About a year ago we reported on a case involving allegations of genetic discrimination by a school district in California. According to the allegations, in fall 2012 the Palo Alto Unified School District used genetic information regarding cystic fibrosis in deciding to transfer a student away from his neighborhood school to another school.
Genetic nondiscrimination laws are stronger in California than anywhere else in the United States. CalGINA (S.B. 559), which took effect five years ago, extended genetic nondiscrimination rights beyond the narrow scope of the federal statute known as GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which prohibits genetic discrimination in employment and health insurance contexts. However, this case was interesting to Genomics Law Report largely because the plaintiffs did not rely on CalGINA in their complaint against PAUSD but instead focused on protections against “perceived disability” provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA (42 U.S.C.A. §§12131 et seq.) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C.A. § 794). The school district had convinced a federal district court to dismiss the complaint, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal in January 2016.
What’s happened since the appeal was filed in January 2016?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments on October 19, 2016, and issued a decision on November 15, 2016. The court’s ruling overturned the district court’s dismissal of the ADA and Section 504 claims and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. While the court issued an unpublished judgment, which “is not precedent except as provided by Ninth Circuit Rule 36-3,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Stephen R. Jaffe, publicly announced on LinkedIn that it was “a great victory for personal privacy.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is allowing the ADA and Section 504 genetic discrimination claims to move forward, all based on the student’s genetic information being a “perceived disability.”
The court made its decision by determining that the district court erred in two ways. The first error was the district court’s finding that there was a “direct threat” defense available under the facts presented in the complaint. The school district had argued that it made its decision out of concern for the health or safety of other students at the school who do have cystic fibrosis and that it had made a reasonable judgment that the student posed a “direct threat” to those other students. According to the Ninth Circuit, the error in allowing a direct threat defense was twofold: (1) such a defense requires an individual assessment of the threat but, as per the facts in the complaint (which must be taken as true in evaluating a motion to dismiss), no such individual assessment was made; and (2) the school district’s decision that the student posed a direct threat was contrary to “reasonable judgment” with “best available objective evidence.” The district court’s second error was finding that the plaintiff had not shown the requisite intent to establish a claim for discrimination. Establishing a claim for discrimination, the Court of Appeals noted in its decision, does not require the plaintiff to show “bad motive, will, or animosity” or even an intent to cause harm. Rather, the action or decision to exclude someone categorically (e.g., because of protected class status) is “facial discrimination” and sufficient, even if no harm or injury was intended.
The case moves forward
The Ninth Circuit’s rejection of the motion to dismiss means that the case is back on track toward eventual trial. There are no apparent signs that the school district will settle the case. On December 21, 2016, the school district’s attorneys filed an answer to the amended complaint and raised a litany of affirmative defenses, including:
• failure to state a claim,
• lack of jurisdiction,
• lack of intent,
• defendant acted in conformity with law,
• equity (e.g., unclean hands and equitable estoppel),
• res judicata,
• statute of limitations,
• lack of standing,
• remedies not supported by claims, and
• no damages attributable to the defendant.
The defendant did not provide any details about these affirmative defenses to explain how or why they might be applicable. Because some affirmative defenses can be waived if not asserted, it is reasonable to treat these defenses for the moment as mere boilerplate—that is, inserted as a matter of lawyerly self-protection.
The court has ordered mediation to resume before March 14, 2017 and has since appointed a mediator to the case.
Keep this case on your watch list
Courts have never directly acknowledged a person’s genotype or carrier status as sufficient to pursue a “perceived disability” claim under the ADA or Section 504 protections against discrimination. A plaintiff’s victory would clarify (at least for people who live in the Ninth Circuit—CA, WA, OR, ID, MT, NV, AZ, AK, and HI) that those who are victims of genetic discrimination in areas of society other than employment or health insurance (the areas covered by GINA) are not left unprotected by federal law and are able to seek remedies under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504.
The case is an important reminder that even if the PAUSD’s actions were permissible under federal law, state law (CalGINA) applicable at the time and applicable today prohibits school districts in California from using genetic information to make decisions about its students. The PAUSD’s decision to continue defending this case signals one or both of two things. The first is that defense attorneys believe that they can successfully slam the door on a broad ADA precedent that would allow “perceived disability” claims against those who discriminate based on genetic information. That seems somewhat unlikely, given the willingness of the Ninth Circuit to allow the case to proceed and the strength of the facts alleged by the plaintiff’s attorneys. The second is that the school district is focused solely on the money—either trying to minimize the size of any settlement or court award or trying to make sure an insurer is responsible for covering the payment of that settlement or award. Perhaps the PAUSD is showing its willingness to roll the dice if a reasonable court award is perceived as having a good chance of being substantially lower than any settlement amounts under consideration.
There has been very little public discussion of the case since initial interest when the appeal was filed last year. The plaintiff’s case has now survived a motion to dismiss, but the case has yet to be decided on the merits. For genetic rights advocates, this case should remain high on the watch list in 2017 with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals poised to strengthen genetic nondiscrimination rights through ADA and Section 504 case law.
On May 17, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is the agency charged with enforcing Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), issued a final rule changing how employers can set up incentives for the wellness programs they sponsor for their employees.
As previously reported on Genomics Law Report, on October 30, 2015 the EEOC had issued a proposed rule to amend the GINA regulations in an attempt to harmonize them with the Affordable Care Act’s promotion of employer wellness programs to lower health care costs. The EEOC indicated it had received more than 3000 public comments before the close of the comment period on January 28, 2016.
In short, the final rule allows employers to offer financial and in-kind incentives for an employee’s spouse to provide information about the spouse’s current or former health status as part of a health risk assessment in connection with a voluntary employer-sponsored wellness program so long as certain requirements are met.
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Just about everyone interested enough in genomics and the law to read this post will know that the American Civil Liberties Union waged a long and ultimately successful legal campaign to invalidate Myriad Genetics’ patent claims to isolated BRCA genes, mutations of which are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Now the ACLU has launched a second front, this time attacking Myriad’s post-patent business model of maintaining its vast and unique database of genotype-phenotype associations as a trade secret. GLR reported on that evolving strategy two years ago.
The new ACLU attack has, thus far, received modest attention in the scientific press, and some of what has been reported is inaccurate. In this post I will briefly review what has actually happened and then try to sort out fact from fiction in the reportage. The bottom line is that the federal government has not created new stealth regulations dealing with the disclosure of genomic data to patients. It has, however, used the practice of governance-by-guidance to make significant new policy, which is problematic enough in its own right.
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Chadam v. PAUSD, as previously covered on Genomics Law Report, is a case in which parents of a school boy are alleging that a school district violated their son’s rights when it made the decision that it would transfer the boy to another school because of his genetic information. Specifically, the allegation is that when the boy moved to the area and registered for school, (1) the school district learned of the boy’s genetic information related to cystic fibrosis, (2) the boy was regarded as disabled by the school district, and (3) on the basis of this perceived disability, the school district decided to transfer the boy to another school to protect two other students at the school who have cystic fibrosis. The school district’s decision was apparently based on the idea that the boy, because of his genetic markers, posed a cross-infection risk to the students with cystic fibrosis. Individuals with cystic fibrosis, because their respiratory symptoms create host environments favorable to microbiological pathogens, are often separated from one another to minimize risk of spreading germs to one another. Mere carriers of the genetic markers associated with cystic fibrosis do not pose such cross-infection risks.
This case unequivocally does not involve GINA, a federal nondiscrimination statute that has very limited scope and does not protect individuals from discrimination in education. While the facts alleged could have supported a clear claim for violation of California’s genetic nondiscrimination statute, CalGINA, which affords broader protections than the federal statute, the attorney for the Chadams did not raise that claim. Instead, this case alleges violations of two federal antidiscrimination statutes, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Title II of the ADA requires public education to be free from discrimination, and Section 504 requires all federally funded programs and activities to be free from discrimination. Under both provisions, individuals cannot be excluded from participating in or enjoying the benefits of education because of disability. The statutes protect three basic classes of individuals: (1) those who have a disability (i.e., those who have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity); (2) those with a history or record of having a disability; and (3) those with a perceived disability (i.e., those “regarded as” having a disability). (For more information, see A Guide to Disability Rights Laws published by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice)
The plaintiffs in Chadam have appealed the trial court’s decision to grant the school district’s motion to dismiss the case (a Rule 12(b)(6) motion). In granting the school district’s motion, the court basically decided that even if it assumed all of the facts alleged by the plaintiffs to be true and drew all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiffs, there would not be a valid claim upon which relief could be granted. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which covers California, will focus on whether the district court erred in reaching that decision. The court of appeals will consider the motion de novo—that is, will give no deference to the trial court’s decision—and determine whether the facts alleged in the pleadings, when read in the light most favorable to the plantiffs, state a claim for relief that is plausible. The amicus brief filed by the United States (Department of Justice and Department of Education) urges the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision and remand the case, stating that the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim of intentional discrimination under Title II of the ADA and Section 504.
Is there judicial precedent for ADA protection of genetic information?
About 15 years ago, long before Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, there was a case in which individuals sought ADA protection from genetic discrimination. That case involved the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), which allegedly had been using employees’ genetic information in connection with work-related carpal tunnel syndrome claims. The case was never decided by a court, however. In 2001 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and BNSF settled the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief to stop the company’s genetic testing, and in 2002 the EEOC and BNSF settled the request for damages with an agreement to compensate individuals with up to $2.2 million. While the settlement agreement was subject to approval by the Eastern District of Wisconsin (see 2002 WL 32155386), this case did not set judicial precedent that the ADA protects individuals from decisions based on genetic information.
Does the relevant legislative history suggest that individuals are protected from genetic discrimination because of “perceived disability”?
To answer this question, it is useful to start with legal scholar Mark Rothstein’s thorough 1992 analysis of the law regarding genetic discrimination and possible protection under the ADA as it existed at that time. See Mark A. Rothstein, Genetic Discrimination in Employment and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 29 Hous. L. Rev. 23 (1992).
In the early 1990s, in a letter to a Congressional committee chair, the EEOC actually rejected the idea that the ADA prohibits genetic discrimination against asymptomatic individuals, instead taking the position that the ADA would only protect an individual once the condition existed and symptoms were present. The EEOC’s technical assistance manual in 1992 also noted that genetic predisposition and family history are not “impairments” protected by the ADA. Nearly 10 years later, following the issuance of the Executive Order 13145 in 2000 that protects federal employees from genetic discrimination, the EEOC provided guidance indicating that instances of disparate treatment on the basis of genetic test results or family medical history would support a claim that an individual was “regarded as” having a disability and thus protected under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.
As a matter of history, Congress and advocates alike did not believe that the ADA or Section 504 were sufficient to protect individuals from genetic nondiscrimination. In the statutory text of GINA, Congress found, “Federal law addressing genetic discrimination…is incomplete in both the scope and depth of its protections.” (PL 110-233, Finding 5).
To date, there are no direct cases on point deciding that genetic information is a “perceived disability” under the ADA and Section 504 or, conversely, ruling out that possibility.
What are the implications of this case?
Ultimately, a broad ruling in Chadam that genetic information alone is a sufficient basis to bring an action for “perceived disability” could dramatically expand individual genetic nondiscrimination protection—at least in the Ninth Circuit. Courts in other federal circuits would not be bound by a Ninth Circuit decision and could choose whether or not to follow it. That reality, combined with the strong public reactions to this case, suggests that Congress has important work to do to strengthen genetic nondiscrimination protections in education and other sectors of society currently not addressed directly by federal statutes.
In her recent post on the FDA’s draft guidance on its proposed oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs), Jen Wagner mentioned my interview with Genome Web’s Turna Ray on January 15, 2015. Turna asked me to address some arguments made in a “white paper” written by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe on behalf of their client, the American Clinical Laboratory Association. The main point that Clement and Tribe made was that the FDA lacks legal authority to oversee LDTs, at least in the way that it’s proposing to do so. As I told Turna, I don’t necessarily disagree with their position; in fact, I’m skeptical about the FDA’s authority to do this. Also, like Jen, I’m not persuaded the proposed FDA initiative is likely to work well from a practical perspective. Nonetheless, I agreed to play along in a devil’s advocate exercise, making the counterarguments I’d make if representing the FDA. Here’s a brief summary of my arguments:
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Once again, attention in Washington, DC has turned to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its proposed oversight of all laboratory developed tests (LDTs). The occasion for this attention was the FDA’s separate releases on October 3, 2014 of its proposed LDT framework and proposed notification and medical device reporting guidance. The former describes the basic structure for how the FDA intends to exercise its authority over LDTs as medical devices (e.g., risk classification and enforcement discretion categories), and the latter describes the process by which laboratories offering LDTs must notify the FDA of all LDTs (i.e., registration) and the adverse event reporting requirements that would apply to LDTs as medical devices (i.e., reporting of deaths, serious injuries, malfunctions, etc.). The agency hosted a public meeting on January 8-9, 2015 to discuss the proposed guidance and is accepting written public comments until February 2, 2015. [No joke: Comments are, in fact, due on Groundhog Day.]
• Comments on the proposed LDT framework (Docket No. FDA-2011-D-0360) can be submitted here.
• Comments on the proposed notification and medical device reporting (Docket No. FDA-2011-D-0357) can be submitted here.
The public meeting featuring speakers and panelists was organized into six topical sessions covering test components and labeling; clinical validity and intended use; categories for continued enforcement discretion; notification and adverse event reporting; classification and prioritization; and quality system regulation. The FDA has promised to post the transcript (and, in the meantime, some live tweets from the meeting will remain available on @DNAlawyer’s feed). Dr. Jeff Shuren started the meeting with a reminder that the FDA’s proposed guidance was based on discussions held five years ago, in 2010. (Prior GLR coverage is here.)
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A year ago, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) released its Recommendations for Reporting of Incidental Findings in Clinical Exome and Genome Sequencing. As I reported in a July 2013 post, the core recommendation was this: “The ACMG recommends that for any evaluation of clinical sequencing results, all of the genes and types of variants in the Table should be examined and the results reported to the ordering physician.” Specifically, the ACMG recommended that whenever a lab does whole genome or whole exome sequencing on a patient, it should examine all 57 [now 56] genes on the list included in the Recommendations and report any clinically significant findings to the ordering physician. It would then be the duty of that physician “to provide comprehensive pre- and post-test counseling to the patient.” Most controversially, the ACMG recommended that the test findings “be reported without seeking preferences from the patient and family and without limitation due to the patient’s age.” As I characterized it in the July post, “patients should be given the 57-gene screening whether they want it or not and told the results even if they say they don’t want them.”
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On November 19, 2013—three days before the highly-publicized warning letter to 23andMe (See here and here)—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it had given approval for the marketing of four Illumina MiSeqDX medical devices. They include two cystic fibrosis genetic assays as well as the Illumina MiSeqDX instrument platform and Illumina Universal Kit reagents. The FDA’s press release characterizes them as “devices that can be used for high throughput gene sequencing, often referred to as ‘next generation sequencing’” (NGS). These instruments, reagents, and test systems allow labs to sequence a patient’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
What does the FDA’s approval of the MiSeqDx platform for the clinical market mean for the DTC industry? For example, does this mean that 23andMe could just switch platforms from the Illumina HumanOmniExpress-24 format chip to MiSeqDx and be free from future FDA meddling? Could new companies enter the industry free from regulatory burdens by using Illumina’s MiSeqDx platform? Don’t bet on it.
It is likely that the FDA would take the position that its 510(k) premarket approval (a process John explained briefly on December 3) of the MiSeqDx instrument and MiSeqDx Universal Kit was not intended to be a blanket “go ahead” for DTC providers to offer a service like 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service®. Rather, it is more likely that the FDA would insist on review and pre-market approval of MiSeqDx as an next-generation sequencing in vitro diagnostic (or NGSIVD) if it were used for any purpose other than return of raw genomic data (i.e., if any interpretation were provided along with that raw data). It is also unclear to what extent these FDA approvals will allow future applicants to rely on the approved MiSeqDX products as “predicate devices” to clear some of the regulatory hurdles more easily. (Specifically, the future applicant would claim that its device was “substantially equivalent” to the already-approved device.)
The FDA’s own press release nowhere mentions a non-patient consumer. The press release emphasizes how next-generation sequencing technologies are “becoming more accessible for use by physicians,” underscoring the FDA’s continued insistence that clinicians be the gatekeepers for accessing information about one’s genome. The press release states front and center: “The new technology also gives physicians the ability to take a broader look at their patients’ genetic makeup and can help in diagnosing disease or identifying the cause of symptoms.”
The FDA’s approval of the MiSeqDx platform is thus intriguing, but the future regulation of DTC genomic testing remains uncertain. The 510(k) approval of the MiSeqDx platform may signal that raw data provided DTC might be acceptable to the FDA but that interpretation of that genomic data in any way related to health would still provoke FDA scrutiny and, possibly, hostility. Could a DTC provider use the MiSeqDx platform and successfully argue that its interpretation of raw data is a Laboratory Developed Test (LDT; a test manufactured and used within a single CLIA-certified lab) and, therefore, potentially outside the reach of the FDA? We can’t say for sure at this point. As for the implications of this for 23andMe, as I reported on December 6, current indications suggest that the company is still trying to gain FDA approval of its Personal Genome Service.
The “Cs” in DTC have revolted, in the form of a consumer class action filed November 27, 2013, in a California federal court (Case 3:13-cv-02847-H-JMA). The suit, called Casey v. 23andMe, alleges that 23andMe falsely and misleadingly advertises its Personal Genome Service (PGS) test kit. The suit charges that these advertising practices violated numerous California statutes as well as other laws pertaining to misrepresention, breach of warranty, and unjust enrichment.
A class action is a suit brought by a limited number of “named plaintiffs” or “class representatives” (here just one, 23andMe customer, Linda Casey) on behalf of a large number of other, similarly situated people (the class members) who don’t actually participate in the litigation but would share in any recovery. The class here consists of all of 23andMe’s customers. The case seeks unspecified monetary damages, including at a minimum a refund of whatever the class members paid for the PGS, as well as an order (an injunction) prohibiting 23and Me from engaging in false advertising in the future. If there have been, as estimated, almost half a million PGS purchasers who paid the list price of $99, then the damages are potentially big. The complaint in this case also asks that 23andMe be ordered to pay the fees of the class lawyers. Attorneys’ fees can be huge in class actions, sometimes—and very controversially—running into the millions of dollars.
The complaint makes extensive reference to the November 22, 2013, FDA warning letter as evidence of 23andMe’s false advertising, so it is reasonable to ask whether that letter prompted this suit. That is, did the lawyers see an opportunity to free-ride on the FDA’s work and the negative publicity attendant on the letter? Hard to say: On the one hand, the complaint is long, detailed, and carefully prepared, evidence that’s in been in preparation for a while. On the other, the timing coincidence and the symbiosis of the allegations are suggestive. Across the legal spectrum, class action filings have a tendency to follow bad news for the defendant.
What can we say about the likelihood of success, or at least a valuable settlement, for the plaintiff class and their lawyers? It’s too early to do much more than speculate. Nonetheless, there are a few factors to keep in mind. First, the proposed class has to be initially approved, or “certified,” by the court before the case can continue as a class action. That’s a long (often a year or much more) and complex process involving difficult legal standards. As classes go, this one seems pretty coherent, so at first glance it would seem to have decent prospects for certification. As far as an ultimate winner and loser, the FDA has significantly helped the plaintiff class by setting out in its warning letter several specific advertising claims that it says are unsubstantiated. The class would have to prove at trial that the FDA’s charges are true, but those charges give the class a considerable head start. It is certainly a case with significant potential.
As if the FDA warning letter wasn’t enough, 23andMe, Inc. now has a lawsuit on its hands. The suit, known as Casey v. 23andMe, was initiated on November 27, 2013, in federal court for the Southern District of California (Case 3:13-cv-02847-H-JMA). The suit is being brought as a class action and on the general basis of breach of implied warranties, unjust enrichment, and misrepresentation.
The Proposed Class
John Conley described this as a “Revolt” of the “Cs,” the consumers of the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic/genomic industry. As of now, the class relates to one named consumer, Lisa Casey. The Complaint avers that she purchased the test in September after exposure to the 23andMe advertising and received an email in November, just before the FDA’s warning letter was issued, alerting her that her results were ready. It is pure chicken-and-egg speculation as to whether the alleged victim found an attorney willing to take her case or, alternatively, whether the attorney of record found a victim willing to become representative for the class.
It is unclear how many individuals are “similarly situated” and will fit as members of the proposed class. While estimates placed those genotyped by 23andMe at 400,000 individuals, it is unclear how many of those individuals were customers (i.e., those who purchased the PGS®) as opposed to recipients of complimentary analysis from 23andMe or a third-party. For now, saying there is a “revolt” of the “Cs” may be a bit premature.
The causes of action set forth in the complaint include unfair and fraudulent practices, unlawful practice, false and misleading advertising, misrepresentation, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, unjust enrichment, deceit by concealment, and negligent misrepresentation.
The Plaintiff is seeking injunctive relief to prevent 23andMe from “continuing to engage, use, or employ its unfair and fraudulent practice of advertising the sale and use of the PGS products.” (Complaint Paragraph 49) Plaintiff is also seeking restitution (i.e. return of her $99 + tax), attorney’s fees, punitive damages allowable by the consumer protection statutes cited, court costs, applicable interest, and any further relief deemed just and proper. (Complaint Page 25).
As part of her second cause of action, the Plaintiff alleges 23andMe’s activities violate the FD&CA, 21 USC §§301, et seq. (as the FDA asserted in its warning letter but has not yet been adjudicated), the California Sherman Law, Health & Safety Code §110100, et seq., numerous sections of the CLRA, Civil Code §1750, et seq., and the California Business & Professions Code §17500. (Complaint Paragraph 56). And Plaintiff further alleges, in her third cause of action, that 23andMe engaged in a series of misrepresentations, including about its “characteristics, ingredients, uses, and benefits, which it does not have” (Complaint Paragraph 79a); that 23andMe’s PGS “is of a particular standard, quality, or grade, which it is not” (Complaint Paragraph 79b); that the PGS was advertised “with an intent not to sell the PGS as advertised” (Complaint Paragraph 79c); and that 23andMe “represented that the subject of the sale of the PGS has been supplied in accordance with a previous representation when it has not” (Complaint Paragraph 79d).
Burdens of Proof
Generally, the burden of proof rests on the Plaintiff to establish each of the essential elements for a cause of action. To prove fraud, generally speaking, the Plaintiff must prove with clear and convincing evidence that there was a misrepresentation uttered fraudulently, that the maker of the statement intended for the recipient of the utterance to be induced to act, that the recipient justifiably relied upon the misrepresentation thereby damaging the recipient. To prove fraudulent or negligent misrepresentation, it is necessary for the Plaintiff to demonstrate that the Defendant made statements that the Defendant knew were false or made statements recklessly without knowledge as to their truth or falsity and without making reasonable investigation into the veracity of the statements. Furthermore, to prove unjust enrichment, the Plaintiff must show not only that the Defendant was enriched at her expense but also that it would be unjust for the Defendant to keep that benefit without compensating her for it.
How will the Plaintiff meet those burdens of proof?
Plaintiffs sometimes satisfy the first element of such unfair and deceptive trade practice claims (i.e., that there was an unfair or deceptive practice) by pointing to the Defendant’s violation of another statute or regulation and advocating a per se theory of liability. In other words, the Plaintiff argues that the Defendant, by violating the specifically cited statute or regulation, has per se engaged in an unfair and/or deceptive practice. The conclusory statements excerpted by the Plaintiff from the FDA’s warning letter alone will not be sufficient to establish a case. The Plaintiff seems to be trying to use 23andMe’s failure to provide the FDA with information supporting their claims to prove absence of such information. Such an implication is nonsequitur. The authority of the FDA over 23andMe’s activities has not been established and has been seriously questioned by many. Moreover, 23andMe’s acts or omissions with regard to FDA requests have not been adjudicated. Just because the FDA claims something is true does not make it so.
The Plaintiff will face additional challenges in proving her case. For example, she will have to find a way to overcome several provisions of the Terms of Service (ToS) to demonstrate that the advertising claims were anything more than acceptable puffery.
23. Disclaimer of Warranties
YOU EXPRESSLY ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT: (1) YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES ARE AT YOUR SOLE RISK. THE SERVICES ARE PROVIDED ON AN “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” BASIS. 23ANDME EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, WHETHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND NON-INFRINGEMENT. (2) 23ANDME MAKES NO WARRANTY THAT (a) THE SERVICES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS; (b) THE SERVICES WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, UNFAILINGLY SECURE, OR ERROR-FREE; (c) THE RESULTS THAT MAY BE OBTAINED FROM THE USE OF THE SERVICES WILL BE ACCURATE OR RELIABLE; (d) THE QUALITY OF ANY PRODUCTS, SERVICES, INFORMATION, OR OTHER MATERIAL PURCHASED OR OBTAINED BY YOU THROUGH THE SERVICES WILL MEET YOUR EXPECTATIONS AND (e) ANY ERRORS IN THE SOFTWARE WILL BE CORRECTED. (3) ANY MATERIAL DOWNLOADED OR OTHERWISE OBTAINED THROUGH THE USE OF THE SERVICES IS DONE AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION AND RISK AND THAT YOU WILL BE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DAMAGE TO YOUR COMPUTER SYSTEM OR LOSS OF DATA THAT RESULTS FROM THE DOWNLOAD OF ANY SUCH MATERIAL. (4) NO ADVICE OR INFORMATION, WHETHER ORAL OR WRITTEN, OBTAINED BY YOU FROM 23ANDME OR THROUGH OR FROM THE SERVICES SHALL CREATE ANY WARRANTY NOT EXPRESSLY STATED IN THE TOS. (5) YOU SHOULD ALWAYS USE CAUTION WHEN GIVING OUT ANY PERSONALLY IDENTIFYING INFORMATION ABOUT YOURSELF OR THOSE FOR WHOM YOU HAVE LEGAL AUTHORITY. 23ANDME DOES NOT CONTROL OR ENDORSE ANY ACTIONS RESULTING FROM YOUR PARTICIPATION IN THE SERVICES AND, THEREFORE, 23ANDME SPECIFICALLY DISCLAIMS ANY LIABILITY WITH REGARD TO ANY ACTIONS RESULTING FROM YOUR PARTICIPATION IN THE SERVICES.
6. User Representations
By accessing 23andMe Services, you agree to, acknowledge, and represent as follows:
a.You understand that information you learn from 23andMe is not designed to independently diagnose, prevent, or treat any condition or disease or to ascertain the state of your health in the absence of medical and clinical information. You understand that the 23andMe services are intended for research, informational, and educational purposes only, and that while 23andMe information might point to a diagnosis or to a possible treatment, it should always be confirmed and supplemented by additional medical and clinical testing and information. You acknowledge that 23andMe urges you to seek the advice of your physician or other health care provider if you have questions or concerns arising from your Genetic Information.
23andMe Services are for research, informational, and educational use only. We do not provide medical advice. The Genetic Information provided by 23andMe is for research, informational, and educational use only. This means two things. First, many of the genetic discoveries that we report have not been clinically validated, and the technology we use, which is the same technology used by the research community, to date has not been widely used for clinical testing. Second, in order to expand and accelerate the understanding and practical application of genetic knowledge in health care, we invite all genotyped users to participate in 23andWe Research. Participation in such research is voluntary and based upon an IRB-approved consent document. As a result of the current state of genetic knowledge and understanding, our Services are for research, informational, and educational purposes only. The Services are not intended to be used by the customer for any diagnostic purpose and are not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other health care provider with any questions you may have regarding diagnosis, cure, treatment, mitigation, or prevention of any disease or other medical condition or impairment or the status of your health.
23andMe does not endorse, warranty or guarantee the effectiveness of any specific course of action, resources, tests, physician or other health care providers, drugs, biologics, medical devices or other products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on our website. If we provide to you on our website any recommendations that identify for you, based on your Genetic and Self-Reported Information and scientific literature or research, potentially actionable information, this information is intended for informational purposes only and for discussion with your physician or other healthcare provider. As explained on our website, 23andMe believes that (a) genetics is only part of the picture of any individual’s state of being, (b) the state of the understanding of Genetic Information is rapidly evolving and at any given time we only comprehend part of the picture of the role of genetics, and (c) only a trained physician or other health care provider can assess your current state of health or disease, taking into account many factors, including in some cases your genetics as well as your current symptoms, if any. Reliance on any information provided by 23andMe, 23andMe employees, others appearing on our website at the invitation of 23andMe, or other visitors to our website is solely at your own risk.
While it is possible, it is very unlikely that a court would find the features of the Terms of Service unconscionable (and therefore unenforceable) because they are so one-sided that they “shock the conscience” (See UCC §2-302). After all, is it reasonable for a consumer to rely upon advertising claims and disregard the terms of the consumer contract governing the purchase or warnings made by the manufacturer? Puffery is permissible (e.g., is Snapple® really made from “the best stuff on Earth®”? Does Coast® soap’s scent really “open your eyes”? Are Wheaties® still “the Breakfast of Champions”? Does Weight Watchers® really have “the power to lose weight like never before”?).
Even if the consumer doesn’t read the contract, generally contractual terms are enforceable. [Now might be a good time for you to review those store receipts from purchases you made on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, or even Cyber Monday!]
Potential for Civil Litigation = A Means of Shaping Industry Behaviors without Specific Regulation
If this case were to proceed to trial, we can expect a collision of scientific fact, legal fact, and societal belief. Where do those categories overlap? Did the advertising claims cross the line? How would reasonable jurors decide? The jury pool could conceivably contain genomophobes, genomophiles, and individuals with perspectives on personal genomics everywhere in between. An all-star cast of expert witnesses could be called to testify for either side, raising never-old questions about whether a scientific expert is a pure educator, an assistant advocate, a hired gun, or a provider of good data for a favored cause (See Science and the Law: Standards, Statistics and Research Issues by David L. Faigman, David H. Kaye, Michael J. Saks, and Joseph Sanders, American Casebook Series, 2002).
Civil suits are an effective way to shape industry practices incrementally. They are a form of policymaking based on actual harms rather than speculations and mere possibilities of harm. As such, the industry behaviors shaped by the threat of litigation and by resolution of litigation can be preferable to the adoption of specific regulations, driven by genetic exceptionalism and paternalism (and occasionally also genetic determinism) and made in the absence of data demonstrating harms of the technology or service. Given the low levels of genetic literacy generally, the dangers of advertising (regardless of technical veracity and acceptable puffery of the claims used) were bound to catch the industry at some point. (Coincidentally, advertising is risk, too, because business can fall victim to the opportunist element of society, regardless of whether the opportunity sought is financial gain or greater regulation or consumer protection). A serious question will be what should a reasonable person understand about genetic claims by a DTC company. It’s often said that tortfeasers find their victims as they are (i.e., the “eggshell skull” or “eggshell plaintiff” rule) and are liable for the damages their actions cause even if those resulting damages are magnified in an unforeseeable way due to the particular characteristics of the victim. Just how far will a bench or jury allow that doctrine to apply in situations of misunderstanding the meaning of scientific communications notwithstanding substantial efforts by some members of the personal genomics industry to educate the public? Only time will tell.