Using the Rule 45 Subpoena to Obtain Research Data

Back in June, Mr. William Ruskin posted a blog post, “When Should Data Underlying Scientific Studies Be Discoverable?” on his firm’s Toxic Tort Litigation Blog.  Earlier this week, the Defense Research Institute’s blog, dri-today republished the post, and I posted a response, “Research Data from Published Papers Generally Should Be Available,” on the DRI blog.

Mr. Ruskin’s blog post calls attention to the important problem of access to research data in litigation and other contexts.  The effort to obtain Dr. Racette’s underlying data is an interesting case study in these legal discovery battles.  Ruskin notes that there is the potential for “injustice” from such discovery, but he fails to acknowledge that the National Research Council has been urging scientists for decades to have a plan for data sharing as part of their protocol, and that the National Institutes of Health now requires such planning.  Some journals require a commitment to data sharing as a condition to publication.  The Annals of Internal Medicine, which is probably the most rigorously edited internal medicine journal, requires authors to state to what extent they will share data when their articles appear in print. Ultimately, litigants are entitled to “everyman’s” and “every woman’s” evidence, regardless whether they are scientists. If scientists complied with the best practices, guidances, and regulations on planning for data sharing, the receipt of a subpoena for underlying data would not be a particularly disruptive event in their laboratories.

In the case of Dr. Racette, it was clear that the time he needed to spend to respond to defense counsel’s subpoena was largely caused by his failure to comply with NIH guidelines on data sharing.  Racette was represented by university counsel, who refused to negotiate over the subpoena, and raised frivolous objections. Ultimately, the costs of production were visited upon the defendants who paid what seemed like rather exorbitant amounts for Racette and his colleagues to redact individual identifier information.  The MDL court suggested that Racette was operating independently of plaintiffs’ counsel, but the fact was that plaintiffs’ counsel recruited the study participants and brought them to the screenings, where Racette and colleagues videotaped them to make their assessments of Parkinsonism.  Much more could be said but for a protective order that was put in place by the MDL court.  What I can say is that after the defense obtained a good part of the underlying data, the Racette study was no longer actively used by plaintiffs’ counsel in the welding fume cases.

It is not only litigation that gives rise to needs for transparency and openness. Regulation and public policy disputes similarly create need for data access.  As Mr. Ruskin acknowledges, the case of Weitz & Luxenberg v. Georgia-Pacific LLC, 2013 WL 2435565, 2013 NY Slip Op 04127 (June 6, 2013), is very different, but at bottom is the same secrecy and false sense of entitlement to privilege underlying data. The Appellate Division’s invocation of the crime-fraud exception seems to be hyperbolic precisely because no attorney-client privilege attached in the first place. Basic tenets of openness and transparency in science should have guided the Appellate Division.

The Georgia-Pacific effort was misguided on many levels, but we should at least rejoice that science won, and that G-P will be required to share underlying data with plaintiffs’ counsel or whoever wants access. Without reviewing the underlying data and documents, it is hard to say what the studies were designed to do, but saying that they were designed “to cast doubt,” as Mr. Ruskin does, is uncharitable to G-P. After all, G-P may well have found itself responding in court to some rather dodgy data, and thought it could sponsor stronger studies that were likely to refute the published papers.  And the published papers may have been undertaken to “cast certainty,” or even a faux certainty, over issues that were not what they were portrayed to be in the papers.

Earlier this month, Judge Reggie Walton granted a motion to compel a litigant’s motion for underlying research in the denture cream litigation.  Plaintiffs’ counsel contracted with Dr. Salim Shah and his companies Sarfez Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and Sarfez USA, Inc. (“Sarfez”) to conduct human research in India, to support their claims that zinc in denture cream causes neurological damage.  In re Denture Cream Prods. Liab. Litig., Misc. Action 13-384 (RBW), 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93456, *2 (D.D.C. July 3, 2013).  When defense counsel learned of the Sarfez study, known as the Zinc/077/12 Study, and the plaintiffs’ counsel’s payments of over $300,000, to support the study, they sought discovery of raw data, study protocol, statistical analyses, and other materials from plaintiffs’ counsel.  Plaintiffs’ counsel protested that they did not have all the materials, and directed defense counsel to Sarfez.  Although other courts have made counsel produce similar materials from the scientist independent contractors they engaged, in this case, defense counsel followed the trail of documents to contractor, Sarfez.  Id. at *3-4.

After serving a Rule 45 subpoena on Sarfez, things got interesting.  Raising no objections, and asserting no privileges, Sarfez served about 1,500 pages of responsive documents.  Some of the documents were emails, but crucial attachments were missing, including protocols, analytical reports, and raw data.  Id. at *12-13.  When the defendant, Proctor & Gamble Company (P&G) pressed, Sarfez resisted further production.  P&G filed a motion to compel, and Sarfez objected on various  grounds, including lack of relevancy.

The objections did not go very far.  Plaintiffs’ counsel, who probably should have been tasked with producing the subpoenaed materials in the first instance, had already declared their intent to rely upon the study that they contracted for with Sarfez.  Id. at *9. Judge Walton noted that relevancy did not require that the subpoenaed materials be admissible at trial, but only that they may be relevant to the claim or defense of a party.  Id. at *6.  Judge Walton also upheld the subpoena, which sought underlying data and non-privileged correspondence, to be within the scope of Rules 26(b) and 45, and not unduly burdensome. Id. at *9-10, *20.

Sarfez attempted to suggest that the email attachments might not exist, but Judge Walton branded the suggestion “disingenuous.”  Attachments to emails should be produced along with the emails.  Id. at *12 (citing and collecting cases). Although Judge Walton did not grant a request for forensic recovery of hard-drive data or for sanctions, His Honor warned Sarfez that it might be required to bear the cost of forensic data recovery if it did not comply the district court’s order.  Id. at *15, *22.

The Denture Cream case is a helpful reminder that not only industrial defendants sponsor scientific studies in litigation contexts.  Plaintiffs’ counsel, and sometimes their interest proxies — labor unions, support groups, advocacy groups, zealous scientists, and regulatory agencies — sponsor and conduct studies as well.  Proctor & Gamble should not have been put to the expense and trouble of a Rule 45 subpoena, but it is encouraging to see that Judge Walton cut through the evasions and disingenuous claims, and enforced the research subpoena in this case.

 

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