One Major Positive, But Still Many Negatives, for Asbestos Defendants in 2014

NewportWhen assessing liability risk, businesses, insurers, and others impacted by America’s free-wheeling civil justice system often ask, “What’s the next asbestos?” Regrettably for defendants still wrapped up in what the Supreme Court once called “the elephantine mass” of asbestos litigation, asbestos is still the next asbestos. In 2014, asbestos defendants continued to struggle against the tide of unfavorable judicial rulings, though one positive development this year did offer a great deal of hope to besieged businesses.

A January 9 ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge George Hodges found a “startling pattern of misrepresentation” and withholding of exposure evidence in a ten-case sampling from asbestos actions consolidated in his court as In re Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC, et al. Judge Hodges ordered full discovery in those cases to determine whether allegedly injured plaintiffs had exaggerated the value of their claims and failed to disclose claims they had made to asbestos bankruptcy trusts. A Fall 2014 WLF Conversations With paper, featuring former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Delaware state court judge Peggy Abelman, addressed the larger concerns with such withholding of bankruptcy claims information. A January 21 Featured Expert Column on the WLF Legal Pulse also discussed In re Garlock in detail. Continue reading

White House Boosts Fictional “Food Addiction” Concept to School Kids

BSFriesAs we’ve discussed numerous times here, some nutrition nanny activists, regulators, and plaintiffs’ lawyers have embraced and promoted the concept that food can be “addictive.” The term grabs people’s attention, conjuring up disturbing mental images of helplessness and withdrawal. It’s no wonder, then, that the notion of “food addiction” is often invoked in the context of greater government regulation, taxes, and advertising restrictions designed to redirect our dietary choices.

On September 26, the concept received its highest profile reference yet, from First Lady Michelle Obama, during an interview broadcast to millions of students on the in-school “Channel One News.” When asked about the criticism the federal government’s new school lunch rules have faced, the First Lady responded:

It’s natural. Change is hard. And the thing about highly processed, sugary, salty foods is that you get addicted to it. I don’t want to just settle because it’s hard. I don’t want to give up because it’s expensive. I don’t want that to be the excuse.

The interview appears to have been very carefully scripted, so her mention of “addiction” was hardly spontaneous or casual, nor was her referencing it in the context of “highly processed, sugary, salty foods.” Federal government regulation is taking direct aim at those demonized products and their ingredients.

For instance, the Department of Agriculture has proposed banning the sale of certain foods in public schools that don’t meet “Smart Snacks” guidelines, as well as banning advertising of those products in schools. Also, as part of its update of the Nutrition Facts label affixed to all packaged foods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a new “added sugars” item. FDA is pursuing this mandate even though the agency acknowledges that no chemical difference exists between naturally occurring and added sugars in food. The “added sugars” mandate would also expose federal regulators to constitutional challenges under the First and Fourth Amendments, as leading food regulation attorneys Richard Frank and Bruce Silverglade argue in a September 26 WLF Legal Backgrounder.

The First Lady’s reference to “food addiction” was ill-advised, especially considering the age and maturity level of her captive audience on Channel One News. The concept of addiction has been significantly dumbed down and politicized over the past few decades to the point where it has almost lost any objective meaning. Reputable scientists have questioned not only the methodology behind “food addiction” studies, but also the researchers’ motivation.

The “Let’s Move” effort led by the First Lady advances the indisputably worthy goal of a healthier America, but that goal cannot be met by fomenting faulty food addiction concerns. Such a concept creates a serious moral hazard—people struggling to lose weight may throw up their hands because they believe addiction to (insert high-calorie product) has taken hold. Talk of addiction, and the choice-restrictive public policies it fuels, also diverts attention and resources from actual solutions to obesity in America.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Washington Post Parrots Activists’ Skewed Spin of FDA’s “GRAS” Process

The ScreamJust below the fold in the print and digital versions of this morning’s Washington Post blares the headline “Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes.” The story dutifully advances the perspective of professional activists that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) process for food additives is perilously broken. Food nanny organizations such as Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council have ramped up their attacks on GRAS over the past several years, assisted by a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report calling for changes to the process.

As explained in a Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder by Hyman, Phelps & McNamara attorneys Roberto Carvajal and Nisha Shah, the GRAS process dates back to 1958, when Congress determined that certain uses of substances in foods that were generally recognized as safe need not go through formal FDA approval. For nearly four decades, FDA applied that exception very narrowly, but the Clinton-era agency leadership altered that interpretation in 1997. They concluded that narrow application of the GRAS exception deeply strained agency resources and chilled food industry innovation. The agency’s new approach permitted food processors to self-report new uses of certain substances and provide FDA with the science supporting the GRAS conclusion. In response to the critical 2010 GAO report, the agency acknowledged that while the GRAS process could be improved, “FDA believes that the GRAS concept has continuing utility as a practical tool for distinguishing between substances and new uses of substances that merit a full pre-market safety evaluation by FDA and those that do not.”

FDA’s resolve on the GRAS process seems to be weakening, however. The Post article features a troubling front-page quote from FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor: “We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals.” He goes on to proclaim later in the article, “We aren’t saying we have a public health crisis.” But of course Deputy Commissioner Taylor understands that when FDA uses the term “public health crisis,” even when denying the existence of one, it sounds alarm bells. FDA’s latest statements could be setting the stage for regulatory action against such common, widely-used ingredients as caffeine and sodium, which the agency has long considered GRAS.

For those who might be interested in learning more about the GRAS process from a far different perspective than the Washington Post provided today, watch WLF’s free July 10 Web Seminar, The Future of FDA’s “GRAS” Designation in an Era of Increased Scrutiny. The Powerpoint presentation utilized by our speakers, Keller and Heckman LLP’s Melvin Drozen and Evangelia Pelonis, is available here.

FDA Advisory Committee Not Rife with Conflicts of Interest? — “Please!” Quips Federal Judge

FDAIn order to achieve results that it believes are vital to public health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has demonstrated time and again that it’s not afraid to trample laws and constitutional rights along the way. Occasionally, judges reintroduce FDA to the Rule of Law. We applaud one such recent rebuke by Judge Richard Leon, whose July 21 Lorillard v. FDA decision reminded FDA that it cannot stack a science advisory panel with members who will tell the agency what it wants to hear.

FDA tobacco control. After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the agency’s attempt to seize regulatory oversight of tobacco products in 2000 (FDA v. Brown & Williamson), Congress granted FDA the authority it coveted in 2010. Banning or severely restricting the use of menthol in cigarettes has long been a goal of FDA’s friends in the anti-tobacco movement. FDA created a science advisory panel, the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) to study menthol. The TPSAC concluded in 2011 that menthol had a negative effect on public health. Two companies filed suit in Febuary 2011, charging that FDA violated federal law by appointing members to the TPSAC who had clear conflicts of interest. The plaintiffs asked the court to strike the TPSAC’s report from the regulatory record.

Judge Leon’s opinion. The TPSAC members in question had ongoing contracts to testify as expert witnesses for plaintiffs in suits against tobacco companies. They also served as consultants to manufacturers of tobacco cessation products. FDA didn’t feel such relationships conflicted with their duties on the TPSAC. Judge Leon was quite flabbergasted by FDA’s decision. “Please!” he exclaimed, adding, “This conclusion defies common sense.” With regard to the members’ work with plaintiffs’ lawyers, Judge Leon explained that they had a financial incentive not to make any recommendations that would compromise the lawsuits in which they would testify. On the product consulting work, the judge noted that any FDA regulation of menthol would likely inspire more smokers to quit, potentially with the assistance of cessation products. Thus the TPSAC members also had a financial incentive to offer advice that would encourage a ban or restrictions on menthol. Judge Leon concluded that such blatant disregard for obvious conflicts violated federal law, and he enjoined FDA from utilizing the report in its assessment of menthol. Continue reading

There’s Nothing “New” about “Lone Pine” Orders for Active Case Management

faulkFeatured Expert Column − Complex Serial and Mass Tort Litigation

by Richard O. Faulk, Hollingsworth LLP*

To listen to the plaintiffs’ bar, you’d think that “Lone Pine” orders were a novelty recently conjured out of “thin air” by creative defense lawyers—or a device unsupported by any significant precedents. But although those orders may seem new to the uninitiated, they have deep roots in the history of active case management.

Many lawyers know—or have learned the hard way—why these case management tools are called “Lone Pine” orders, and what they are intended to accomplish. In Lore v. Lone Pine Corporation, No. L-03306-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J. Sup.Ct. Nov. 18, 1986), the plaintiffs claimed injuries resulting from contamination allegedly coming from a landfill. When the defendants presented a government investigation that found no offsite contamination, the court required the plaintiffs to make a preliminary showing of exposure, injury, and causation before allowing full discovery to proceed. This ruling led to other cases which recognized the propriety of “Lone Pine” orders when doubt existed “over what medical condition or disease, if any, can be causally related to the toxic agent exposure alleged by each plaintiff.”2 Lawrence G. Cetrulo, Toxic Torts Litigation Guide § 13:49 (2013). Since then, “Lone Pine” order have proliferated, not only in toxic tort litigation, but also in other types of cases.See generally, David B. Weinstein and Christopher Torres, Managing the Complex: A Brief Survey of Lone Pine Orders, 34 Westlaw Envt’l J. 1 (Aug. 21, 2013) (providing extensive list of categorized cases). Continue reading

Federal Workplace Police Have a Tough Week in Court

6th CircuitIf anyone doubts our democracy’s need for an independent judiciary to check the executive and legislative branches, consider two federal court opinions issued last week. Federal workplace police at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor (DOL) each received a thorough (and richly deserved) judicial slapdown for arrogantly flouting the rule of law.

EEOC v. Kaplan Higher Education Corp. The unanimous U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit panel set the tone of this seven-page opinion by declaring, “In this case the EEOC sued the defendant for using the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses.”

Kaplan implemented vigorous screening of job applicants, including the use of credit checks, in response to several instances of employee theft. Such increased self-policing earned the company an EEOC legal action. The Commission argued that Kaplan’s credit checks had a disparate impact on minorities.

To support its case, EEOC hired a psychologist to perform statistical studies using Kaplan’s applicant data. The “expert” filed numerous reports with the trial judge, most of which were either late or contrary to the judge’s demand that he cease providing reports. The judge found that the psychologists’ reports were unreliable under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and dismissed EEOC’s case.

The Commission fared just as poorly on appeal. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s conclusion that EEOC’s “expert” and his methodology failed every factor that courts utilize to assess expert testimony under the Supreme Court’s Daubert v. Merrell Dow opinion. The judges agreed that a court could neither test the psychologist’s technique, nor could it evaluate the test’s error rate. EEOC argued that its “expert’s” theory did not have to be subject to peer review. The Sixth Circuit found the argument “meritless.” As for the other Daubert factors, EEOC essentially argued that the burden fell on Kaplan to prove they had been met. The court pointedly retorted, “The law says to the contrary.”

The opinion ended as sharply as it began:

We need not belabor the issue further.  The EEOC brought this case on the basis of homemade methodology, crafted by a witness with no particular expertise to craft it, administered by persons with no particular expertise to administer it, tested by no one, and accepted only by the witness himself.

Gate Guard Services v. Perez. Here, the Department of Labor lost more than just a case.  Because of its antics, American taxpayers had to shell out $565,527.61 in attorneys’ fees to the enforcement target.

DOL accused Gate Guard Services (GGS) of misclassifying gate sentries as independent contractors. GGS counter-sued and sought a declaratory judgment. In February 2013, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas Senior Judge John Rainey granted GGS summary judgment and dismissed DOL’s claims against the company. GGS then sought attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).

Under that statute, the government must prove that its position in a lawsuit had a reasonable basis in both fact and law (“substantially justified”) at every stage of the action. Judge Rainey agreed with GGS that DOL’s lead investigator departed from DOL enforcement procedures when he destroyed interview notes and assessed a $6 million fine after he had interviewed only three gate sentries.

“Had the DOL interviewed more than just a handful of GGS’s roughly 400 gate attendants,” Judge Rainey wrote, “it would have known [they] were not employees.” He listed ten different factors that DOL failed to reasonably consider, including “the federal government itself, via the ACE [Army Corps of Engineers] uses the services of gate attendants at federal parks and classifies these individuals as independent contractors.”

The court concluded that DOL’s actions both before and during the suit were not substantially justified and awarded fees to GGS.

Checked and Balanced. But for an independent judiciary, the executive branch would be free to engage in the type of hypocrisy and disrespect for rules that were on display in these two cases. It might routinely label employers’ credit checks discriminatory while utilizing the very same screening method, or it could categorize a company’s gate sentries “employees” while other federal agencies consider similarly situation workers “independent contractors.” Agencies would prosecute businesses for destroying internal documents while permitting federal investigators to freely do the same.

We should all be grateful that our federal courts did not tolerate such behavior from EEOC and DOL, and instead reminded them of principles most of us learned in kindergarten: play by the rules and live by the same rules you expect others to abide by.

Also posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page

Demonization by Litigation: Food Ingredient Makers Face Frivolous Charges

fructoseCross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor site

When some future legal scholar writes the history of how the public health activist-plaintiffs’ bar-government regulator axis of paternalism tried to use litigation to alter America’s food choices, S.F. v. Archer Daniels Midland et al. may not even merit a mention. But for now, it stands as the most notorious illustration of how a baseless lawsuit can effectively demonize one disfavored food ingredient.

The Complaint. S.F. is the mother of S.E.F., a fourteen-year old who suffers from Type 2 diabetes. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and the other three defendants (Cargill, Ingredion Inc., and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas) make up the entire corn refiners industry. They refine corn into, among other things, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a food ingredient public health activists have long vilified. In her complaint, S.F. rattled off inflammatory allegation after another, including such unsubstantiated charges as “HFCS is a toxin.” She eventually got around to asserting that HFCS is “unreasonably dangerous” and caused her daughter’s diabetes. She demanded $5 million in damages.

The suit achieved its immediate, and perhaps only, goal of garnering sympathetic media attention. Most reports parroted the plaintiff’s outlandish statements and quoted professional food activists who are attacking HFCS in others venues, such as before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of course only scant reporting has been done on the suit since, with just a few stories in the trade press about the defendants’ motions to dismiss, documents which have effectively exposed the suit as legally and factually baseless.

Undeniable Legal Flaws. The legal flaws in the plaintiff’s case, detailed in the defendants’ initial motion to dismiss and their November 1 reply memo, are abundant and clear, so we’ll only briefly summarize them here: Continue reading