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Annapolis sues the opioid industry, hires the mayor's attorney to do it

Danielle Ohl
Contact Reporterdohl@capgaznews.com

The City of Annapolis filed a lawsuit seeking $400 million from pharmaceutical companies and local prescribers implicated in the opioid epidemic — and has retained a firm with ties to Mayor Gavin Buckley to litigate the case.

Filed Feb. 26 by local attorney F. Joseph Gormley, the lawsuit names some of the country’s biggest pharmaceutical companies as participating in a campaign to obscure the dangers of opioids, while continuing to promote the drugs as safe or necessary.

The suit also names a number of distributors and prescribers for “unfettered distribution of opioids into the city.”

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Gormley brought the case to the city during the 2017 mayoral campaign, said acting city attorney Linda Schuett, because he wanted the city to have an “Annapolis-centric” solution. Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and several other jurisdictions have already brought their own suits or are investigating possible charges.

Either Gormley or his firm Gormley, Jarashow and Bowman have represented Buckley in a number of legal matters since at least 2010, including the city’s suit against his restaurant Tsunami for an unlicensed mural.

The firm was one of Buckley’s earliest financial supporters, donating $2,500 to his campaign in October 2016.

Former City Attorney Richard Melnick negotiated the contract to represent the city in the suit. City spokeswoman Mitchelle Stephenson could not confirm whether there was a competitive process to hire Gormley. The city did not immediately provide the contract, pending legal review.

The city, similar to Anne Arundel County, sought an outside firm with greater resources and subject expertise to take on the suit, Stephenson said. The city’s suit largely mirrors the county’s, and takes on some of the same manufacturers and distributors recently forced to pay out millions for perpetuating opioid addiction nationwide.

They are Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Insys Therapeutics, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Cardinal Health, Inc., the McKesson Corp. and the Amerisourcebergen Drug Corp.

The pharmaceutical giants make and distribute some of the most powerful painkillers in medicine, including OxyContin, Percocet and Opana.

The lawsuit accuses the manufacturers of cultivating a “narrative that pain was undertreated and pain treatment should be higher priority for health care providers.”

“Defendants began to promote opioids generally, and their own opioids in particular, as safe, effective, and appropriate for even long-term use for routine pain conditions,” it reads. “As part of this strategy, Defendants misrepresented the risk of addiction for pain patients as modest, manageable, and outweighed by the benefits of opioid use.”

The suit is seeking $50 million for each of eight counts, including three under the Maryland Antitrust, Consumer Protection and False Claims Acts. The city is seeking to recover monies for public safety expenses.

“The opioid epidemic is taxing on public safety. There is also a component to protecting the citizens by having pharmaceutical companies contribute to what residents and city have suffered,” said acting city attorney Linda Schuett.

In 2007, Purdue executives pleaded guilty to misleading doctors about the addictive properties of OxyContin, the company’s marquee painkiller, and the company paid $600 million in fines and payments.

The Sackler family, its owners, agreed to pay $270 million to avoid trial in a lawsuit brought against Purdue by Oklahoma.

On Thursday, the state of New York filed a complaint against the Sacklers and distributors Cardinal Health Inc., the McKesson Corp. and the Amerisourcebergen Drug Corp. for fraud and conspiring to circumvent limits on drug distribution.

The Annapolis lawsuit names these companies as responsible for pumping opioids into Annapolis. And alongside the distributors are local prescribers William Tham, Kofi Shaw-Taylor, Happiness Aguzie, Tormarco Harris, Minnie Ndem and Lawrence Vidaver, who are accused of overprescribing opioids or participating in schemes to recommend specific drugs for kickbacks.

The prescribers are many of the same defendants indicted by the Maryland Attorney General for flooding the state with highly addictive painkillers for cash.

Shaw-Taylor and Harris ran Starlife Wellness Center, where patients could pay $500 for large amounts of prescription narcotics. The two doctors, alongside Aguzie and Ndem, pleaded guilty to charges in the state case.

Tham, through his clinic Physical Medicine and Pain Management Associates, participated in kickback scheme with the company Insys, the lawsuit alleges.

Earlier this year, the former head of Insys pleaded guilty to running a nationwide scheme to offer doctors bribes to prescribe Subsys, a powerful fentanyl spray used to manage severe pain in cancer patients.

The suit also names Jackie Syme and Lawrence Vidaver, doctors with practices in Gambrills and Glen Burnie.

Opioids, mainly synthetic ones like fentanyl, are the leading driver of overdose deaths, which killed more than 70,000 people in the United States in 2017. In the city alone, the rate of overdoses has more than quadrupled in the last four years, from 48 in 2015 to 199 in 2018. This year, there have been 44 overdoses, one of them fatal.

Gormley will represent the city alongside Paul Farmer and Frank Lozupone, both associates with Gormley Jarashow and Bowman. Gormley, who has extensive experience representing businesses and corporations, including in the healthcare industry.

“Joe Gormley is a fierce litigator who has experience in these kinds of cases,” Schuett said. “He has worked for some of the biggest law firms in the state and has handled complex business litigation — including cases involving price fixing and prescription drugs.”

Gormley did not return calls for comment.

The city is not yet paying Gormley, as the case is being handled on contingency, Schuett said. Gormley and his firm stand to earn 25 percent of damages, plus reimbursement for expenses, should the city win the case.

Many of the defendants listed in the case did not return calls for comment, or declined to comment.

AmerisourceBergen released a statement, noting its role in distributing opioids constitutes less than 2 percent of sales.

“We are dedicated to doing our part as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors, who interact directly with patients and decide what treatments are most appropriate for their care,” the statement said.

“We are committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including in Maryland, on ways to combat opioid abuse.”

Janssen also released a statement, saying “Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible.”

John Parker, senior vice president of communications for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association representing McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, said:

“The idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

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