A decision handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States Monday could end the practice of pharmaceutical companies paying competitors very large sums to keep their generics off the market.
By a 5-3 decision in Federal Trade Commission v. Actavis, Inc., 12-416, the court reversed the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded to the lower court for further proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court essentially held that a patent does not always trump antitrust laws. It ruled that reverse payments to generic companies to settle patent litigation are not always illegal under antitrust laws. They can be illegal when the anti-competitive harm from such agreements outweighs their benefits.
The case focused on “pay-to-delay” agreements that are common in the pharmaceutical industry. Under these settlement agreements, the brand-name pharmaceutical company pays generic drug manufacturers to forgo challenging the patent and refrain from launching their low-cost generic products.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion in which Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined. Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissent joined by Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Associate Justice Samuel Alito took no part in the case.
Throughout the majority opinion, there are repeated references to the “large, unjustified,” and the “unexplained large” reverse payments. Although the ruling does not bar these payments, it indicates that such settlements could be found illegal if they are greatly in excess of the expenses of litigation and more in line with profits the generic company would have realized it if had entered the market.
In turn, this could create a chilling effect on this practice, according to Donald Knebel, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and senior adviser to the Center for Intellectual Property Research at Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington.
“It’s hard for me to believe that pharmaceutical companies will continue to make very large payment of this kind set out in this case with the knowledge now that the FTC can challenge the payment as violation of antitrust law,” Knebel said.
The case involved the reverse payment agreements that Solvay Pharmaceuticals entered into with Actavis Inc., Paddock Laboratories and Par Pharmaceutical. In 2000, Solvay had secured a patent for its drug, AndroGel, a topical testosterone product.
Subsequently, Actavis and Paddock filed abbreviated New Drug Applications for their own generic products. Par joined with Paddock. In 2006, the patent-litigation parties all settled.
Under terms of the settlement, the generic manufacturers agreed to delay bringing their products to market. And Solvay agreed to pay millions of dollars to each company.
While the parties said the payments were compensation for other services the generic manufacturers promised to perform, the FTC asserted the services had little value. Rather, the true point of the payment was to compensate the generics for agreeing not to compete.
The District Court dismissed the case and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. However, the majority of justices disagreed, in part, that Solvay’s patent was not proven to be valid because the settlement ended the litigation.
Beyer pointed to United States v. Line Material Co., 333 U.S. 287, 308 (1948), that held a valid patent excludes all, except its owner, from the use of the protected process or product.
He went on to write, “And that exclusion may permit the patent owner to charge a higher-than-competitive price for the patented product. But an invalidated patent carries with it no such right. And even a valid patent confers no right to exclude products or processes that do not actually infringe.”
In his dissent, Roberts faults the majority’s reasoning.
“The majority today departs from the settled approach separating patent and antitrust law, weakens the protections afforded to innovators by patents, frustrates the public policy in favor of settling, and likely undermines the very policy it seeks to promote by forcing generics who step into the litigation ring to do so without the prospect of cash settlements.”