Freedom of Information…Unless Agencies Decide Otherwise?December 11, 2018
On Friday, the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access law clinic filed a complaint against FDA, HHS, and NIH alleging violations of the Administrative Procedure Act based on Section 801 of the FDA Amendment Act (FDAAA), which requires results reporting of clinical trials to the defendant agencies. Filed on behalf of a journalism professor and reporter, Charles Seife, and a physician, the President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and former FDA official, Peter Lurie, the suit alleges that defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously in their interpretation of FDAAA 801 to apply only to trials completed after January 18, 2017 and in their application of FDAAA 801 by failing to issue statutorily-required notices of noncompliance and post them on ClinicalTrials.gov.
As we explained when the final rule implementing FDAAA 801 was published in October 2016, FDAAA 801 requires the submission and posting of registration and results information of applicable clinical trials, including both approved, licensed or cleared products and unapproved, unlicensed, or uncleared products. If the product has not been approved, licensed or cleared at the time of a trial completion, basic results information must be reported within 30 days of approval. The final rule added a de facto exemption for clinical trials of unapproved products with a primary completion date before the rule’s effective date; as such, products with a primary completion date prior to January 18, 2017 were exempted from the reporting requirement. The rule also required the agency defendants to maintain a registry and results data bank, which they did via the ClinicalTrials.gov website, along with public notices of violations of these reporting requirements.
Plaintiffs raise the argument that the de facto reporting exemption for studies with a primary completion date prior to January 18, 2017 exceeds the statutory authority set forth in FDAAA 801. Without basic results information, Plaintiffs argue that their efforts to characterize the integrity of clinical trial enterprise and complete research into evidence development and dissemination are harmed by this arbitrary and capricious interpretation.
Additionally, plaintiffs allege that the agency defendants have failed to comply with their congressionally-mandated obligation to issue and publicly post notices of FDAAA violations. Despite public knowledge of widespread noncompliance with the statute, defendants have not issued a single public notice of noncompliance on ClincialTrials.gov, as required by statute. Nor have defendants implemented a public search function for notices of noncompliance on ClincialTrials.gov, as required by statute. Plaintiffs allege that this failure to comply with the FDAAA 801 requirements “constitutes agency action unlawfully withheld and/or unreasonably delayed, in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 709(a).” Plaintiffs cite, amongst other studies, AllTrials data stating that that only 60.8% of applicable clinical trials with completion dates on or after the FDAAA Final Rule effective date, January 18, 2017, have publicly reported results on ClinicalTrials.gov.
Plaintiffs request that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) strike down portions of the final rule exempting studies with primary completion dates prior to January 18, 2017 from mandatory reporting obligations. Further, Plaintiffs ask that SDNY compel defendants to issue noncompliance notices and provide them in an easily-searchable database on ClinicalTrials.gov.
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first litigation arising from FDAAA 801. It’s an interesting tactic, reminiscent of suits brought under FOIA to require agencies and officials to enforce the law (i.e., the FOIA project, EPIC). Because of the strong statutory language with respect to notice of violations in 42 U.S.C. § 282(j)(5)(E)(i)–(ii), plaintiffs do have a persuasive argument that, in this instance, Congress explicitly intended to curtail agency enforcement discretion, and perhaps it will survive a motion to dismiss. But given the extent of Chevron deference and an agency’s discretion to enforce, there is a good possibility that this case will be dismissed.
Nevertheless, the case highlights the lack of transparency in the federal government. While this action is obviously limited to only the three relevant agencies, the overarching issues surrounding transparency seem to be par for the course across all of government right now. FDAAA was clearly passed to provide transparency for the purposes of research integrity, scientific progress, and prevent duplication of unsafe and unsuccessful trials.
Yet here we are, 11 years later, plaintiffs still need to sue to get access to information statutorily-mandated clinical trial information disclosed to the public.