BOSTON — A Massachusetts judge said Friday she would rule by early next week on a request from media organizations, including STAT and the Boston Globe, to make public redacted portions of a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and other opioid painkillers.
The Connecticut company’s aggressive and misleading marketing of OxyContin has been blamed by addiction experts for helping spawn the opioid addiction crisis. Outside the Boston courthouse Friday, families of people who became addicted to opioids after taking Purdue’s medications rallied, with some calling for criminal charges against the company.
“Every day that goes by where this document is substantially under seal is a day that the public does not have access to newsworthy and important information,” Jeffrey Pyle, a lawyer representing the media organizations, argued before Judge Janet Sanders in Suffolk County Superior Court.
Attorney General Maura Healey accused Purdue of misleading doctors and patients about the addiction and overdose risks of its medications in a lawsuit originally filed in June, which also named current and former Purdue executives and members of the Sackler family, which controls the privately held Purdue, as defendants.
An updated, 300-plus-page complaint from Healey’s office filed last week contained newly public portions that showed Purdue executives and the Sacklers demanding greater sales of their medications despite the risks and pressuring salespeople to push physicians to prescribe higher doses of their drugs for longer periods of time to more patients.
Much of the document remains redacted, however, so a group of media organizations — in addition to STAT and the Globe, Pyle was representing Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and WBUR — filed a motion to release the full document and accompanying exhibits.
In response, Purdue wrote in a motion that “there is simply no urgent or compelling need to justify the Media Consortium’s demand to immediately receive confidential information,” arguing that releasing the full document would undermine the court processes with which the company is cooperating.
Regardless of her decision on the request from the media organizations, Sanders said she would order the release of certain redacted portions in the filing about Russell Gasdia, Purdue’s one-time vice president of sales and a defendant in Massachusetts’ lawsuit. She gave the attorney general’s office and Gasdia’s defense attorney one week to clarify what allegations the state was making against Gasdia before those portions of the lawsuit would be made public.
Sanders also ordered Purdue to produce for the court 581 documents that the attorney general’s office relied on to compile its lawsuit.
The bulk of those documents were filed by Purdue in federal court in Ohio as part of a consolidated, multidistrict litigation, or MDL, involving hundreds of opioid lawsuits brought by cities, counties, tribes, and other states. Healey’s office has access to the documents.
Purdue’s lawyers have said that the details in the Massachusetts court filing were cherry-picked from the millions of documents it had filed in the federal court. On Friday, Timothy Blank, a lawyer representing Purdue, noted that the company had agreed to make public more than 500 sections that were initially redacted in the state lawsuit, out of a total of about 700 redacted portions. He argued that the decision about whether the remaining unredacted portions should be made public should be put off until the authorities overseeing the collection of documents in the federal case decide what they deem to be confidential.
But Sanders did not seem swayed by that argument. She said that even if authorities in the federal case determined every Purdue document should remain confidential, that did not have a bearing on her as a state judge. She said she could ultimately decide that the public interest in the documents outweighed what the federal court chose to do with the materials.
“I’m kind of thinking, why delay?” Sanders said.
The attorney general’s office has argued that the decision about what should be made public in a state lawsuit rests in state court.
“We want the public to be able to see all of our allegations,” said attorney Gillian Feiner of the state attorney general’s office. She argued in support of Purdue filing its documents in state court, but did not back the media organizations’ position that the complaint should be fully released immediately.
After Purdue produces the documents for state court, the different parties will be able to argue before Sanders what, if any, portions should be made public. Blank, the Purdue attorney, said there were also concerns about proprietary trade secrets being made public.
James Carroll, a lawyer representing three company executives (John Stewart, Mark Timney, and Craig Landau), argued that their compensation should remain sealed because it is private information and did not factor into the allegations made by Massachusetts in its lawsuit.
In response, Pyle, the attorney representing the media organizations, argued that executive and family compensation “is newsworthy and important for the public to see.”
The federal lawsuit in Ohio and the state lawsuit in Massachusetts are separate from a case in Kentucky that STAT is involved with. Almost three years ago, STAT sued to unseal a trove of internal Purdue documents about its marketing of OxyContin, as well as a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a one-time Purdue president. It is the only known time a member of the family that controls Purdue has been questioned under oath about the marketing of the company’s drugs.
A circuit court judge and appeals court both ruled that the records should be released. Earlier this month, Purdue asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to hear an appeal, and on Friday, STAT sent its response, urging the court to deny Purdue’s request and let the lower courts’ decisions stand.
There’s no deadline for when the state Supreme Court has to decide whether or not to review the case.