United States v. Caronia After-the-Fact: What Was All That Fuss About, Again?

by Ashley Zborowsky, UMN Law Student, MJLST Notes & Comments Editor

Thumbnail-Ashley-Zborowsky.jpgIn a split decision on December 3, 2012, the Second Circuit issued its long-awaited opinion in U.S. v. Caronia–a case concerning off-label promotion and commercial free speech. The 2011 U.S. Supreme Court holding in Sorrell v. IMS Health acknowledging off-label promotion to be “per se” protected under the First Amendment marked a significant shift in this area of law. Previously, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was able to recover billions of dollars in penalties from manufacturers engaged in off-label promotion, or the act of promoting regulated products for uses other than those approved by the agency. Despite other challenges on constitutional grounds, the FDA has been successful at defending its current practice–that is, until recently.

After Sorrell, it was unclear how the Second Circuit would apply this precedent in Caronia. For a robust discussion of the holding in Sorrell and alternate regulatory pathways to mitigate the effects of constitutional challenges to FDA authority, see Rethinking Off-Label Regulation in the Wake of Sorrell v. IMS Health: Can State Involvement Compensate for Waning FDA Authority to Curb Commercial Free Speech? Much to the agency’s chagrin, the Second Circuit found that truthful, non-misleading off-label speech is in fact protected by the First Amendment and therefore cannot be prosecuted under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FDCA). Although the circuit court opinion is not binding outside of its jurisdiction and is only one early example of how Sorrell will be interpreted by lower courts, the Caronia decision signals potentially diminishing regulatory authority in this realm.

To be sure, the gradual constitutional erosion of its authority to police purported FDCA violations is a viable cause for concern–but is it imminent? Though analysts predicted a more panicked response on behalf of the agency, the FDA has apparently decided not to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, stating that the agency “does not believe. . . the Caronia decision will significantly affect [ its] enforcement” of off-label promotion. Because of its limited precedential value and the fact that both Sorrell and Caronia only recognize speech that is truthful and non-misleading as protected, the Second Circuit decision may have very little practical effect. In fact just last month in a related case out of the Ninth Circuit, U.S. v. Harkonen, the court chose to ignore Caronia altogether–asserting that the First Amendment does not protect “fraudulent speech.”

While off-label promotion itself cannot form the basis of an FDCA violation under Caronia, it may still be introduced as evidence of criminal misbranding. As such, it seems that the Caronia uproar could have all been for naught. The FDA’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the Second Circuit’s holding indicates that this is likely true. If nothing else, however, Caronia will surely increase the number of constitutional challenges to FDA enforcement activity, forcing the agency to reexamine its priorities. Thus, while Caronia has the potential for wide-ranging implications down the line, industry stakeholders will just have to wait and see. Although Caronia has done little to alter the regulatory landscape presently, it may only be a matter of time before a circuit split begins to evolve.