United States: Federal Court Says VA Can't Block Prescriber's Deposition

Last Updated: August 29 2017
Article by Michelle Yeary

We all know how important a prescriber's testimony is in a drug or device case. In many jurisdictions, the testimony of the prescriber is a mandatory requirement if a plaintiff is going to meet his/her burden of proof on a failure to warn claim. That's because under an ordinary burden of proof, warning claims are dismissed on causation grounds where there is simply no evidence in the record about the prescribing physician's actions. In other words, without evidence that a different warning would have altered the prescribing physician's decision to prescribe, plaintiff hasn't supported his claim.

Of course, this isn't the case in jurisdictions where a "heeding presumption" puts the onus on the defendant to come up with affirmative proof of lack of causation. So, there are also, unfortunately, several jurisdictions where defendants are quite motivated to secure the prescriber's testimony as well. We just posted last week about a case where the prescriber testified that he was fully informed of the risks and even if he had received the additional information plaintiff claimed he should have, he would have prescribed anyway. Under the learned intermediary doctrine, that testimony broke the causal chain on a failure to warn claim.

This means in every case, one side or the other (maybe even both) is looking to depose the prescriber. Sometimes that isn't possible because he/she has died or can't be found. And sometimes, the federal government simply says no. That happens when the prescriber is an employee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the "VA") and the plaintiff, a veteran, received his treatment, including prescription of the drug or device at issue at a VA hospital/clinic.

Generally, government employees are immune from discovery in private litigation under rules first set out in United States ex rel. Touhy v. Ragen, 340 U.S. 462 (1952). Pursuant to Touhy, a governmental agency can validly issue regulations restricting the availability of its personnel to participate (voluntarily or involuntarily) in private litigation. Id. at 468. Such discovery, the Court held, could easily become unduly burdensome to government operations. The "variety of information" that government employees possess" and "the possibilities of harm from unrestricted disclosure in court," warrant "centralizing determination" concerning compliance with civil process. Id.

The VA has established its own set of Touhy regulations which can be found at 38 C.F.R. §14.800 et seq. And, if you've ever sent a Touhy letter to the VA requesting the deposition of a VA doctor, you've most likely received a courteous letter back denying your request and citing those regulations. Sometimes, further discussion can lead to an agreement to conduct a short deposition on a pre-determined set of topics. But, where a compromise with the VA cannot be reached, the issue may need to be litigated in federal court. Which brings us to today's decision in Brown v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134556 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 22, 2017).

In this case, plaintiff was seeking to depose the doctor who had prescribed him Risperdal in connection with his products liability lawsuit pending in California state court. Id. at *1. His efforts to secure this testimony included multiple subpoenas issued by courts in California and Alabama, multiple emails with the Office of General Counsel for the VA, and a formal request for authorization of the deposition to the VA. Id. at *3-4. In its response to plaintiff's request, the VA offered the following justifications for denying his request: conserving the time of VA employees to perform their official duties; the VA's non-involvement in the state court case; that pertinent information can be obtained from production of the medical records; and that no advance authorization was sought per VA regulations. Id. at *5.

The court found none of these reasons persuasive. First, the court made clear that Touhy is not a locked door to the discovery of government information:

Application of Touhy regulations . . . is intended only to provide an orderly process by which a government agency may determine whether a demand for information from it is valid and lawful. Such regulations by themselves do not create a privilege or otherwise authorize the withholding of information.

Id. at *6; see also id. at *16-17 (Touhy does not "broadly exempt" the government from providing evidence). In the case of the VA, that process is a list of 15 factors to be considered in determining whether to allow a VA employee to testify. See 38 C.F.R. §14.804. But a list of factors isn't enough. "There must be a good reason for an agency to withhold its evidence, and absent such a good reason, doing so is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion." Id. at *17. In this case, the court found the reasons the VA provided for withholding evidence simply didn't make sense in light of the public's right to obtain "every man's evidence." Id.

The VA's first argument was burden/inconvenience. Section 14.804(a) provides that one consideration is "to conserve the time of VA personnel for conducting their official duties concerning servicing the Nation's veteran population." Certainly an honorable and essential service that nobody should be looking to undercut. But the court was perplexed at the VA's assertion of this factor given that the deposition was limited to three hours, which even with prep time would likely mean no more than 8 hours total for the prescriber. Id. at *11.

[E]ight hours . . . is not a heavy burden of time compared to the need the plaintiff has for the testimony. It is ironic, indeed, that the VA does not consider supplying necessary information to veterans in need of it part of its "servicing of the Nation's veteran population."

Id.

The court also disagreed that plaintiff had not made a sufficient request for the testimony. He sent a letter summarizing the testimony that was sought and its importance. Plaintiff sought testimony about the doctor's prescription of Risperdal to plaintiff and what the doctor knew about the drug when he prescribed it. Id. at *13. As the court acknowledged, what the prescriber knew concerning the risks of the drug is essential evidence for plaintiff's case. "Only . . . the plaintiff's treating physician, could provide this factual evidence." Id. at *14-15. The VA's argument that the necessary evidence can be obtained from the medical records fails for the same reason:

As mentioned already, under the Learned Intermediary Doctrine, necessary warnings related to drugs and medical devices are made to the treating physician, not the patient. This means that the plaintiff must explore, as a fact, whether [his prescriber] received any warnings or advisories regarding Risperdal, and their contents. Only [his prescriber] can supply this evidence concerning what he was told or read and what he knew about Risperdal when he prescribed it. That information is not likely reflected in medical records.

Id. at *20n.12.

The VA's final argument was that it had "no direct or substantial interest in the private litigation between the plaintiff and the [drug] manufacturer." Id. at *15. This lack of interest isn't explicitly one of the 15 decision factors in §14.804, but could be related to the conservation of resources (already discussed above) or "that his testimony may create the appearance that the VA favors one litigant over another." Id. On this point, the court repeatedly pointed out that the prescriber is being asked to provide factual testimony only. He is not being asked to serve as an expert or asked for his opinion on medical causation. Id. Moreover, a lack of interest in the litigation doesn't "absolve" a witness of providing evidence. If it did, we're sure private practitioners would turn down requests to testify all the time. The VA prescriber is no different than any other neutral, disinterested witness and his testimony is required only to comply with a general duty to provide evidence. Id. at *19-20.

The court's reasoning would seem to apply to almost any prescribing testimony sought from a VA employee. If appropriately limited in scope to only factual evidence concerning the treatment of the plaintiff, the prescription of the drug, and the doctor's knowledge of its risks and benefits, the factors for disallowing the deposition do not seem to apply – or are certainly heavily outweighed by the need for the evidence which cannot be obtained from any other source. We haven't done a search for other Touhy decisions related to prescribers (maybe we will), but we certainly intend to add a cite to this decision to the next Touhy request we send to the VA.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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