Adding Primary Jurisdiction To The Defense Lawyer’s Toolbox

When the preemption defense is not available, it may still be possible to effectively dismiss a plaintiff’s claim by arguing that the court should consider primary jurisdiction. Primary jurisdiction is a judicially created doctrine that addresses the proper relationship between court and administrative agencies. 

Raising primary jurisdiction may be particularly helpful to food and cosmetics manufacturers where a plaintiff’s particular deceptive trade practice allegations may not be specifically addressed by FDA (or Nutrition Labeling and Education Act , "NLEA" ) regulation. A case in point is Astiana v. Hain Celestial Group, Inc., a putative class action in which plaintiffs alleged that the defendant’s claims of "all natural" and "pure, natural & organic" were false and misleading under California law.  In dismissing the case, the California court agreed that the FDA, rather than the court, should evaluate plaintiffs’ claims in an administrative setting in light of the complexity of the issues presented and the agency’s expertise in the subject matter. 

An excellent explanation of primary jurisdiction is found in a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Nelson in Taradejna v. General Mills, Inc., 909 F.Supp.2d 1128 (D.Minn. 2012):

Primary jurisdiction is a common-law doctrine that is utilized to coordinate judicial and administrative decision making. Although there is no fixed formula for deciding whether to apply the doctrine, the doctrine applies where a claim is originally cognizable in the courts, and comes into play whenever enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body. Agency expertise is the most common reason that courts apply the doctrine of primary jurisdiction. In addition, courts apply the doctrine to promote uniformity and consistency within the particular field of regulation. . . . When the primary jurisdiction doctrine applies, the district court has discretion either to stay the case and retain jurisdiction or, if the parties would not be unfairly disadvantaged, to dismiss the case without prejudice. Id. at 1134

In Taradejna, the Minnesota court applied primary jurisdiction to dismiss a plaintiff’s case relating to the advertising and selling of "Yoplait Greek" yogurt.  As discussed in the Product Liability Monitor, Lisa Sokolowski of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP concludes her thoughtful discussion of the decision commenting that "Judge Nelson ultimately found that the ambiguity and murky regulatory history surrounding the FDA’s “standard of identity” for yogurt meant that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) should decide whether defendants’ actions violated the law."

In addition to Ms. Sokolowski, some astute commentators have weighed in on the preemption/primary jurisdiction distinction in recent months.  James A. Becker of Reed Smith authored a well-written discussion in Drug and Device Law (11/28/12) titled "Primary Jurisdiction: A Natural Alternative to Preemption".  Glenn Pogust and Michael Gruver at Kaye Scholer authored an article titled "Preemption and Jurisdiction Defenses in Caffeine Litigation", which appeared in the New York Law Journal on July 11, 2013.  Reading these authors should provide defense counsel with a road map concerning the kinds of cases in which primary jurisdiction arguments may succeed.