Pharmaceutical Fracas: Can Misrepresentation Count as Proximate Cause in a Pharma RICO Claim?

BACKGROUND

Pharmaceutical drugs cause side effects – with that notion, there is no dispute. However, the issue of whether patients, physicians, or payors (underwriting insurance companies) are adequately informed of those side effects is often up for dispute. In 2017, Takeda Pharmaceuticals Company finalized a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), in which it agreed to pay damages to patients who took Actos, a Type II Diabetes medication, and later developed bladder cancer.

In 2017, several additional patients and multiple insurance companies filed a civil Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) action against Takeda for its misrepresentation of Actos’s side effects to prescribing physicians and patients. In Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 Healthcare Fund v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals Co. (2019), the plaintiffs alleged that neither the patients nor the payors knew the cancer risks associated with Actos at the time of purchase and that neither would have paid for the drug had they known of the risks. The District Court for the Central District of California dismissed the action for failure to state a claim under FRCP 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

To satisfy the standing requirement of a civil RICO claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1964(c), the Ninth Circuit has held that a “plaintiff must show: (1) that [their] alleged harm qualifies as injury to his business or property; and (2) that [their] harm was ‘by reason of’ the RICO violation.” The latter has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to require both proximate and but-for causation in these matters.

In applying these principles to Painters and Allied Trades, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the patients and the payors were “the most direct victims . . . who suffered economic injury” and thus had sufficiently alleged proximate cause. The Court remanded to the district court for further proceedings. Contention arises on the issue of the standing of the payor, specifically whether a payor can sufficiently allege proximate cause as a result of misrepresentation to prescribing physicians.

THE ISSUE

Is the proximate cause element of a RICO matter satisfied where a third-party payor alleges they would not have underwritten a prescription for a pharmaceutical drug if the drug manufacturer had not misrepresented safety risks to prescribers?

THE SPLIT

In addition to the Ninth Circuit, the First, Second, Third, and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeals have weighed in on the proximate cause requirements of a RICO matter. The First and Third Circuits both take a similar approach to the Ninth Circuit in Painters and Allied Trades. The Second and Seventh Circuits have held that such an allegation is not a sufficient showing of proximate cause for a RICO case.

The First Circuit ruled similarly to the Ninth Circuit in In re Neurontin Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation (2013), where a jury awarded Kaiser Foundation Health Plan damages for misrepresentation of a drug’s off-label use. Kaiser made its allegations as an insurance company covering the cost of prescriptions (“third-party-payor”). The drug, Neurontin, was manufactured and sold by Pfizer. The FDA approved Neurontin for the treatment of shingles-related seizures and pain. However, Kaiser alleged that Pfizer had misrepresented and promoted the drug to payors and providers as an effective treatment of bipolar disorder, neuropathic pain, and migraines. A public health and economics expert testified that, nationally, approximately 99.4% of Neurontin prescriptions for bipolar disorder, 70% of Neurontin prescriptions for neuropathic pain, and 27.9% of Neurontin prescriptions for migraines, would not have been written if Pfizer had not engaged in a fraudulent misrepresentation campaign. Kaiser thus alleged that its underwriting was a direct result of the misrepresentations. The First Circuit found this allegation, and the chain of causation, to be adequate for proximate cause under RICO. The Supreme Court denied Pfizer’s petition for writs of certiorari addressing this and two other similar matters.

Likewise, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of a class of payors that sued GlaxoSmithKline under RICO for deceptive marketing of Type II diabetes medications. The plaintiffs in In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices & Products Liability Litigation (2016)were union health and welfare funds that underwrote Avandia prescriptions for members instead of less expensive alternatives. This decision to cover was based on GSK’s representations to physicians about Avandia being safer than less expensive alternatives (of which Actos was one). Years of regulations and studies proved that this was patently false. In 2010, the Senate concluded that GSK had failed to warn the FDA and the public of the side effects of Avandia, and that GSK had attempted to downplay and misrepresent the potential heart-related risks. The plaintiffs alleged that there was a sufficient connection between the manufacturer’s years-long misrepresentation of Avandia and its underwriting of prescriptions for the drug. The Third Circuit deemed this reliance to be sufficient for the RICO proximate cause requirement. The Supreme Court denied certiorari.

Unlike the First and Third Circuits, the Second Circuit declined to find underwriting as a result of misrepresentation sufficient to allege proximate cause. In UFCW Local 1776 vs. Eli Lilly & Co. (2010), it summarily rejected doctor reliance national misrepresentation campaigns as a sufficient showing of but-for causation. There, Eli Lilly & Co. had minimized the drug Zyprexa’s risk of diabetes and hyperglycemia to patients and prescribers across the United States, Europe, and Asia. It also made “excessive claims of utility” and overcharged for the drug. The Second Circuit ruled that because doctors do not “generally consider the price of a medication when deciding what to prescribe for an individual patient[,]” the doctors’ reliance on misrepresented utility and potential side effects was not a proximate cause of the price that the third-party payors ultimately paid for the drug. This, the Second Circuit reasoned, was too attenuated to award damages to payors under RICO. In combination with other matters against Eli Lilly & Co., the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

The Seventh Circuit in Sidney Hillman Health Center of Rochester v. Abbott Laboratories (2017) made a conclusion similar to that of the Second Circuit. Plaintiffs in Sidney Hillman were insurers that underwrote member off-label prescriptions for Depakote. The drug, manufactured by Abbott Laboratories, was approved by the FDA for treatment of seizures, migraines, and certain conditions related to bipolar disorder. Abbott marketed the drug to physicians as effective in treating schizophrenia, dementia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In 2012, Abbott pleaded guilty to criminal actions and settled civil actions resulting from this off-label promotion. In an opinion by Judge Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit panel ruled that payors’ claims were too attenuated since the misrepresentation was directed only at physicians. Payors were “several levels removed in the causal sequence[,]” and thus could not satisfy the RICO proximate cause requirement.

LOOKING FORWARD

In the age of increasing opioid litigation, the debate over payor recovery for drug company misrepresentations to prescribing physicians is a debate ripe for review. The Supreme Court has denied certiorari from parties on both sides of this split. However, given the increased scrutiny of pharmaceutical companies as a result of the national opioid crisis, the Court may soon be forced to consider proximate cause requirements in civil RICO matters of “payor versus pharma.”