Class action claim against Zicam manufacturer Matrixx reinstated by the Ninth Circuit
By Abby Lauer – Edited by Alissa Del Riego
Siracusano v. Matrixx Initiatives, Inc., No. 06-15677 (9th Cir. Oct. 28, 2009)
The Ninth Circuit has unanimously reversed the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona’s holding, which had dismissed a class action claim against Zicam manufacturer Matrixx for the complaint’s failure to adequately allege a violation of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PSLRA”).
In an opinion written by Tashima, J., the Ninth Circuit held that the District Court improperly relied on a statistical significance standard to determine that the plaintiffs’ complaint did not allege “a material misrepresentation or omission of fact.” Siracusano v. Matrixx Initiative, Inc., No. 06-15677 at 18 (9th Cir. Oct. 28, 2009). Instead of determining materiality as a matter of law, the district court should have allowed the jury to conduct a “fact-specific inquiry.” Siracusano v. Matrixx Initiative, Inc., No. 06-15677 at 20 (9th Cir. Oct. 28, 2009). In addition, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court erred in dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint for failure to allege scienter on the part of Matrixx executives. The court reasoned that the inference that Matrixx executives knew about the possible link between Zicam and anosmia (loss of smell) before issuing allegedly misleading statements is at least as likely as any plausible opposing inference.
Phoenix’s East Valley Tribune provides an overview of the case. For further discussion of the opinion and pleading standard precedents, see The D & O Diary. For more information about homeopathic remedies, including Zicam, see this recent Washington Post article.
Plaintiffs brought the original action in April 2004, alleging that Matrixx had information of a possible causal connection between Zicam use and anosmia but failed to disclose this risk and instead issued false and misleading statements to consumers.
The Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs’ complaint satisfied the heightened pleading standards of past Supreme Court cases Twombly and Tellabs and thus should have survived a motion to dismiss. In its holding on the materiality issue, the court examined allegations in the complaint to consider whether information regarding a possible link between Zicam and anosmia was information a reasonable investor might consider significant. The court found that the allegations were sufficient to satisfy the pleading requirement under the PSLRA and held that the issue of whether Matrixx’s misrepresentations were material should be left for a jury to decide. On the issue of scienter, the court emphasized that Matrixx was aware of at least 14 complaints linking Zicam to anosmia at the time it stated that a causal connection between the two was “completely unfounded and misleading.” The court also found a strong indication that high-level Matrixx executives knew that the company was being sued in a product liability action on the issue of anosmia when they released the allegedly misleading statements. Viewing the complaint as a whole, the court held that the inferences of scienter drawn by the plaintiffs’ complaint were sufficiently strong for it to survive a motion to dismiss.
The decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for Matrixx. Following a warning from the FDA last June that Zicam products could cause anosmia, the company voluntarily withdrew two forms of the drug. Matrixx continues to maintain that anosmia is caused by the cold virus, which Zicam is designed to treat, and not by the drug itself.
The case will now return to the District Court for further proceedings. Whether or not the plaintiffs eventually prevail at trial may have substantial implications for Matrixx, which relied on Zicam Cold Remedy products for about 70 percent of its total sales at the time the action was initially filed.