Drug Maker Defeats AG Motion to Dismiss Action Challenging Private Contingency Counsel

We have warned readers before about the dangerous and growing practice of governmental agencies delegating state police powers to private (plaintiff) attorneys on a contingency fee basis.  The latest round in this nationwide battle comes from Kentucky, where the court recently ruled that Merck can continue its suit alleging violation of its due process rights after the state hired such outside counsel.  See Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Conway, No. 3:11-cv-51 (E.D. Ky., 12/19/12).

The matter underlying this action arose from Merck’s marketing and distribution of the prescription medication Vioxx. The AG filed suit against Merck in the Franklin County Circuit Court in 2009, alleging a violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act (“KCPA”). Merck removed the case to federal court, and the action was then transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana on April 15, 2010, as part of the multidistrict litigation, In re Vioxx Product Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1657.  But on January 3, 2012, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted the AG’s motion to remand, concluding that the case was improperly removed from state court. In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1657, 2012 WL 10552, at *14 (E.D. La. Jan. 3, 2012).

Now, approximately one year into the proceeding, the AG had retained outside counsel to take over the Vioxx KCPA litigation.  Under the contract executed, private counsel agreed to be compensated by a contingency fee “to be withheld from any settlement award resulting from the litigation.” Merck filed suit against the AG in federal court in August, 2011, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In its complaint,  Merck alleged that the AG had “delegated his coercive powers to private lawyers having a clear, direct and substantial financial stake in the outcome...."  The case was "a punitive enforcement action that must be prosecuted in the public interest or not at all.”  As a result, Merck asserted, its “right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment had been infringed.” 

The AG moved to dismiss, and the issue in this decision focused on the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); it provides that when a state proceeding is pending, principles of federalism dictate that any federal constitutional claims should be raised and decided in state court without interference by the federal courts. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 17 (1987).  If a federal district court concludes that its resolution of the case before it would directly interfere with ongoing state proceedings, then it must determine whether to abstain from hearing the case altogether, under the following: (1) there must be an ongoing state
judicial proceeding; (2) the proceeding must implicate important state interests; and (3) there
must be an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding to raise constitutional challenges.

Merck argued that the AG’s active litigation in federal court — through the filing of answers, motions to dismiss, and motions for summary judgment — was sufficient to establish that proceedings of substance had taken place before the remand, i.e., before an action had been pending in state court.  The court agreed that the abstention doctrine did not require a strict view of the federal action timeline nor a formalistic approach to the abstention analysis. Using a "common sense approach," several factors weighed in favor of a conclusion that proceedings of substance had taken place: (1) the federal action had been pending for over seven months when the state court proceeding was remanded on March 20, 2012; (2) on the date of the remand, there were two important motions that were fully briefed and ripe for adjudication; and (3) the court had held a scheduling conference during which the parties advised the court about their positions on those two motions. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the federal action was well beyond an “embryonic stage.” Because the state proceeding was not “ongoing” in a meaningful sense, abstention was not appropriate under the principles of Younger.

Your humble blogger notes that the legal policy of many states strongly favors open, competitive bidding for contracts involving state funds. Such requirements, included in some state Constitutions and various statutes, are designed to prevent fraud, eliminate bias and favoritism, and thus protect vital public interests. Those same goals of open and good government reside in the requirement that state officials give their undivided loyalty to the people of a state. Many of the contingent fee contracts used by state officials to bring mass tort actions violate the core principle that attorneys pursuing actions on behalf of the state represent a sovereign whose obligation to govern impartially is essential to its right to govern. Government attorneys must exercise independent judgment as a ministers of justice and not act simply as advocates. The impartiality required of government lawyers cannot be met where the private pecuniary interest inherent in the contingent fee is the primary motive force behind the bringing of the action. By turning over sovereign prosecutorial-like power to contingency counsel, a state effectively creates a new branch of government – motivated by the prospect of private gain rather than the pursuit of justice or the public welfare. This subversion of neutrality does more than implicate the due process rights of those confronting such tainted prosecutions. Direction of state prosecutions by financially interested surrogates also damages the very public interest that such litigation is supposed to advance. 
 

Use of Contingency Fee Private Counsel Appealed

A variety of business groups have weighed in as amici, asking the Supreme Court to recognize how contingency fee arrangements by California counties and cities pursuing lead paint litigation violated the due process rights of the defendants. Atlantic Richfield Co. v. County of Santa Clara, No. 10-546 (U.S., amicus curiae brief submitted 11/24/10).

Readers may recall our previous posts about how the California supreme court had taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation. County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, No. S163681 (Cal. 7/26/10).

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint. Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The lower court, relying upon People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985), ordered that the public entities were barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be “absolutely neutral.”

The state supreme court acknowledged that Clancy arguably supported defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public nuisance abatement action. The court proceeded to engage in a reexamination of the rule in Clancy, however, finding it should be "narrowed," in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys supposedly without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.

The state court had previously concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. The court had noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Second, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly.

But then, the court concluded that to the extent Clancy suggested that public-nuisance prosecutions always invoke the same constitutional and institutional interests present in a criminal case, that analysis was "unnecessarily broad" and failed to take into account the wide spectrum of cases a state may bring. The court described a range of cases; criminal cases require complete neutrality. In some ordinary civil cases, neutrality is not a concern when the government acts as an ordinary party to a controversy, simply enforcing its own contract and property rights against individuals and entities that allegedly have infringed upon those interests. The nuisance cases fall between these two extremes on the spectrum of neutrality required of a government attorney. The case was not an “ordinary” civil case in that the public entities' attorneys were appearing as representatives of the public and not as counsel for the government acting as an ordinary party in a civil controversy. The case was being prosecuted on behalf of the public, and, accordingly, the concerns identified in Clancy as being inherent in a public prosecution were, indeed, implicated.

But, despite that, state supreme court found that the interests affected in this case were not similar in character to those invoked by a criminal prosecution or the nuisance action in Clancy. The case would not have resulted in an injunction that prevents the defendants from continuing their current business operations. The challenged conduct (the production and distribution of lead paint) has been illegal in the state since 1978. Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the litigation, no ongoing business activity would be enjoined. Nor would the case prevent defendants from exercising any First Amendment right. Although liability may be based in part on prior commercial speech, the remedy would not involve enjoining current or future speech, said the court.

While a heightened standard of neutrality was required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government, that heightened standard of neutrality is not always compromised by the hiring of contingent-fee counsel to assist government attorneys in the prosecution of a public-nuisance abatement action. Use of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.

In so finding, the court downplayed the reality that the public attorneys' decision-making conceivably could be influenced by their professional reliance upon the private attorneys' expertise and a concomitant sense of obligation to those attorneys to ensure that they receive payment for their many hours of work on the case.To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. .

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the state supreme court seem quite strained, however, and to elevate form over substance, and written agreements over human nature. The authority to settle the case involves a paramount discretionary decision and is an important factor in ensuring that defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial is not compromised by overzealous actions of an attorney with a pecuniary stake in the outcome.  In reality, even if the control of private counsel by government attorneys is viable in theory, it fails in application because private counsel in such cases are hired based upon their expertise and experience, and therefore always will assume a primary and controlling role in guiding the course of the litigation, rendering illusory the notion of government “control”.

Defendants are seeking cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, have argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public.  The amici argue that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers impacts the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raises another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.