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In re Neurontin Antitrust Litigation

August 27, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Faith S. Hochberg, U.S.D.J.


MDL No. 1479

Master File No. 02-1390


HOCHBERG, District Judge

This matter comes before the Court upon the consolidated Motion to Dismiss the Direct Purchaser Plaintiffs' Claims (Docket # 90) filed by Defendants Warner-Lambert Company LLC and Pfizer Inc. (collectively, "Warner-Lambert"), pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Court has considered the briefs of the parties, and oral argument held on April 22, 2009.

I. Factual Background

This matter arises from actions brought by direct purchasers of the anti-epilepsy drug gabapentin, which has been marketed by Defendants under the tradename Neurontin since 1994.*fn1

Plaintiffs assert that Defendants violated federal antitrust laws by using patents for or related to gabapentin to block generic competition for Neurontin. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred several related actions to this Court for coordinated and consolidated pretrial proceedings, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407.*fn2 Certain facts and allegations underlying this action have been discussed extensively in two Opinions handed down by this Court today in a related matter, In re Gabapentin Patent Litig. (No. 00-2931, MDL No. 1384).*fn3 For purposes of the instant motion, however, the following background is relevant and bears repeating.

A. Warner-Lambert's Gabapentin Patents

Having discovered gabapentin and its usefulness in preventing and limiting epileptic seizures in the 1970s, Warner-Lambert obtained various patents covering the drug and its uses. Warner-Lambert obtained U.S. Patent No. 4,024,175 (the "'175 Patent"), which claimed the chemical molecule gabapentin anhydrous in 1977. The '175 Patent expired in 1994. In 1979, Warner-Lambert obtained U.S. Patent No. 4,087,544 (the "'544 Patent") covering the use of gabapentin to treat epilepsy. The '544 Patent expired in 2000.*fn4

Warner-Lambert developed its Neurontin products on the basis of these patents. Following clinical trials, Warner-Lambert submitted New Drug Applications ("NDAs") to the FDA for the use of gabapentin to treat epilepsy. The FDA approved NDA No. 20-235, for gabapentin capsules, on December 30, 1993 and NDA No. 20-882, for gabapentin tablets, on October 9, 1998. Pursuant to these NDAs, Neurontin was only approved for use as an adjunctive therapy for the treatment of epilepsy.

Warner-Lambert filed several Orange Book listings in connection with the development and sale of Neurontin. In January 1992, Warner-Lambert certified that the '175 and '544 Patents covered the formulation, composition and/or method of use of the drug product that was the subject of NDA No. 20-235. Both patents were then listed in the Orange Book. Plaintiffs contend that Neurontin, as it was approved by the FDA, is protected only by these two patents.

In addition to the '175 and '544 Patents, Warner-Lambert has obtained and listed in the Orange Book several other gabapentin-related patents. In the late 1980s, Warner-Lambert applied for a patent covering a monohydrate form of the gabapentin compound in which each gabapentin molecule is associated with one molecule of water.*fn5 U.S. Patent No. 4,894,476 (the "'476 Patent"), claiming gabapentin monohydrate, issued on January 16, 1990 and expired on May 2, 2008. At about the same time, Warner-Lambert also discovered that gabapentin could be useful in slowing or preventing neurodegeneration. On January 28, 1992, Warner-Lambert obtained U.S. Patent No. 5,084,479 (the "'479 Patent"), claiming the use of gabapentin anhydrous to treat neurodegenerative diseases.*fn6 This patent expires on January 2, 2010.

At about the time Neurontin was approved by the FDA, Warner-Lambert amended its patent notification statement to include the '476 and '479 Patents, certifying that they also covered the formulation, composition and/or method of use of the drug product that was the subject of its NDAs. The '476 and '479 Patents were listed in the Orange Book in May 1994 and January 1996, respectively.

Warner-Lambert filed a final patent application, U.S. Patent Application No. 07/570,500 ("the '500 Application"), in August 1990. This patent covered the manufacturing process developed by the company to create a low-lactam form of gabapentin.*fn7 As described below, the parties dispute the details and objectives of the resulting patent prosecution. The low-lactam gabapentin patent was ultimately issued as U.S. Patent No. 6,054,482 (the "'482 Patent") on April 25, 2000 and it will expire on April 25, 2017.*fn8 Shortly after the '482 Patent issued, Warner-Lambert certified that it also covered the drug product at issue in both NDA No. 20-235 and NDA No. 20-882, resulting in an Orange Book listing for the '482 Patent as well.

B. The Market For Neurontin

Warner-Lambert first began selling Neurontin capsules in early 1994. According to the FDA's required labeling, gabapentin is useful for "adjunctive therapy in the treatment of partial seizures with and without secondary generalization in adults with epilepsy." This was the only use approved by the FDA prior to the launch of Neurontin.*fn9

Once Warner-Lambert began marketing Neurontin however, doctors also began to use Neurontin to treat neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's disease, A.L.S., and neuropathic pain, the uses covered by the '479 Patent but not approved by the FDA.*fn10 Increased awareness of Neurontin's off-label uses led to significant sales of the drug to treat conditions other than epilepsy. By 1998, Neurontin was being prescribed and used almost exclusively for off-label uses. See First Amended Complaint and Demand for Jury Trial of Plaintiffs CVS Pharmacy, Inc., Rite Aid Corporation and Rite Aid HDQTRS. Corp. ¶ 93, In re Neurontin Antitrust Litig., No. 02-5583 (D.N.J. Feb. 14, 2008) ("Direct Purchaser Non-Class Complaint" or "DPNC Complaint").

C. Abbreviated New Drug Applications And The Resulting Patent Infringement Litigation

Beginning in 1998, several generic drug manufacturers filed Abbreviated New Drug Applications ("ANDAs") seeking FDA approval to market generic gabapentin products after the expiration of the '544 patent (and its pediatric extension).*fn11 Purepac Pharmaceutical Co. ("Purepac"), the first generic applicant, filed two ANDAs: No. 75-370 for gabapentin capsules on March 30, 1998 and No. 75-694 for gabapentin tablets on September 3, 1999. When Purepac initially filed ANDAs, it submitted a Paragraph IV Certification concerning the '476 Patent and a section viii statement concerning the '479 Patent. Apotex Corp. ("Apotex") filed ANDA No. 75-360 for gabapentin capsules on April 17, 1998, and included a Paragraph IV Certification for both the '476 and '479 Patents. Similar ANDAs were subsequently filed by Geneva Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Zenith Goldline Pharmaceuticals, and Eon Labs Manufacturing, among others.

Based on these ANDA submissions, Warner-Lambert commenced patent infringement litigation against several generic applicants, alleging infringement of the '476 and '479 Patents.*fn12 In response, Purepac, Apotex and several other generic applicants asserted antitrust or unfair competition counterclaims similar to those pending before this Court in the instant action and in In re Gabapentin Patent Litig. By initiating infringement litigation, Warner-Lambert invoked the automatic 30-month stay provision, thereby requiring the FDA to stay approval of the generic manufacturers' ANDAs. Summary judgment of noninfringement was ultimately granted in favor of the generic applicants. See, e.g., Warner-Lambert Co. v. Purepac Pharm. Co., et al., Nos. 98-2749, 99-5948, 2003 WL 21698310 (D.N.J. May 22, 2003) (the "May 22 Opinion"). Plaintiffs now assert that these initial lawsuits were "objectively baseless and intended solely to illegally extend [Defendants'] monopoly by delaying the entrance of generic manufacturers into the gabapentin anhydrous market." DPNC Complaint ¶ 63.

Once the '482 Patent was issued and listed in the Orange Book, generic applicants amended their ANDAs to include Paragraph IV Certifications concerning that patent. The updated certifications led to another round of litigation, beginning in June 2000, as Warner-Lambert again filed multiple patent infringement actions against several generic manufacturers. These actions, asserting infringement of the '482 Patent, are those now pending before this Court in In re Gabapentin Patent Litig.*fn13

Generic manufacturers began selling their gabapentin products "at risk" before a court ruling on infringement liability had issued. Purepac, for example, launched its gabapentin capsules in October 2004, and its gabapentin tablets in December 2004. Other manufacturers began selling generic gabapentin products in 2004 and 2005 as well.

II. Direct Purchaser Antitrust Actions

Plaintiffs in the instant action are direct purchasers of Neurontin.*fn14 Plaintiffs Louisiana Wholesale Drug Company ("Louisiana Wholesale"), Meijer, Inc., and Meijer Distribution, Inc. (collectively, "Meijer," and all collectively "Direct Purchaser Class Plaintiffs") filed an Amended Complaint asserting two counts of monopolization in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.*fn15 The Direct Purchaser Class Plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of themselves and as representatives of a class of "[a]ll persons who directly purchased Neurontin from Defendant at any time during the period of July 16, 2000 until the effects of Defendant's conduct ceased." First Amended and Consolidated Class Action Complaint of Plaintiffs Louisiana Wholesale Drug Company, Inc., Meijer, Inc., and Meijer Distribution, Inc. ¶ 24, In re Neurontin Antitrust Litig., Nos. 02-1830, 02-2731(D.N.J. Feb. 14, 2008) ("Direct Purchaser Class Complaint" or "DPC Complaint"). Excluded from the class are Defendants and their officers, directors, management and employees, predecessors, subsidiaries and affiliates, and all federal government entities.*fn16

Plaintiffs CVS Pharmacy, Inc. (formerly CVS Meridian, Inc., "CVS"), Rite Aid Corporation, and Rite Aid HDQTRS. Corp. (collectively, "Rite Aid" and all collectively "Direct Purchaser Non-Class Plaintiffs") filed an Amended Complaint asserting one count of monopolization and one count of attempted monopolization, also in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.*fn17 Plaintiffs in both actions seek similar relief, primarily a judgment that Warner-Lambert's actions are an unlawful restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Act, treble damages for such actions, and reasonable costs and attorneys' fees. See DPC Complaint at 53; DPNC Complaint at 41.

Although the claims in each action are styled slightly differently, Plaintiffs have set forth virtually identical allegations concerning Warner-Lambert's anticompetitive conduct. Plaintiffs primarily allege that Warner-Lambert engaged in an "overall scheme" to monopolize the market for gabapentin anhydrous products by forestalling, if not completely preventing, generic competition for Neurontin.*fn18 Warner-Lambert is alleged to have carried out this scheme by:

(1) procuring two additional patents that it improperly listed in the Orange Book; (2) manipulating the patent approval process so that a third patent with claims so limited that they are impossible to accurately measure or distinguish from the prior art so that the patent could be used to delay generic entry; (3) filing and prosecuting multiple sham lawsuits on these patents that no reasonable litigant could have expected to succeed; and (4) engaging in fraudulent off-label promotion to convince doctors to prescribe Neurontin for uses for which it was not approved.

DPNC Complaint ¶ 29. Plaintiffs claim that these actions, taken together, foreclosed generic competition in the gabapentin anhydrous market and enabled Warner-Lambert to charge supracompetitive prices for Neurontin. As a result, consumers of gabapentin anhydrous were compelled to pay, and did pay, artificially inflated prices for the drug.

A. Allegations Of Patent Prosecution Misconduct

Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Warner-Lambert manipulated the prosecution of the '482 Patent to provide additional protection for the Neurontin franchise and maximize the delay of generic competition through successive 30-month stays of generic approval. The filing of the initial '500 Application in 1990 led to a series of rejections by the patent examiner and continuation applications by Warner-Lambert. Continuation Application No. 08/020,270 (the "'270 Application"), filed in February 1993, was finally approved for issuance as U.S. Patent No. 5,395,852 (the "'852 Patent"). The '852 Patent was scheduled to issue on March 7, 1995.

Shortly before the issuance date, however, Warner-Lambert requested that the approved application be withdrawn in exchange for another continuation application, so that the patent examiner could consider the '476 Patent as well as U.S. Patent No. 4,152,326 (the "'326 Patent"), which is also directed to compounds related to gabapentin, assigned to Warner-Lambert and lists the same inventors. Plaintiffs now contend that Warner-Lambert knew about both patents and should have brought them to the examiner's attention far earlier in the prosecution process. They further allege that these delays were designed to provide Warner-Lambert with "the ability to time the eventual issuance of the patent to its greatest advantage." DPC Complaint ¶ 97; see also DPNC Complaint at 53-54. Warner-Lambert prosecuted its final continuation application over the next five years, allegedly stepping up its efforts only when it appeared that protection for Neurontin under other patents would soon expire.

The '482 Patent, as issued, has claims similar to those approved years earlier under the '270 Application, thereby implying, according to Plaintiffs, that Warner-Lambert could have patented the low-lactam formulation much earlier if the patent itself had been the company's actual objective. But this patent, Plaintiffs allege, was merely a "contingency" patent held in reserve for use in further delaying the launch of generic gabapentin.*fn19 Plaintiffs claim, in sum, that "Defendant intentionally delayed and prolonged the prosecution of its patent application in order to better use the patent ... to delay generic competition by improperly obtaining another automatic 30-month stay of FDA approval of generic ANDAs." DPC Complaint ¶ 99.

B. Allegations Of Improper Orange Book Listings

Plaintiffs further allege that Warner-Lambert submitted false and fraudulent information to the FDA in order to improperly list the '476 and '479 Patents in the Orange Book. They assert that Warner-Lambert listed these patents despite knowing that the patents "(1) did not claim an approved drug or an approved method of using a drug, and (2) could not reasonably be asserted to be infringed upon by the sale of generic gabapentin anhydrous." DPNC Complaint ¶ 36. Warner-Lambert's certification concerning the '476 Patent was allegedly false and fraudulent because Warner-Lambert knew the '476 Patent claimed a different formulation or composition than the drug approved for sale as Neurontin. Id. ¶ 41. Plaintiffs contend that the certification concerning the '479 Patent was similarly false and fraudulent because that patent claimed only the use of gabapentin anhydrous to treat neurodegenerative disorders, not the FDA-approved use of Neurontin to treat epilepsy. Id. ¶ 43. Plaintiffs allege that Warner-Lambert listed these patents in the Orange Book "only so that it could take advantage of the ANDA approval process to delay generic approvals for up to 30 months." Id. ¶ 47.

Plaintiffs also challenge Warner-Lambert's subsequent listing of the '482 Patent. They allege that Warner-Lambert intentionally narrowed the patent claims covering the gabapentin substance, but nevertheless listed the '482 Patent in the Orange Book, certifying that it related to Neurontin and that infringement could be reasonably asserted against generic applicants. According to Plaintiffs, "this was improper ... because it is not possible to distinguish infringing from non-infringing generic products with regard to each claimed ...

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