Preemption Cases

     The doctrine of "preemption" is the rule that state laws that are inconsistent with federal law are unconstitutional.  This doctrine arises out of Article VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution, commonly known as the "Supremacy Clause," which states:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding.

     Over the past two decades the Supreme Court has broadly interpreted language in federal statutes prohibiting the states from imposing "different or additional requirements" than those provided for under federal law as preempting not only state statutes and administrative regulations, but also lawsuits brought under state common law.  However, the Supreme Court has been much more reluctant to invoke the doctrine of "implied preemption" to cut off state common law claims.  During the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 terms, the Supreme Court decided five cases under the doctrine of preemption.  They are summarized below. 

Altria Group, Inc. v. Good (2008)


     The plaintiff sued the cigarette manufacturer on theories including fraud and negligent failure to warn under state law.  The issue in the case was whether the plaintiff’s causes of action were preempted by the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which requires various warnings to appear on the labels and advertising of cigarette products, and which further provides: “No requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health shall be imposed under State law with respect to the advertising or promotion of any cigarettes the packages of which are [lawfully] labeled.”   In this case a majority of the Court noted that the plaintiff’s claim for negligent failure to warn was based upon the inadequacy of the advertising labels and was thus preempted by the federal labeling statute, while the claim for fraud was based upon the manufacturer’s deceit and was thus not preempted.  The Court reaffirmed its earlier decision in Cipollone v. Liggett Group, 505 U.S. 504 (1992), which had been issued by a divided Court.


Riegel v. Medtronic (2008) 


            The plaintiff, a cardiac patient, sued the manufacturer of a balloon catheter used in his angioplasty, asserting various theories under state tort law including negligent design.  The Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted under the express language of the Medical Device Amendments of 1976, 21 U.S.C. § 360(k)(a) which provides:

a State shall not “establish or continue in effect with respect to a device intended for human use any requirement-... (1) which is different from, or in addition to, any requirement applicable under [federal law] to the device, and ... (2) which relates to the safety or effectiveness of the device or to any other matter included in a requirement applicable to the device under” relevant federal law  

Wyeth v. Levine (2009) 


            Levine sued Wyeth, the manufacturer of the drug Phenergan, on the ground that Wyeth had failed to adequately warn doctors and patients about the danger of administering the drug intravenously.  Wyeth defended on the ground that Levine’s state law claim was preempted because the F.D.A. had approved the manufacturer’s instructions pursuant to its authority under the F.D.C.A., and because in 2006 the F.D.A. had announced that “failure to warn” state law claims should be preempted. Unlike the Medical Device Amendments Act, the FDCA does not expressly preempt state law claims.  A majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the F.D.C.A. itself was not intended to preempt state law failure to warn claims, nor did the statute give the F.D.A. the authority to preempt such claims.  The Agency’s announcement was rejected and Levine’s lawsuit upheld. 


Haywood v. Drown (2009) 


New York State enacted Corrections Law § 24 that prohibits lawsuits filed by prisoners against state corrections officers to be heard in state courts of general jurisdiction, including suits filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Instead, prisoners would have to bring such actions in the state Court of Claims, where they are not entitled to attorney’s fees, punitive damages, or injunctive relief.  Plaintiff filed two claims under § 1983 against corrections officers in a state court of general jurisdiction.  In an opinion by Justice Stevens, the majority of the Supreme Court struck down Corrections Law § 24, stating:


In passing Correction Law §24, New York made the judgment that correction officers should not be burdened with suits for damages arising out of conduct performed in the scope of their employment. Because it regards these suits as too numerous or too frivolous (or both), the State's longstanding policy has been to shield this narrow class of defendants from liability when sued for damages.  The State's policy, whatever its merits, is contrary to Congress' judgment that all persons who violate federal rights while acting under color of state law shall be held liable for damages.


Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates P.A. v. Allstate Insurance Co. (2010) 


Plaintiff brought this diversity action in federal court as a class action to recover interest due on a claim it had brought against its insurer.  New York Civil Practice Law Annotated § 901(b) precludes class actions to recover statutory penalties, but Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows for such claims.  In general, in diversity cases state substantive law and federal procedural law applies.  By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs this matter, and that the plaintiff was entitled to bring this suit as a class action in federal court, even though state law would have prohibited a class action in state court.  Justice Scalia, writing for four justices, found that this result was justified because Rule 23 is a “procedural rule” within the meaning of the Federal Rules Enabling Act.