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In re Diet Drugs (Phentermine/Fenfluramine/Dexfenfluramine) Products Liability Litigation

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 19, 2013



HARVELY BARTLE, III, District Judge.

Elizabeth A. Lassetter ("Ms. Lassetter" or "claimant"), a class member under the Diet Drug Nationwide Class Action Settlement Agreement ("Settlement Agreement") with Wyeth,[1] seeks benefits from the AHP Settlement Trust ("Trust"). Based on the record developed in the show cause process, we must determine whether claimant has demonstrated a reasonable medical basis to support her claim for Matrix Compensation Benefits ("Matrix Benefits") and, if so, whether she met her burden of proving that her claim was not based, in whole or in part, on any intentional material misrepresentations of fact.[2]

To seek Matrix Benefits, a claimant must first submit a completed Green Form to the Trust. The Green Form consists of three parts. The claimant or the claimant's representative completes Part I of the Green Form. Part II is completed by the claimant's attesting physician, who must answer a series of questions concerning the claimant's medical condition that correlate to the Matrix criteria set forth in the Settlement Agreement. Finally, claimant's attorney completes Part III if claimant is represented.

In August, 2002, claimant submitted a completed Green Form to the Trust signed by her attesting physician, Howard L. Brazil, M.D., F.A.C.C. Based on an echocardiogram dated June 28, 2002, Dr. Brazil attested in Part II of claimant's Green Form that Ms. Lassetter suffered from moderate mitral regurgitation and a reduced ejection fraction in the range of 50% to 60%. Based on such findings, claimant would be entitled to Matrix B-1,[3] Level II benefits in the amount of $99,230.[4]

In the report of claimant's echocardiogram, Dr. Brazil observed, "Moderate mitral regurgitation was noted with a regurgitant jet area to left atrial area of 33%." Under the definition set forth in the Settlement Agreement, moderate or greater mitral regurgitation is present where the Regurgitant Jet Area ("RJA") in any apical view is equal to or greater than 20% of the Left Atrial Area ("LAA"). See Settlement Agreement § I.22. Dr. Brazil also found that Ms. Lassetter had an "ejection fraction of 50%." An ejection fraction is considered reduced for purposes of a mitral valve claim if it is measured as less than or equal to 60%. See id. at§ IV.B.2.c. (2) (b)iv).

In January, 2004, the Trust forwarded the claim for review by Pascual B. Rodriguez, M.D., F.A.C.C., one of its auditing cardiologists. In audit, Dr. Rodríguez determined that there was a reasonable medical basis for Dr. Brazil's findings that Ms. Lassetter had moderate mitral regurgitation and a reduced ejection fraction in the range of 50% to 60%.

Based on Dr. Rodríguez's findings, the Trust issued a post-audit determination awarding Ms. Lassetter Matrix Benefits. Before the Trust paid Ms. Lassetter's claim, we imposed a stay on the processing of claims pending implementation of the Seventh Amendment to the Settlement Agreement. See Pretrial Order ("PTO") No. 3511 (May 10, 2004). Prior to the entry of the stay, the Trust identified 968 Matrix claims that had passed audit as payable, which were designated as "Pre-Stay Payable Post-Audit Determination Letter (PADL') Claims." Pursuant to Paragraph 5 of PTO No. 3883, the Trust was ordered to separate the Pre-Stay Payable PADL Claims into three categories. Of the 968 Pre-Stay Payable PADL Claims, the Trust alleged that 580 claims, including Ms. Lassetter's, contained intentional material misrepresentations of fact. These 580 claims are commonly referred to as "5(a) claims." See PTO No. 3883, at ¶ 5 (Aug. 26, 2004).

Following the end of the stay, we ordered the Trust to review the 580 claims designated as 5(a) claims and issue new post-audit determinations, which claimants could contest. See PTO No. 5625 (Aug. 24, 2005). Prior to the Trust's review of Ms. Lassetter's claim, this court approved, on November 22, 2006, Court Approved Procedure ("CAP") No. 13, which provided 5(a) claimants with the option either to submit their claims to a binding medical review by a participating physician or to opt-out of CAP No. 13. See PTO No. 6707 (Nov. 22, 2006). Claimant elected to opt-out of CAP No. 13.

The Trust therefore undertook to determine whether there were any intentional material misrepresentations of fact made in connection with Ms. Lassetter's claim. As part of this review, the Trust engaged Joseph Kisslo, M.D., to review the integrity of the echocardiogram system used during the performance of echocardiographic studies and the resulting interpretations submitted in support of Ms. Lassetter's claim.[5] As stated in his March 1, 2007 declaration, Dr. Kisslo determined, in pertinent part, that:

In Ms. Lassetter's study, the use of a decreased Nyquist setting, the selection and planimetry of backflow, and the overmeasurement of the mitral "jet," as well as the undermeasurement of the left atrial area are the result of deliberate choices and conduct engaged in by the sonographer performing this study and at a minimum, acquiesced in by the Attesting Physician. Each of these manipulations exaggerated or created the appearance of regurgitation or jet duration and inflated the RJA/LAA ratio. There is no responsible physiologic or hemodynamic construct under which this echocardiogram can be assessed as demonstrating moderate mitral regurgitation. Ms. Lassetter has only trivial mitral regurgitation-not moderate mitral regurgitation as claimed by the Attesting Physician. There is no reasonable medical basis for a finding of moderate mitral regurgitation based on this study.[6]

Thus, notwithstanding Dr. Rodriguez's findings at audit, the Trust rescinded its prior post-audit determination letter and issued a new post-audit determination denying Ms. Lassetter's claim based on its conclusion that there was substantial evidence of intentional material misrepresentations of fact in connection with the claim. Pursuant to the Rules for the Audit of Matrix Compensation Claims ("Audit Rules"), Ms. Lassetter contested this adverse determination.[7] In contest, claimant argued that her echocardiogram was performed in a manner consistent with the standards set forth in the Settlement Agreement. In support, she submitted affidavits from Dr. Brazil; Lynda F. Lollar-Goldstein, the Registered Cardiovascular Technologist who performed Ms. Lassetter's echocardiogram; and Gerald L. Fitzgerald, Sr., the owner of the company that performed Ms. Lassetter's echocardiogram. In his affidavit, Dr. Brazil stated, in pertinent part, that:

10. Contrary to Paragraph 7 of Dr. Kisslo's declaration, I did not see excessive gain, color pixel dominance and the presence of color persistence or marked errors in the selection and measurement of jets and structures which would alter my original conclusions. Any errors made by the echocardiogram technician in tracing were slight and did not impact the ultimate diagnosis.
11. And, contrary to Dr. Kisslo's finding, I did not find evidence of a concomitant use of decreased Nyquist settings or an exaggerated appearance of regurgitation and/or complicating factors. By Dr. Kisslo's own admission, the Nyquist setting in this instance was within the acceptable range (See Figure 5 on page 8 of Dr. Kisslo's declaration).
12. I agree with Dr. Kisslo's statement that, "[s]ome of the hard controls, in particular color gain, image gain, and sector depth are adjusted to reflect the variability in patient physiology and attenuation as well as machine sensitivity normally encountered in imaging." My review of Ms. Lassetter's video tape and [magneto optical] disk indicates that the [sonographer] made adjustments during the course of the procedure to optimize the picture, not manipulate or materially misrepresent the injury sustained by Ms. Lassetter. Such adjustments are common in the ordinary course of ...

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