SDNY Brushes Away Presumption Against Preemption and Stays Class Action Via Primary Jurisdiction

by Reed Smith
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We depend on young associates to perform most of the legal research that supports the arguments we make on behalf of our clients.  By and large, those associates do an excellent job.  On those rare occasions when we find ourselves grousing about the quality of research, it usually has something to do with reliance on overly-specific computer searches.  Sometimes it seems as if the lawyers punch a search term into Lexis or Westlaw that would capture only cases that are precisely on point.  The problem with that approach is the possibility of missing cases that support general principles, or offer other oblique ammunition for one’s position.  Today’s case, Canale v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97506 (S.D.N.Y. June 23, 2017), is an example of that kind of helpful, albeit indirect, authority.  The plaintiffs in Canale filed a class action attacking the defendant for allegedly overstating the whitening power of its toothpaste.  The toothpaste contained hydrogen peroxide, and its advertising bragged of deep whitening – more than three shades.  The plaintiffs asserted that the hydrogen peroxide was not strong enough and was not in contact with tooth enamel long enough to achieve the promised results.  The causes of action were based on breach of warranty and violations of New York’s General Business Law sections 349 and 350, which outlaw deceptive practices and false advertising.

What can this case possibly have to say for drug litigation?  To begin with, the toothpaste’s peroxide content meant that it was both a cosmetic and an over-the-counter (OTC) drug.  A product qualifying as both a cosmetic and drug is subject to the stricter requirements applicable to drugs.  Either way, such a product enjoys the preemption protections in the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act,  21 U.S.C. sections 379r and 379s.  The FDCA forbids state law (including jury verdicts) or regulations that would impose a requirement on cosmetics or OTC drugs that are “different from or in addition to, or that is otherwise not identical with, a requirement specifically applicable” via the FDCA.  Thus, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the case in its entirety, and preemption was one of the grounds. The plaintiffs ultimately evaded preemption because the court found no FDA requirement regarding the tooth whitening claim, so there was nothing federal that the state laws against deceptive advertising  contradicted.

Okay, you’re still probably wondering why a drug defense hack would care about this case.  If an associate failed to find this case in her research, who cares?

There are two preemption points in Canale that are valuable:

1. The plaintiffs’ opposition to the defendant’s motion rested solely on implied preemption cases.  That is, the plaintiffs argued that there was no impossibility preemption.  That is, the plaintiffs had completely missed the point.  The defendant was not arguing impossibility preemption.  Rather, the defendant argued that Congress had expressly manifested an intent to preempt state law.  The plaintiffs had confused express preemption with implied preemption, but the Canale court kept the distinction straight.  So should you.

2.  The plaintiffs, predictably, argued that there was a presumption against preemption.  But, consistent with point 1 above, the Canale court held that “where, as here, Congress has expressly manifested its intent to preempt state law, no presumption against preemption arises.”  It is nice to have in your pocket such a clear statement on this issue from SDNY.

Still, as we mentioned, the preemption argument did not carry the day for the defendant.  So was this a win for the plaintiffs?  Not at all.  The issue of whether or not the advertising for the whitening toothpaste was deceptive had already been addressed to the Federal Trade Commission.  The issue was pending. The FTC had at least as much expertise as the court in deciding whether the hydrogen peroxide in the toothpaste had sufficient whitening power (let’s face it, the FTC has more expertise), the FTC is specifically tasked with discretion to police allegedly deceptive labeling, there was a risk of inconsistent rulings, and the FTC had gotten the issue first.  Consequently, the Canale court – after observing that “primary jurisdiction” is something of a misnomer because it isn’t , strictly speaking, jurisdictional – decided to stay the litigation to allow the FTC to do its job and determine whether the toothpaste advertising really was deceptive.

Staying a class action is definitely a good result for the defendant.  Despite the setback on the preemption front, we bet the Canale result put smiles on the faces of the defendant and its lawyers – nice, big, shiny smiles.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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