The Education of Judge Rufe – The Zoloft MDL

The Honorable Cynthia M. Rufe is a judge on the United States District Court, for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  Judge Rufe was elected to a judgeship on the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas in 1994.  She was appointed to the federal district court in 2002. Like most state and federal judges, little in her training and experience as a lawyer prepared her to serve as a gatekeeper of complex expert witness scientific opinion testimony.  And yet, the statutory code of evidence, and in particular, Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and 703, requires her do just that.

The normal approach to MDL cases is marked by the Field of Dreams: “if you build it, they will come.” Last week, Judge Rufe did something that is unusual in pharmaceutical litigation; she closed the gate and sent everyone home. In re Zoloft Prod. Liab. Litig., MDL NO. 2342, 12-MD-2342, 2016 WL 1320799 (E.D. Pa. April 5, 2016).

Her Honor’s decision was hardly made in haste.  The MDL began in 2012, and proceeded in a typical fashion with case management orders that required the exchange of general causation expert witness reports. The plaintiffs’ steering committee (PSC), acting for the plaintiffs, served the report of only one epidemiologist, Anick Bérard, who took the position that Zoloft causes virtually every major human congenital anomaly known to medicine. The defendants challenged the admissibility of Bérard’s opinions.  After extensive briefings and evidentiary hearings, the trial court found that Bérard’s opinions were riddled with inconsistent assessments of studies, eschewed generally accepted methods of causal inference, ignored contrary evidence, adopted novel, unreliable methods of endorsing “trends” in studies, and failed to address epidemiologic studies that did not support her subjective opinions. In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., 26 F. Supp. 3d 449 (E.D.Pa.2014). The trial court permitted plaintiffs an opportunity to seek reconsideration of Bérard’s exclusion, which led to the trial court’s reaffirming its previous ruling. In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 12–md–2342, 2015 WL 314149, at *2 (E.D.Pa. Jan. 23, 2015).

Notwithstanding the PSC’s claims that Bérard was the best qualified expert witness in her field and that she was the only epidemiologist needed to support the plaintiffs’ causal claims, the MDL court indulged the PSC by permitting plaintiffs another bite at the apple.  Over defendants’ objections, the court permitted the PSC to name yet another expert witness, statistician Nicholas Jewell, to do what Bérard had failed to do: proffer an opinion on general causation supported by sound science.  In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 12–md–2342, 2015 WL 115486, at * 2 (E.D.Pa. Jan. 7, 2015).

As a result of this ruling, the MDL dragged on for over a year, in which time, the PSC served a report by Jewell, and then the defendants conducted a discovery deposition of Jewell, and lodged a new Rule 702 challenge.  Although Jewell brought more statistical sophistication to the task, he could not transmute lead into gold; nor could he support the plaintiffs’ causal claims without committing most of the same fallacies found in Bérard’s opinions.  After another round of Rule 702 briefs and hearings, the MDL court excluded Jewell’s unwarranted causal opinions. In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 12–md–2342, 2015 WL 7776911 (E.D.Pa. Dec. 2, 2015).

The successive exclusions of Bérard and Jewell left the MDL court in a peculiar position. There were other witnesses, Robert Cabrera, a teratologist, Michael Levin, a molecular biologist, and Thomas Sadler, an embryologist, whose opinions addressed animal toxicologic studies, biological plausibility, and putative mechanisms.  These other witnesses, however, had little or no competence in epidemiology, and they explicitly relied upon Bérard’s opinions with respect to human outcomes.  As a result of Bérard’s exclusion, these witnesses were left free to offer their views about what happens in animals at high doses, or about theoretical mechanisms, but they were unable to address human causation.

Although the PSC had no expert witnesses who could legitimately offer reasonably supported opinions about the causation of human birth defects, the plaintiffs refused to decamp and leave the MDL forum. Faced with the prospect of not trying their cases to juries, the PSC instead tried the patience of the MDL judge. The PSC pulled out the stops in adducing weak, irrelevant, and invalid evidence to support their claims, sans epidemiologic expertise. The PSC argued that adverse event reports, internal company documents that discussed possible associations, the biological plausibility opinions of Levin and Sadler, the putative mechanism opinions of Cabrera, differential diagnoses offered to support specific causation, and the hip-shot opinions of a former-FDA-commissioner-for-hire, David Kessler could come together magically to supply sufficient evidence to have their cases submitted to juries. Judge Rufe saw through the transparent effort to manufacture evidence of causation, and granted summary judgment on all remaining Zoloft cases in the MDL. s In re Zoloft Prod. Liab. Litig., MDL NO. 2342, 12-MD-2342, 2016 WL 1320799, at *4 (E.D. Pa. April 5, 2016).

After a full briefing and hearing on Bérard’s opinion, a reconsideration of Bérard, a permitted “do over” of general causation with Jewell, a full briefing and hearing on Jewell’s opinions, the MDL court was able to deal deftly with the snippets of evidence “cobbled together” to substitute for evidence that might support a conclusion of causation. The PSC’s cobbled case was puffed up to give the appearance of voluminous evidence, in 200 exhibits that filled six banker’s boxes.  Id. at *5. The ruse was easily undone; most of the exhibits and purported evidence were obvious rubbish. “The quantity of the evidence is not, however, coterminous with the quality of evidence with regard to the issues now before the Court.” Id. The banker’s boxes contained artifices such as untranslated foreign-language documents, and company documents relating to the development and marketing of the medication. The PSC resubmitted reports from Levin, Cabrera, and Sadler, whose opinions were already adjudicated to be incompetent, invalid, irrelevant, or inadequate to support general causation.  The PSC pointed to the specific causation opinions of a clinical cardiologist, Ra-Id Abdulla, M.D., who proffered dubious differential etiologies, ruling in Zoloft as a cause of individual children’s birth defects, despite his inability to rule out truly known and unknown causes in the differential reasoning.  The MDL court, however, recognized that “[a] differential diagnosis assumes that general causation has been established,” id. at *7, and that Abdulla could not bootstrap general causation by purporting to reach a specific causation opinion (even if those specific causation opinions were legitimate).

The PSC submitted the recent consensus statement of the American Statistical Association (ASA)[1], which it misrepresented to be an epidemiologic study.  Id. at *5. The consensus statement makes some pedestrian pronouncements about the difference between statistical and clinical significance, about the need for other considerations in addition to statistical significance, in supporting causal claims, and the lack of bright-line distinctions for statistical significance in assessing causality.  All true, but immaterial to the PSC’s expert witnesses’ opinions that over-endorsed statistical significance in the few instances in which it was shown, and over-interpreted study data that was based upon data mining and multiple comparisons, in blatant violation of the ASA’s declared principles.

Stretching even further for “human evidence,” the PSC submitted documentary evidence of adverse event reports, as though they could support a causal conclusion.[2]  There are about four million live births each year, with an expected rate of serious cardiac malformations of about one per cent.[3]  The prevalence of SSRI anti-depressant use is at least two per cent, which means that we would expect 800 cardiac birth defects each year to occur in children of mother’s who took SSRI anti-depressants in the first trimester. If Zoloft had an average market share of all the SSRIs of about 25 per cent, then 200 cardiac defects each year would occur in children born to mothers who took Zoloft.  Given that Zoloft has been on the market since the early 1990s, we would expect that there would be thousands of children, exposed to Zoloft during embryogenesis, born with cardiac defects, if there was nothing untoward about maternal exposure to the medication.  Add the stimulated reporting of adverse events from lawyers, lawyer advertising, and lawyer instigation, you have manufactured evidence not probative of causation at all.[4] The MDL court cut deftly and swiftly through the smoke screen:

“These reports are certainly relevant to the generation of study hypotheses, but are insufficient to create a material question of fact on general causation.”

Id. at *9. The MDL court recognized that epidemiology was very important in discerning a causal connection between a common exposure and a common outcome, especially when the outcome has an expected rate in the general population. The MDL court stopped short of holding that epidemiologic evidence was required (which on the facts of the case would have been amply justified), but instead supported its ratio decidendi on the need to account for the extant epidemiology that contradicted or failed to support the strident and subjective opinions of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. The MDL court thus gave plaintiffs every benefit of the doubt by limiting its holding on the need for epidemiology to:

“when epidemiological studies are equivocal or inconsistent with a causation opinion, experts asserting causation opinions must thoroughly analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the epidemiological research and explain why that body of research does not contradict or undermine their opinion.”

Id. at *5, quoting from In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., 26 F. Supp. 3d 449, 476 (E.D. Pa. 2014).

The MDL court also saw through the thin veneer of respectability of the testimony of David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner who helped make large fortunes for some of the members of the PSC by the feeding frenzy he created with his moratorium on silicone gel breast implants.  Even viewing Kessler’s proffered testimony in the most charitable light, the court recognized that he offered little support for a causal conclusion other than to delegate the key issues to epidemiologists. Id. at *9. As for the boxes of regulatory documents, foreign labels, and internal company memoranda, the MDL court found that these documents did not raise a genuine issue of material fact concerning general causation:

“Neither these documents, nor draft product documents or foreign product labels containing language that advises use of birth control by a woman taking Zoloft constitute an admission of causation, as opposed to acknowledging a possible association.”

Id.

In the end, the MDL court found that the PSC’s many banker boxes of paper contained too much of nothing for the issue at hand.  Having put the defendants through the time and expense of litigating and re-litigating these issues, nothing short of dismissing the pending cases was a fair and appropriate outcome to the Zoloft MDL.

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Given the denouement of the Zoloft MDL, it is worth considering the MDL judge’s handling of the scientific issues raised, misrepresented, argued, or relied upon by the parties.  Judge Rufe was required, by Rules 702 and 703, to roll up her sleeves and assess the methodological validity of the challenged expert witnesses’ opinions.  That Her Honor was able to do this is a testament to her hard work. Zoloft was not Judge Rufe’s first MDL, and she clearly learned a lot from her previous judicial assignment to an MDL for Avandia personal injury actions.

On May 21, 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine published online a seriously flawed meta-analysis of cardiovascular disease outcomes and rosiglitazone (Avandia) use.  See Steven E. Nissen, M.D., and Kathy Wolski, M.P.H., “Effect of Rosiglitazone on the Risk of Myocardial Infarction and Death from Cardiovascular Causes,” 356 New Engl. J. Med. 2457 (2007).  The Nissen article did not appear in print until June 14, 2007, but the first lawsuits resulted within a day or two of the in-press version. The lawsuits soon thereafter reached a critical mass, with the inevitable creation of a federal court Multi-District Litigation.

Within a few weeks of Nissen’s article, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an editorial by Cynthia Mulrow, and other editors, in which questioned the Nissen meta-analysis[5], and introduced an article that attempted to replicate Nissen’s work[6].  The attempted replication showed that the only way Nissen could have obtained his nominally statistically significant result was to have selected a method, Peto’s fixed effect method, known to be biased for use with clinical trials with uneven arms. Random effect methods, more appropriate for the clinically heterogeneous clinical trials, consistently failed to replicate the Nissen result. Other statisticians weighed in and pointed out that using the risk difference made much more sense when there were multiple trials with zero events in one or the other or both arms of the trials. Trials with zero cardiovascular events in both arms represented important evidence of low, but equal risk, of heart attacks, which should be captured in an appropriate analysis.  When the risk difference approach was used, with exact statistical methods, there was no statistically significant increase in risk in the dataset used by Nissen.[7] Other scientists, including some of Nissen’s own colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic, and John Ioannidis, weighed in to note how fragile and insubstantial the Nissen meta-analysis was[8]:

“As rosiglitazone case demonstrates, minor modifications of the meta-analysis protocol can change the statistical significance of the result.  For small effects, even the direction of the treatment effect estimate may change.”

Nissen achieved his political objective with his shaky meta-analysis.  The FDA convened an Advisory Committee meeting, which in turn resulted in a negative review of the safety data, and the FDA’s imposition of warnings and a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, which all but prohibited use of rosiglizone.[9]  A clinical trial, RECORD, had already started, with support from the drug sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline, which fortunately was allowed to continue.

On a parallel track to the regulatory activities, the federal MDL, headed by Judge Rufe, proceeded to motions and a hearing on GSK’s Rule 702 challenge to plaintiffs’ evidence of general causation. The federal MDL trial judge denied GSK’s motions to exclude plaintiffs’ causation witnesses in an opinion that showed significant diffidence in addressing scientific issues.  In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices and Product Liability Litigation, 2011 WL 13576, *12 (E.D. Pa. 2011).  SeeLearning to Embrace Flawed Evidence – The Avandia MDL’s Daubert Opinion” (Jan. 10, 2011.

After Judge Rufe denied GSK’s challenges to the admissibility of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ causation opinions in the Avandia MDL, the RECORD trial was successfully completed and published.[10]  RECORD was a long term, prospectively designed randomized cardiovascular trial in over 4,400 patients, followed on average of 5.5 yrs.  The trial was designed with a non-inferiority end point of ruling out a 20% increased risk when compared with standard-of-care diabetes treatment The trial achieved its end point, with a hazard ratio of 0.99 (95% confidence interval, 0.85-1.16) for cardiovascular hospitalization and death. A readjudication of outcomes by the Duke Clinical Research Institute confirmed the published results.

On Nov. 25, 2013, after convening another Advisory Committee meeting, the FDA announced the removal of most of its restrictions on Avandia:

“Results from [RECORD] showed no elevated risk of heart attack or death in patients being treated with Avandia when compared to standard-of-care diabetes drugs. These data do not confirm the signal of increased risk of heart attacks that was found in a meta-analysis of clinical trials first reported in 2007.”

FDA Press Release, “FDA requires removal of certain restrictions on the diabetes drug Avandia” (Nov. 25, 2013). And in December 2015, the FDA abandoned its requirement of a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy for Avandia. FDA, “Rosiglitazone-containing Diabetes Medicines: Drug Safety Communication – FDA Eliminates the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS)” (Dec. 16, 2015).

GSK’s vindication came too late to reverse Judge Rufe’s decision in the Avandia MDL.  GSK spent over six billion dollars on resolving Avandia claims.  And to add to the company’s chagrin, GSK lost patent protection for Avandia in April 2012.[11]

Something good, however, may have emerged from the Avandia litigation debacle.  Judge Rufe heard from plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in Avandia about the hierarchy of evidence, about how observational studies must be evaluated for bias and confounding, about the importance of statistical significance, and about how studies that lack power to find relevant associations may still yield conclusions with appropriate meta-analysis. Important nuances of meta-analysis methodology may have gotten lost in the kerfuffle, but given that plaintiffs had reasonable quality clinical trial data, Avandia plaintiffs’ counsel could eschew their typical reliance upon weak and irrelevant lines of evidence, based upon case reports, adverse event disproportional reporting, and the like.

The Zoloft litigation introduced Judge Rufe to a more typical pharmaceutical litigation. Because the outcomes of interest were birth defects, there were no clinical trials.  To be sure, there were observational epidemiologic studies, but now the defense expert witnesses were carefully evaluating the studies for bias and confounding, and the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses were double counting studies and ignoring multiple comparisons and validity concerns.  Once again, in the Zoloft MDL, plaintiffs’ expert witnesses made their non-specific complaints about “lack of power” (without ever specifying the relevant alternative hypothesis), but it was the defense expert witnesses who cited relevant meta-analyses that attempted to do something about the supposed lack of power. Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses inconsistently argued “lack of power” to disregard studies that had outcomes that undermined their opinions, even when those studies had narrow confidence intervals surrounding values at or near 1.0.

The Avandia litigation laid the foundation for Judge Rufe’s critical scrutiny by exemplifying the nature and quantum of evidence to support a reasonable scientific conclusion.  Notwithstanding the mistakes made in the Avandia litigation, this earlier MDL created an invidious distinction with the Zoloft PSC’s evidence and arguments, which looked as weak and insubstantial as they really were.


[1] Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose,” The American Statistician, available online (Mar. 7, 2016), in-press at DOI:10.1080/00031305.2016.1154108, <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/>. SeeThe American Statistical Association’s Statement on and of Significance” (Mar. 17, 2016); “The ASA’s Statement on Statistical Significance – Buzzing from the Huckabees” (Mar. 19, 2016).

[2] See 21 C.F.R. § 314.80 (a) Postmarketing reporting of adverse drug experiences (defining “[a]dverse drug experience” as “[a]ny adverse event associated with the use of a drug in humans, whether or not considered drug related”).

[3] See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Birth Defects Home Page” (last visited April 8, 2016).

[4] See, e.g., Derrick J. Stobaugh, Parakkal Deepak, & Eli D. Ehrenpreis, “Alleged isotretinoin-associated inflammatory bowel disease: Disproportionate reporting by attorneys to the Food and Drug Administration Adverse Event Reporting System,” 69 J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 393 (2013) (documenting stimulated reporting from litigation activities).

[5] Cynthia D. Mulrow, John Cornell & A. Russell Localio, “Rosiglitazone: A Thunderstorm from Scarce and Fragile Data,” 147 Ann. Intern. Med. 585 (2007).

[6] George A. Diamond, Leon Bax & Sanjay Kaul, “Uncertain Effects of Rosiglitazone on the Risk for Myocardial Infartion and Cardiovascular Death,” 147 Ann. Intern. Med. 578 (2007).

[7] Tian, et al., “Exact and efficient inference procedure for meta-analysis and its application to the analysis of independent 2 × 2 tables with all available data but without artificial continuity correction” 10 Biostatistics 275 (2008)

[8] Adrian V. Hernandez, Esteban Walker, John P.A. Ioannidis,  and Michael W. Kattan, “Challenges in meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials for rare harmful cardiovascular events: the case of rosiglitazone,” 156 Am. Heart J. 23, 28 (2008).

[9] Janet Woodcock, FDA Decision Memorandum (Sept. 22, 2010).

[10] Philip D. Home, et al., “Rosiglitazone evaluated for cardiovascular outcomes in oral agent combination therapy for type 2 diabetes (RECORD): a multicentre, randomised, open-label trial,” 373 Lancet 2125 (2009).

[11]Pharmacovigilantism – Avandia Litigation” (Nov. 27, 2013).

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