against the FDA.  Talk about a bootstrap.  The plaintiff law firm was the one that involved the FDA in the first place.  The bizarre theory of liability postulated that, if the FDA wouldn’t cooperate in creating pro-plaintiff evidence/themes in the underlying litigation, that required the plaintiff law firm to work harder and spend more money to come up with something that juries might believe.  So the law firm sued the FDA to recover its purportedly increased litigation costs:

Plaintiff [claims] . . . that the FDA denial of [its] citizen petition increased [its] costs in litigating [because] . . . the defendant . . . has argued that the FDA’s denial of the Petition proves, as a matter of law, that the [drug’s] label is adequate. . . . Plaintiff argues that it must continue to expend resources in defending against that argument, and it faces the risk that a Court will accept it, lowering [plaintiff’s] contingent fee recovery.

Sheller, 119 F. Supp.3d at 369-70 (quotation marks omitted).

Continue Reading Bootstrapped Claim Against the FDA Gets the Boot

Ever since we first waded into the issue of “duty to supply” back in 2007 in connection with the litigation that produced Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs v. von Eschenbach, 495 F.3d 695 (D.C. Cir. 2007), we’ve criticized cases that, either actually or potentially, seek to impose liability – not for defective products – but for failure to supply as much of a non-defective drug as has been prescribed for the plaintiff.  Today, we’re updating that discussion with a recent development, the affirmance of the decision that rejected the concept of “duty to supply” in 22 states.  We blogged about that decision in the district court here.  Plaintiffs thereafter appealed, but dropped their claims asserting a “free-standing duty to supply the market.”  What’s left are described as “acceleration” (that progression of the disease allegedly worsened”) and “contaminant” (related to the production difficulties) claims.

This decision is Hochendoner v. Genzyme Corp., Nos. 15-1446, -1447, slip op. (1st Cir. May 23, 2016).  The allegations in Hochendoner were that production difficulties led to a shortage of the only FDA-approved treatment for Fabry Disease, a progressive condition that is eventually fatal if untreated.  Slip op. at 3-5.  The shortage (which lasted several years) led to rationing, and in response to rationing a bunch of Fabre sufferers tried to sue.  For more details, see our prior post.  Except for one plaintiff, none of them alleged that there was anything wrong with the product they actually received – only that they didn’t receive enough of it, and as a result their pre-existing Fabre Disease symptoms recurred and/or progressed.

The First Circuit affirmed, albeit on different grounds – standing . Although not addressed in the District Court, standing is a “prerequisite” to subject matter jurisdiction, and cannot be waived.  Slip op. at 8.  An interesting procedural point that the court confirmed is that a “plaintiff bears the burden of establishing sufficient factual matter to plausibly demonstrate his standing to bring the action” under TwIqbalId. at 10.  In Hochendoner all but one of the plaintiffs alleged no particularized injury (no doubt because the litigation was a putative class action, and anything particularized is likely to preclude class certification).  Simply being required to take a reduced dose of a drug didn’t come close to actual, particularized injury:

Utterly absent, however, is any allegation linking the alleged acceleration and contaminant injuries to any specific plaintiff. This gap is most apparent with respect to the contaminant theory.  There is simply no assertion at any point in the complaints that any specific plaintiff took or received a dose contaminated with particulate matter.  Rather, the allegation is only that [defendant] produced a batch of [the drug] contaminated with particulate matter − not that contaminated doses were ever shipped or administered to any named Fabry patients.

Continue Reading New Duty To Supply Decision

We have posted many times about cases where a manufacturer of a regulated product is sued over alleged violations of a state consumer protection or deceptive trade practices act because of something allegedly amiss in the product’s name, labeling, advertising, or sales practices.  We know that drug and device manufacturers like the ones we represent can spend resources dealing with state attorneys general over the threat that such suits will be brought.  We cannot recall seeing, let alone posting on, a case where the manufacturer sued the state attorney general because its threat of suit—relayed to major retailers, who stopped selling the product—allegedly hurt its business and constitutional rights.  There would seem to be lots of reasons why an action like this might not be taken by a company that wants to keep doing business in the particular state for other products it manufacturers.  But if you are a one product, dietary supplement company and your presumably large market in Texas disappeared after letters went out based on a determination by the Texas AG’s office, not by a court, then you might be the one to bring suit preemptively.  That is what happened in NiGen Biotech, L.L.C., v. Paxton, No. 14-10923, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 17223 (5th Cir. Sept. 30, 2015).

The unusual posture of the case—in comparison to those we usually handle or read—means that it delves into constitutional issues that we knew better back when we clerked and the docket was sprinkled with cases against state actors.  The ones brought by prisoners are remembered more for their unique fact patterns and brand of advocacy than for the constitutional principles they implicated.  NiGen, likewise, holds our interest not because its treatment of sovereign immunity, federal question jurisdiction, and standing has direct implications for the sort of cases that normally fill our posts.  Rather, it shows that a manufacturer can go on the offensive against a state AG who probably thought it could do just about whatever it wanted prior to bringing its own suit.  It is not that we think the manufacturer Nigen is right on the underlying issue of whether the product’s label was deceptive, which touches on some complex constitutional issues, especially since Amarin has come down since this case started.

Continue Reading Going on Offense against State Deceptive Trade Practices AG Actions

Can a plaintiff sue in federal court for consumer fraud when he never purchased and never used the product?  This is not a trick question, and the obvious answer is also the correct answer.  No, he can’t.  But the point raises interesting strategic issues that we will get to in a minute.  The case du jour is Dapeer v. Neutrogena Corp.No. 14-22113-Civ, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37644 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 25, 2015), where the plaintiff filed a class action alleging that the labeling for more than 20 different types of sunblock made deceptive sun protection claims.  Id. at **2-3.  Mind you, the plaintiff did not allege sunburn, or any other adverse effect of the allegedly underpowered and purportedly not-so-water-resistant lotions and sprays.  His claims were of the economic type, as class actions these days tend to be, alleging that he would not have purchased the products had he known that the products did not actually block the sun or resist water as well as the labels claimed. Id. at *3.

The problem for the plaintiff was that he had purchased only two of the products, leading the court to conclude that he lacked Article III standing to represent classes asserting claims over the products he never bought.  Apparently, there are district courts that would have allowed this plaintiff to do what he wanted to do, i.e., represent class members on claims involving over 20 products [see id. at *9 n.3], although we cannot see how that can possibly be.  The rule in the Eleventh Circuit seems rock solid:  “[A]t least one named plaintiff must establish Article III standing for each class subclaim.  In other words, Article III standing of a named plaintiff must be established on a claim-by-claim basis within the Eleventh Circuit, and deferring the standing determination to the class certification stage will yield no different result.”  Id. at *9 (citations omitted).

So to have standing in a claim alleging deceptive sales, the plaintiff must have bought the product, and the district court therefore dismissed the claims related to products the plaintiff did not purchase or use.  Id. at *9 (“Here, Plaintiff lacks Article III standing to bring claims on behalf of the . . . products he did not purchase because he cannot conceivably allege any injuries from the products that he never purchased or used.”).  The class action still went forward, but with claims over two products instead of more than 20.

Continue Reading Plaintiff Gets Burned By Article III in Sunblock Class Action