TORTINI

For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

White Hat Bias in the Lab and in the Courtroom

February 20th, 2017

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FOIA Exemptions Gobble Up The Statute

November 27th, 2015

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case in which petitioners sought review of a First Circuit decision that upheld the “commercial information” exemption (exemption 4) to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (FOIA). New Hampshire Right to Life v. Dep’t Health & Human Services, 778 F.3d 43 (1st Cir. 2015). See Lyle Denniston, “Court bypasses FOIA challenge,” SCOTUSblog (Nov. 16, 2015).

An anti-abortion group filed a FOIA request to obtain documents that Planned Parenthood had sent to the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, in support of federal funding, for family planning activities in New Hampshire. The requested documents described Planned Parenthood’s internal medical standards and guidelines, as well as its set fees for various services. The federal trial court upheld the agency’s refusal to disclose the Planned Parenthood documents on the basis of § 552(b)(4) (Exemption 4, for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a per­son and privileged or confidential”), as well as internal agency documents, on the basis of § 552(b)(5) (Exemption 5). The First Circuit affirmed the non-freedom of information. 778 F.3d 43.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, dissented from the Court’s denial of review. New Hampshire Right to Life, No. 14–1273, SCOTUS (Nov. 16, 2015) [Thomas Dissent] Justice Thomas intimated that the First Circuit’s decision may well have offended the Supreme Court’s interpretation of FOIA as reflecting “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language.” Department of Defense v. FLRA, 510 U. S. 487, 494 (1994).

Justice Thomas noted that the First Circuit based its conclusion not on the ordinary meaning of the term “confidential,” but on speculation whether FOIA disclosure might harm Planned Parenthood’s position in a conjectured market. The First Circuit ordained the Planned Parenthood manual confidential because “[a]potential future competitor could take advantage of the institutional knowledge contained in the Manual” to com­pete against the organization in the future. Justice Thomas intimated that he, and concurring Justice Scalia, disapproved of this speculation upon speculation approach. Thomas Dissent at 2. The dissenters also noted that the Supreme Court has yet to interpret Exemption 4, to FOIA, and that the lower courts have embraced this exemption as a broad exclusion, in derogation of the language and spirit of FOIA.

In discovery efforts to obtain information about litigation science, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Science (NIEHS), FOIA officers appear to invoke Exemption 4 routinely to deny disclosure. One case in point was the effort to obtain information about NIEHS-funded research of Dr. Brad A. Racette, on the prevalence of parkinsonism among welding tradesmen in Wisconsin Great Lakes shipyards. Racette is an academic researcher, on the faculty of Washington University St. Louis; he is not engaged in any commercial enterprise, in any imaginable use of the word “commercial.” His Wisconsin research was sponsored by the Boilermakers’ union, which had worked with the litigation industry (trial bar) to develop a litigation case against the manufacturers of welding rods. FOIA requests for scientific data, protocols, and analyses were met, by NIEHS, with over-zealous redactions with the invocation of FOIA exemptions, including assertions that data and analyses were “confidential commercial information.”

The redaction of one of Racette’s ESNAP reports, on Grant Number SR01ES13743-4, is illustrative. The multi-year grant, entitled “Epidemilogy [sic] of Parkinsonism in Welders,” was awarded to principal investigator Brad Racette in 2007. On October 29, 2009, Racette submitted a report that included data and data analysis. The NIEHS, on its own, or acting at the request of the principal investigator, redacted data, analyses, and conclusions, on grounds of “confidential commercial information.” Invoking an exemption for “commercial information” for federally funding of an epidemiologic study, conducted by university-based scientists seems an extreme distortion of the FOIA statute.

Cynics may say that Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented in the Planned Parenthood case because they were eager, to advance their theological ideology to exploit the opportunity to order disclosure that could hurt the good work that Planned Parenthood does. The dissenting justices deserve, however, to be taken at their word, and applauded for chastising their colleagues who were willing to abide the frustation of the word and spirit of the FOIA statute. Sadly, federal agencies seem to be determined to make information unfree. In the most recent evaluations, the Department of Health and Human Services received a failing grade, among the lowest grades for FOIA performance and responsiveness; only the State Department failed with a lower score. National Freedom of Information Coalition, “FOIA report card shows federal agencies missing the mark,” (Mar. 16, 2015); Center for Effective Government, “Making the Grade – Access to Information Scorecard 2015.”

Woodside on Access to Underlying Research Data

October 10th, 2015

Access to underlying data and materials, source codes, and other research materials is a two-edged sword. Many scientists who hold forth on the issue, including some prominent plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, have been extremely critical of the pharmaceutical and other industries for not sharing underlying data of their research. On the other hand, some of the same people have resisted sharing data and information when the litigants have sought access to these materials to understand or to challenge the published conclusions and analyses.[1]

Dr. Frank Woodside, of Dinsmore & Shohl, kindly sent me a copy of his recent law review article, written with a colleague, which advocates for full disclosure of underlying research data when research becomes material to the outcome of litigation.[2] Frank C. Woodside & Michael J. Gray, “Researchers’ Privilege: Full Disclosure,” 32 West. Mich. Univ. Cooley L. Rev. 1 (2015). The authors make the case that the so-called researcher’s privilege has little or no support in federal or state law. My previous posts have largely supported this view, at least for research that has been published, and especially for research that is being relied upon by testifying expert witnesses in pending litigation. As Lord Chancellor Hardwicke put the matter, “the public has a right to every man’s evidence,”[3] and scientists should not be immune to the requirement of giving and sharing their evidence.

Woodside and Gray have updated the scholarship in this area, and their article should be consulted in any ongoing discovery, subpoena, or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battle. Their discussion of the evolving case law under FOIA is especially timely. Despite the strong presumption in favor of disclosure under FOIA,[4] and President Obama’s pronouncements[5] about a new era in FOIA openness and transparency, the government’s compliance is at an all-time low. See Ted Bridis, “Obama administration sets new record for withholding FOIA requests,” PBS News Hour (Mar. 18, 2015). Court decisions have made clear that researchers cannot refuse to produce underlying data simply “because disclosure would diminish the researchers’ ability to publish their results in prestigious journals.”[6] And yet the National Institute of Environmental Health and Safety continues in its aggressive resistance to disclosure of underlying data, often by invoking FOIA exemption number four. In my cases, I have seen the NIEHS resort to this exemption that protects documents that reveal “[t]rade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,”[7] even when the research in question was conducted by academic researchers funded by the NIEHS.


[1] See, e.g., Enoch v. Forest Research Institute, Inc., N.J. Law Div. Hudson Cty., Civ. Div. L-3896-14, Order Granting Defendants’ Motion to Compel Production of Documents Necessary to Verify the Validity and Accuracy of a Study by Plaintiffs’ Expert, Anick Berard, Ph.D. (Oct. 9, 2015) (Jablonski, J.) (ordering plaintiffs to “produce the documents sought by the Forest defendants to verify the validity and accuracy of the study known as “Berard et al., Sertraline Use During Pregnancy and the Risk of Major Malformations, Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. (2015), doi 10.1016/j.ajog.2015.01.034, namely the study’s SAS source codes and the specific generalized estimating equation models that were used to generate Table 2 of the study”).

[2] And I should thank Dr. Woodside and Mr. Gray for their generous citations to your humble blogger’s posts on this subject.

[3] Debate in the House of Lords on the Bill to Indemnify Evidence, 12 Hansard’s Parliamentary History of England, 675, 693, May 25, 1742, quoted in 8 Wigmore on Evidence at 64, § 2192 (3d ed. 1940).

[4] See S. REP. No. 89-813, at 3 (1965) (the purpose of FOIA is to “establish a general philosophy of full agency disclosure . . . and to provide a court procedure by which citizens and the press may obtain information wrongfully withheld”).

[5] See Executive Order, Memorandum, 74 Fed. Reg. 4685 (Jan. 21, 2009).

[6] See Burka v. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Serv., 87 F.3d 508, 515 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

[7] See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4).

Clinical Trials and Epidemiologic Studies Biased by False and Misleading Data From Research Participants

October 2nd, 2015

Many legal commentators erroneously refer to epidemiologic studies as “admitted” into evidence.[1] These expressions are sloppy, and unfortunate, because they obscure the tenuousness of study validity, and the many hearsay levels that are represented by an epidemiologic study. Rule 702 permits expert witness opinion that has an epistemic basis, and Rule 703 allows expert witnesses to rely upon otherwise inadmissible facts and data, as long as real experts in the field would reasonably rely upon such facts and data. Nothing in Rule 702 or 703 make an epidemiologic study itself admissible. And the general inadmissibility of the studies themselves is a good thing, given that they will be meaningless to the trier of fact without the endorsements, qualifications, and explanations of an expert witness, and given that many studies are inaccurate, invalid, and lack data integrity to boot.

Dr. Frank Woodside was kind enough to call my attention to an interesting editorial piece in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which reinforced the importance of recognizing that epidemiologic studies and clinical trials are inadmissible in themselves. The editorial, by scientists from the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, calls out the problem of study participants who lie, falsify, fail to disclose, and exaggerate important aspects of their medical histories as well as their data. See David B. Resnik & David J. McCann, “Deception by Research Participants,” 373 New Engl. J. Med. 1192 (2015). The editorial is an important caveat for those who would glibly describe epidemiologic studies and clinical trials as “admissible.”

As a reminder of the autonomy of those who participate in clinical trials and studies, we now refer to individuals in a study as “participants,” and not “subjects.” Resnik and McCann remind us, however, that notwithstanding their importance, study participants can bias a study in important ways. Citing other recent papers,[2] the editorialists note that clinical trials offer financial incentives to participants, which may lead to exaggeration of symptoms to ensure enrollment, to failure to disclose exclusionary medical conditions and information, and to withholding of embarrassing or inculpatory information. Although fabrication or falsification of medical history and data by research participants is not research misconduct by the investigators, the participants’ misconduct can seriously bias and undermine the validity and integrity of a study.

Resnik and McCann’s concerns about the accuracy and truthfulness of clinical trial participant medical data and information can mushroom exponentially in the context of observational studies that involve high-stakes claims for compensation and vindication on medical causation issues. Here are a couple of high-stakes examples.

The Brinton Study in Silicone Gel Breast Implant Litigation

In the silicone gel breast implant litigation, claimants looked forward to a study by one of their champions, Dr. Louis Brinton, of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Brinton had obtained intramural funding to conduct a study of women who had had silicone gel breast implants and their health outcomes. To their consternation, the defendants in that litigation learned of Dr. Brinton’s close ties with plaintiffs’ counsel, plaintiffs’ support groups, and other advocates. Further investigation, including Freedom of Information Act requests to the NCI led to some disturbing and startling revelations.

In October 1996, a leading epidemiologist wrote a “concerned citizen” letter to Dr. Joseph Fraumeni, who was then the director of Epidemiology and Genetics at the NCI. The correspondent wrote to call Dr. Fraumeni’s attention to severe bias problems in Dr. Brinton’s pending study of disease and symptom outcomes among women who had had silicone breast implants. Dr. Brinton had written to an Oregon attorney (Michael Williams) to enlist him to encourage his clients to participate in Brinton’s NCI study.   Dr. Brinton had also written to a Philadelphia attorney (Steven Sheller) to seek permission to link potential study subjects to the global settlement database of information on women participating in the settlement. Perhaps most egregiously, Dr. Brinton and others had prepared a study Question & Answer sheet, from the National Institutes of Health, which ended with a ringing solicitation of “The study provides an opportunity for women who may be suffering as a result of implants to be heard. Now is your chance to make a major contribution to women’s health by supporting this essential research.” Dr. Brinton apparently had not thought of appealing to women with implants who did not have health problems.

Dr. Brinton’s methodology doomed her study from the start. Without access to the background materials, such as the principal investigator’s correspondence file, or the recruitment documents used to solicit participation of ill women in the study, the scientific community, and the silicone litigation defendants would not have had the important insights into serious bias and flaws of Brinton’s study.

The Racette-Scruggs’ Study in Welding Fume Litigation

The welding fume litigation saw its version of a study corrupted by the participation of litigants and potential litigants. Richard (Dickie) Scruggs and colleagues funded some neurological researchers to travel to Alabama and Mississippi to “screen” plaintiffs and potential plaintiffs in litigation for over claims of neurological injury and disease from welding fume exposure. The plaintiffs’ lawyers rounded up the research subjects (a.k.a. clients and potential clients), talked to them before the medical evaluations, and administered the study questionnaires. Clearly the study subjects were aware of Scruggs’ “research” hypothesis. The plaintiffs’ lawyers then invited researchers who saw the welding tradesmen, using a novel videotaping methodology, to evaluate the workers for parkinsonism.

After their sojourn, at Scruggs’ expense to Alabama and Mississippi, the researchers wrote up their results, with little or no detail of the circumstances of how they had acquired their research “participants,” or those participants’ motives to give accurate or inaccurate medical and employment history information. See Brad A. Racette, S.D. Tabbal, D. Jennings, L. Good, J.S. Perlmutter, and Brad Evanoff, “Prevalence of parkinsonism and relationship to exposure in a large sample of Alabama welders,” 64 Neurology 230 (2005); Brad A. Racette, et al., “A rapid method for mass screening for parkinsonism,” 27 Neurotoxicology 357 (2006) (a largely duplicative report of the Alabama welders study).

Defense counsel directed subpoenas to both Dr. Racette and his institution, Washington University St. Louis, for the study protocol, underlying data, data codes, and statistical analyses.  After a long discovery fight, the MDL court largely enforced the subpoenas.  See, e.g., In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL 1535, 2005 WL 5417815 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 18, 2005) (upholding defendants’ subpoena for protocol, data, data codes, statistical analyses, and other things from Dr. Racette’s Alabama study on welding and parkinsonism). After the defense had the opportunity to obtain and analyze the underlying data in the Scruggs-Racette study, the welding plaintiffs largely retreated from their epidemiologic case. The Racette Alabama study faded into the background of the trials.

Both the Brinton and the Racette studies are painful reminders of the importance of assessing the motives of the study participants in observational epidemiologic studies, and the participants’ ability to undermine data integrity. If the financial motives identified by Resnik and McCann are sufficient to lead participants to give false information, or to fail to disclose correct information, we can only imagine how powerful are the motives created by the American tort litigation system among actual and potential claimants when they participate in epidemiologic studies. Resnik and McCann may be correct that fabrication or falsification of medical history and data by research participants is not research misconduct by the investigators themselves, but investigators who turn a blind eye to the knowledge, intent, and motives of their research participants may be conducting studies that are doomed from the outset.


[1] Michael D. Green, D. Michal Freedman, Leon Gordis, “Reference Guide on Epidemiology 549, 551,” in Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence (3d ed. 2011) ( “Epidemiologic studies have been well received by courts deciding cases involving toxic substances. *** Well-conducted studies are uniformly admitted.) (citing David L. Faigman et al. eds., 3 Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony § 23.1, at 187 (2007–08)).

[2] Eric Devine, Megan Waters, Megan Putnam, et al., “Concealment and fabrication by experienced research subjects,” 20 Clin. Trials 935 (2013); Rebecca Dresser, “Subversive subjects: rule-breaking and deception in clinical trials,” 41 J. Law Med. Ethics 829 (2013).