On May 17, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) claims predicated on allegations that Pfizer “improperly marketed Lipitor, a popular statin, as appropriate for patients whose risk factors and cholesterol levels fall outside the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Guidelines.” In United States ex rel. Polansky v. Pfizer, Inc. the relator, Polansky, claimed that the Guidelines were incorporated into the drug’s FDA label and were thus mandatory. He further alleged that Pfizer induced doctors to prescribe the drug outside the Guidelines, and induced pharmacists to fill such “off-label” prescriptions that were, in turn, reimbursed by government payors. Polansky claimed that requests for reimbursement for these prescriptions impliedly, but falsely, certified that the prescriptions were for on-label uses.

The Second Circuit rejected the relator’s theory at its most basic level, finding that the Lipitor label did not mandate compliance with the NCEP Guidelines, which were clearly advisory in nature. The fact that the Guidelines were mentioned in the label did not render them mandatory. Quoting the district court, the Second Circuit wrote, “we cannot accept plaintiff’s theory that what scientists at the National Cholesterol Education Program clearly intended to be advisory guidance is transformed into a legal restriction simply because the FDA has determined to pass along that advice through the label.” In short, the Second Circuit held that prescribing outside of the Guidelines was not an off-label use.

Because the fundamental premise of the relator’s claims disintegrated, the court did not need to wade into other challenges Pfizer had raised to the relator’s claims. However, the court noted that it was “skeptical” of relator’s theory of liability as a broader legal matter, observing that “it is unclear just whom Pfizer could have caused to submit a ‘false or fraudulent’ claim: The physician is permitted to issue off-label prescriptions; the patient follows the physician’s advice, and likely does not know whether the use is off-label; and the script does not inform the pharmacy at which the prescription will be filled whether the use is on-label or off. We do not decide the case on this ground, but we are dubious of Polanky’s assumption that any one of these participants in the relevant transactions would have knowingly, impliedly certificated that any prescription for Lipitor was an on-label use.”

The Polansky case is not the first time the Second Circuit has rejected an off-label marketing theory as a basis for liability. In December 2012, in the case of United States v. Coronia, the court overturned, on First Amendment grounds, the criminal conviction (under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act) of a pharmaceutical sales representative for promoting off-label use of a drug.

The Polansky court concluded its May 17 opinion by signaling that future FCA claims predicated on purported off-label marketing theories would receive serious scrutiny:

“The False Claims Act, even in its broadest application, was never intended to be used as a back-door regulatory regime to restrict practices that the relevant federal and state agencies have chosen not to prohibit through their regulatory authority. (quoting the district court). It is the FDA’s role to decide what ought to go into a label, and to say what the label means, and to regulate compliance. We agree with [the district court] that there is an important distinction between marketing a drug for a purpose obviously not contemplated by the label . . . and marketing a drug for its FDA-approved purpose to a patient population that is neither specified nor excluded in the label.”