Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc v. Thompson, 85-619

Citation106 S.Ct. 3229,478 U.S. 804,92 L.Ed.2d 650
Decision Date07 July 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-619,85-619
PartiesMERRELL DOW PHARMACEUTICALS INC., Petitioner v. Larry James Christopher THOMPSON, et ux., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent residents of Canada and respondent residents of Scotland filed separate complaints in an Ohio state court against petitioner Ohio corporation, the manufacturer and distributor of the drug Bendectin, alleging that children were born with deformities as a result of their mothers' ingestion of the drug during pregnancy. Damages were sought on common-law theories of negligence, breach of warranty, strict liability, fraud, and gross negligence, and also on the ground that the alleged "misbranding" of the drug in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) represented a "rebuttable presumption" of negligence and the "proximate cause" of the injuries. Petitioner filed a petition for removal of the actions to Federal District Court, alleging that they were founded, in part, on a claim "arising under the laws of the United States." After removal, the cases were consolidated, and the Federal District Court denied respondents' motion to remand to the state court and granted petitioner's motion to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds. The Court of Appeals reversed. Noting that the FDCA does not create or imply a private right of action, the court held that the causes of action did not arise under federal law and therefore were improperly removed to federal court.

Held: A violation of a federal statute as an element of a state cause of action, when Congress has determined that there should be no private, federal cause of action for the violation, does not state a claim "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Thus, here, determining the question of removal jurisdiction by reference to the "well-pleaded complaint," and assuming that there is no federal cause of action for FDCA violations, the cases were improperly removed to the Federal District Court. The assumed congressional determination to preclude federal private remedies for violations of the FDCA is tantamount to a congressional conclusion that a claimed violation of the statute as an element of a state cause of action is insufficiently "substantial" to confer federal-question jurisdiction. The asserted federal interest in federal review and the novelty of the question whether the FDCA applies to sales in Canada and Scotland are not sufficient to give a state-based FDCA claim status as a jurisdiction-triggering federal question. Pp. 807-817.

766 F.2d 1005 (CA 6 1985), affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 818.

Frank C. Woodside, III, Cincinnati, Ohio, for petitioner.

Stanley M. Chesley, Cincinnati, Ohio, for respondents.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the incorporation of a federal standard in a state-law private action, when Congress has intended that there not be a federal private action for violations of that federal standard, makes the action one "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States," 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

I

The Thompson respondents are residents of Canada and the MacTavishes reside in Scotland. They filed virtually identical complaints against petitioner, a corporation, that manufactures and distributes the drug Bendectin. The complaints were filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton County, Ohio. Each complaint alleged that a child was born with multiple deformities as a result of the mother's ingestion of Bendectin during pregnancy. In five of the six counts, the recovery of substantial damages was requested on common-law theories of negligence, breach of warranty, strict liability, fraud, and gross negligence. In Count IV, respondents alleged that the drug Bendectin was "misbranded" in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), 52 Stat. 1040, as amended, 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. III), because its labeling did not provide adequate warning that its use was potentially dangerous. Paragraph 26 alleged that the violation of the FDCA "in the promotion" of Bendectin "constitutes a rebuttable presumption of negligence." Paragraph 27 alleged that the "violation of said federal statutes directly and proximately caused the injuries suffered" by the two infants. App. 22, 32.

Petitioner filed a timely petition for removal from the state court to the Federal District Court alleging that the action was "founded, in part, on an alleged claim arising under the laws of the United States." 1 After removal, the two cases were consolidated. Respondents filed a motion to remand to the state forum on the ground that the federal court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. Relying on our decision in Smith v. Kansas City Title & Trust Co., 255 U.S. 180, 41 S.Ct. 243, 65 L.Ed. 577 (1921), the District Court held that Count IV of the complaint alleged a cause of action arising under federal law and denied the motion to remand. It then granted petitioner's motion to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. 766 F.2d 1005 (1985). After quoting one sentence from the concluding paragraph in our recent opinion in Franchise Tax Board v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 103 S.Ct. 2841, 77 L.Ed.2d 420 (1983),2 and noting "that the FDCA does not create or imply a private right of action for individuals injured as a result of violations of the Act," it explained:

"Federal question jurisdiction would, thus, exist only if plaintiffs' right to relief depended necessarily on a substantial question of federal law. Plaintiffs' causes of action referred to the FDCA merely as one available criterion for determining whether Merrell Dow was negligent. Because the jury could find negligence on the part of Merrell Dow without finding a violation of the FDCA, the plaintiffs' causes of action did not depend necessarily upon a question of federal law. Consequently, the causes of action did not arise under federal law and, therefore, were improperly removed to federal court." 766 F.2d, at 1006.

We granted certiorari, 474 U.S. 1004, 106 S.Ct. 522, 88 L.Ed.2d 455 (1985), and we now affirm.

II

Article III of the Constitution gives the federal courts power to hear cases "arising under" federal statutes.3 That grant of power, however, is not self-executing, and it was not until the Judiciary Act of 1875 that Congress gave the federal courts general federal-question jurisdiction.4 Although the constitutional meaning of "arising under" may extend to all cases in which a federal question is "an ingredient" of the action, Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 9 Wheat. 738, 823, 6 L.Ed. 204 (1824), we have long construed the statutory grant of federal-question jurisdiction as conferring a more limited power. Verlinden B.V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480, 494-495, 103 S.Ct. 1962, 1971-1972, 76 L.Ed.2d 81 (1983); Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 379, 79 S.Ct. 468, 483, 3 L.Ed.2d 368 (1959).

Under our longstanding interpretation of the current statutory scheme, the question whether a claim "arises under" federal law must be determined by reference to the "well-pleaded complaint." Franchise Tax Board, 463 U.S., at 9-10, 103 S.Ct., at 2846-2847. A defense that raises a federal question is inadequate to confer federal jurisdiction. Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 29 S.Ct. 42, 53 L.Ed. 126 (1908). Since a defendant may remove a case only if the claim could have been brought in federal court, 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b), moreover, the question for removal jurisdiction must also be determined by reference to the "well-pleaded complaint."

As was true in Franchise Tax Board, supra, the propriety of the removal in this case thus turns on whether the case falls within the original "federal question" jurisdiction of the federal courts. There is no "single, precise definition" of that concept; rather, "the phrase 'arising under' masks a welter of issues regarding the interrelation of federal and state authority and the proper management of the federal judicial system." Id., 463 U.S., at 8, 103 S.Ct., at 2846.

This much, however, is clear. The "vast majority" of cases that come within this grant of jurisdiction are covered by Justice Holmes' statement that a " 'suit arises under the law that creates the cause of action.' " Id., at 8-9, 103 S.Ct., at 2846, quoting American Well Works Co. v. Layne & Bowler Co., 241 U.S. 257, 260, 36 S.Ct. 585, 586, 60 L.Ed.2d 987 (1916). Thus, the vast majority of cases brought under the general federal-question jurisdiction of the federal courts are those in which federal law creates the cause of action.

We have, however, also noted that a case may arise under federal law "where the vindication of a right under state law necessarily turned on some construction of federal law." Franchise Tax Board, 463 U.S., at 9, 103 S.Ct., at 2846.5 Our actual holding in Franchise Tax Board demonstrates that this statement must be read with caution; the central issue presented in that case turned on the meaning of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. III), but we nevertheless concluded that federal jurisdiction was lacking.

This case does not pose a federal question of the first kind; respondents do not allege that federal law creates any of the causes of action that they have asserted.6 This case thus poses what Justice Frankfurter called the "litigation-provoking problem," Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills, 353 U.S. 448, 470, 77 S.Ct. 912, 928, 1 L.Ed.2d 972 (1957) (dissenting opinion)—the...

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