Two Tales of Preemption

FDA preemption for medical devices is never out of the spotlight for long, even if the story usually seems unchanged by the latest retelling. One recent case confirms that success is sometimes measured in large part by the adversary’s miscues, but the other seems to break new ground in this area by posing the question of how preemption works when a PMA and a 510(k) device are joined. Perhaps as important, however, is that this second case portends a growing split in the courts on a central point in the preemption debate.

Alphatec Prevails in Sixth Circuit

Some preemption cases are a trial in more ways than one, but Alphatec Spine, Inc. prevailed fairly handily in a hearing of Agee v. Alphatec Spine in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The district court had dismissed the charges with prejudice despite allowing the plaintiff to amend the complaint, describing the plaintiff’s arguments as “a rambling, disorganized mess,” which consisted primarily of conclusory arguments that came up short of pleading standards under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8 and 9.

The plaintiff seems to have compounded the problem by failing to directly respond to Alphatec’s argument regarding implied preemption during district court proceedings, taking up the subject only from the standpoint of doctrine. The plaintiff attacked express preemption at the district court stage, but Alphatec never raised express preemption. Also apparently unchallenged by the plaintiff was Alphatec’s argument that state law in Ohio bars common-law negligence claims.

The Sixth Circuit allowed the plaintiff to return to the district court to revisit the issue of whether the complaint met federal pleading standards, a move attributed to what is said to have been an abuse of discretion on the part of the district court judge. Nonetheless, the Sixth Circuit made clear it was unimpressed with more or less the entirety of the plaintiff’s handling of the matter, stating that the plaintiff’s failure to challenge the district court’s conclusions regarding preemption “fully determines this appeal inasmuch as the forfeited arguments encompass all of the plaintiffs’ causes of action.”

Preemption, PMAs and Predicate Devices

Express preemption might seem a largely settled matter thanks to Reigel v. Medtronic, but the recently decided case of Shuker v. Smith & Nephew took up the relatively novel predicament of a combination of both PMA and 510(k) devices. The outcome in this case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed preemption for PMA devices, but seems to have created a schism with respect to the presumption against express preemption.

Shuker addresses a combination of devices that were not approved by the FDA in the configuration used by the implanting physician, and the plaintiff alleged the company’s literature had violated the law when it discussed the use of Smith & Nephew’s R3 acetabular cup in this configuration. The court received an amicus brief from the Department of Justice, which affirmed preemption for PMA devices even when attached to one or more 510(k) devices, but the Third Circuit seems to have sustained the possibility that Smith & Nephew’s printed material regarding the R3 could support a claim of misrepresentation. The Third Circuit sent that discussion back to the district court, which had dismissed that claim with prejudice.

While Shuker is a win for preemption, this appears to be the first instance in which an appeals court has undertaken the question of a device system bearing both 510(k) and PMA components. There is a novel source of tension in the decision, however, in that the court declared that the presumption against express preemption is still alive. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit arrived at a different conclusion last year in Accord Watson v. Air Methods Corp., but the outcome in Shuker is based in part on the notion that what some believe is pertinent a Supreme Court precedent – that of Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust – is not applicable to the areas of the economy regulated by the FDA because Puerto Rico v. Franklin was directed toward bankruptcy law.

Consequently, the Third Circuit argued that the presumption against federal preemption is still a functioning legal theory, but attorneys for Medtronic might differ. The company won a case in the Arizona Supreme Court in October 2017, Conklin v. Medtronic, in which Judge Lori Bustamante declared that even though federal laws are not typically presumed to preempt state laws, the courts “do not invoke that presumption when the federal statute contains an express preemption clause.” Bustamante cited Puerto Rico v. Franklin in support of that conclusion.

It is predictably difficult to forecast how the presumption dilemma will unfold if only because a device maker will have to suffer an adverse outcome in a circuit court before the question is brought to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, there is clearly a growing trend toward differential outcomes on this point, which at the very least suggests the Supreme Court may find this a compelling problem should a device maker apply for cert.

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