Abnormal Interviews: Law Professor Catherine Sharkey

Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field. For the latest installment, we turn to New York University law professor Catherine Sharkey, who has dedicated a great amount of study to federal preemption. With the U.S. Supreme Court recent preemption jurisprudence, we thought the best person to interview was Professor Sharkey, who was kind enough to give us her thoughts on those new cases. The interview, beginning with a preliminary summary of the opinions authored by Professor Sharkey, is as follows:

The last full week of February was a big week for federal preemption at the U.S. Supreme Court. On Tuesday of that week, the Court handed down Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, a 6-2 pro-preemption decision holding that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act preempts all design-defect claims against vaccine manufacturers brought by plaintiffs seeking compensation for injury or death caused by vaccine side effects. And the next day, on Wednesday, the Court followed with Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., an 8-0 anti-preemption decision holding that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, which gave manufacturers a choice of installing either lap belts or lap-and-shoulder belts on rear inner seats of passenger vehicles, do not preempt state tort lawsuits premised on the manufacturer’s failure to install lap-and-shoulder belts.

1. Were the results in these cases a surprise to you?

No, I predicted both the pro-preemption result in Bruesewitz and the anti-preemption result in Williamson. This Supreme Court tends to interpret express preemption provisions, such as the one at issue in Bruesewitz, broadly, whereas the Court has narrowed the scope of implied preemption, as was at issue in Williamson. However, the Court’s 8-0 line-up in Williamson came as a complete surprise. Not only do the Court’s implied preemption cases tend to be hotly contested (such as the 6-3 decision in 2009 in Wyeth v. Levine, the case holding that FDA approval of a pharmaceutical drug did not preempt state tort lawsuits), but Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Alito (dissenters in the Levine case) had signaled their embrace of a broad interpretation of implied preemption, at least in highly regulated areas such as pharmaceuticals (and by extension, automobiles). One might have reasonably predicted these three to have dissented in Williamson. (In hindsight, a key difference may be the presence of an express savings clause in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which is absent in the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act).

2. In a previous 2000 case, Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., the Court held that the very same statute and federal regulation at issue in Williamson did preempt a state tort lawsuit that would effectively remove a manufacturer option, in that case airbags as opposed to other passive restraints. Can Williamson be reconciled with Geier?

Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinions in both Geier and Williamson (although Geier divided the Court 5 to 4). There are some striking similarities between the two cases. First, the same statute and federal regulation were at issue. Second, the federal regulation provided manufacturers with options in each case: the choice to install airbags or other restraints in Geier; the choice to install a lap or lap-and-shoulder belt in Williamson. And, in each, plaintiffs brought a state tort lawsuit premised on the manufacturer’s failure to install a particular option: airbags in Geier and lap-and-shoulder belt in Williamson. Justice Breyer in fact conceded “the history of the regulation before us [in Williamson] resembles the history or airbags to some degree.” So, what was different? According to Justice Breyer, “unlike Geier, we do not believe here that choice is a significant regulatory objective.” He based this conclusion on “the agency’s contemporaneous explanation, and its consistently held interpretive views.” The majority, in other words, interrogated the reasons behind the agency action to probe whether providing manufacturers with options was a “significant regulatory objective.”

Justice Thomas, however, was not convinced. Not mincing words, he charged: “That the Court in Geier reached an opposite conclusion reveals the utterly unconstrained nature of purposes-and-objectives preemption.”

3. Going forward, how might courts discern whether a particular federal regulation embodies a “significant regulatory objective” that conflicts with a state tort lawsuit?

Following Williamson, courts will closely examine the federal regulation, including its history, the promulgating agency’s contemporaneous explanation of its objectives, and the agency’s current views of the regulation’s preemptive effect.

Here, again, Justice Thomas was highly skeptical. He dismisses the majority’s approach as resting, at its core, on some form of “‘psychoanalysis’ of the regulators.” And he notes with chagrin that courts must henceforth “sift[] through the Federal Register, examin[e] agency ruminations, and ask[] the Government what it currently thinks.”

4. What about the presumption against preemption?

Surprisingly, the presumption was never discussed in Williamson and it surfaced only in a single footnote of Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Bruesewitz, more as an aside. The presumption hardly lives up to its reputation as a pillar of the Court’s preemption framework. To my mind, all along, the presumption has been deployed by the Court in a haphazard way—rearing its head in some cases, while remaining utterly silent in others (including the majority in Geier, as pointed out with vitriol by the dissent). While many scholars continue to see it as the linchpin of an analytic preemption framework, I have long argued that it rests on extremely weak empirical and theoretical foundations.

5. In light of all of the new opinions, what is the analytic framework for preemption decisionmaking?

The role played by the underlying regulatory agency has been underappreciated in preemption cases. Even in Bruesewitz, an express preemption case authored by Justice Scalia, the most loyal adherent to textualist statutory interpretation, the majority nonetheless looks to the regulatory framework for vaccines for additional support for its holding that the Vaccine Act preempts design defect claims. The majority points to the role of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in prompting the development of improved vaccine design and post-approval monitoring by various federal agencies. Justice Breyer, who places even more weight on the views of HHS (as expressed through the government’s amicus brief), was convinced that the “rigorous administrative safety review” of vaccines and HHS’s thorough understanding of vaccine production and safety was sufficient to read the Vaccine Act as preempting state tort design defect claims.

Williamson brings this approach front and center, with its emphasis on the regulating agency’s views both at the time the regulation is promulgated and at the time the case is before the Court. The majority reiterated its statement in Geier that “the agency’s own views should make a difference.” But, at the same time, the Court does not simply defer to the agency’s obiter dictum. For example, “the fact that DOT [Department of Transportation] made a negative judgment about cost effectiveness . . . cannot by itself show that DOT sought to forbid common-law tort suits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion.” More would be needed form the rulemaking record to substantiate the agency’s intent to preempt. The agency’s views, moreover, will be deemed worthy of consideration only to the extent that they are “consistently held interpretive views.”

In my own work, I have proposed an “agency reference model” to guide judicial preemption decisions. Williamson is a significant step in this direction. And it is particularly momentous in that seven Justices seem to have signed on to this approach. (Again, Justice Thomas notes his strong objection to what he views as “[t]he Court wad[ing] into a sea of agency musings and Government litigating positions and fish[ing] for what the agency may have been thinking 20 years ago when it drafted the relevant provision.”) But more is needed to guard against agency political flip-flop with each Administration’s change of view on implied preemption and state tort law. The next step is to articulate the level of deference to accord to agency positions on preemption and to specify the heightened judicial scrutiny of the agency’s regulatory record that supports its position.

BIOGRAPHY: Catherine Sharkey is Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. She is one of the nation’s leading authorities on federal preemption in the realm of products liability. Professor Sharkey has published more than twenty-five law review articles, essays, reviews, and book chapters in the fields of preemption, punitive damages, administrative law, mass torts, class actions, and empirical legal studies. Her scholarship has been cited by numerous federal appellate and trial courts. Professor Sharkey will join Professor Richard Epstein as co-author of one of the leading torts casebooks and is co-editor with Professor Saul Levmore of the second edition of Foundations of Tort Law. She also serves as a consultant to the Administrative Conference of the United States. Professor Sharkey earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, summa cum laude, from Yale University. A Rhodes Scholar, she received a master of science in economics for development, with distinction, from Oxford University (Magdalen College), and her J.D. from Yale Law School, where she was Executive Editor of the Yale Law Journal. She clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Justice David Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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