Class action claiming Walgreens opioid policy harms pain patients tossed

People walk by a Walgreens, owned by the Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 26, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Similar case vs Walgreens, others proceeded in Rhode Island
  • Pharmacies face thousands of lawsuits claiming they dispensed opioids too freely

(Reuters) - A federal judge has dismissed a proposed class action lawsuit accusing pharmacy giant Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc of discriminating against people with disabilities by discouraging pharmacists from filling high dose opioid prescriptions.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco Friday comes as Walgreens and other pharmacy operators face thousands of lawsuits nationwide accusing them of failing to stop illegal opioid distribution, contributing to an epidemic of addiction that has killed more than half a million people over two decades. But patient advocates like plaintiff Susan Smith say people with severe pain have been harmed by efforts to curb illegal drug diversion.

Lawyers for Smith and for Walgreens did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smith, a California woman with health conditions including epilepsy and migraines, sued Walgreens in August 2020. She said that Walgreens, facing lawsuits over illegal opioid sales in the 2010s, instituted new corporate policies instructing pharmacists to apply extra scrutiny to high dose or prolonged opioid prescriptions and warned them that they could face liability if they did not.

While the company did not forbid filling such prescriptions, Smith alleged that in practice, it discouraged pharmacies from doing so and made it difficult for pain patients to get the medication they needed. She said that violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and a California civil rights law because people with disabilities were more likely to need high dose opioid prescriptions.

Smith originally sued Costco Wholesale Corp as well, but settled with the company in January on undisclosed terms.

Walgreens, moving to dismiss, said that Smith failed to explain how, specifically, its policy resulted in prescriptions not being filed, and how it discriminated against people with disabilities.

Breyer agreed on Friday, finding that Smith "has not plausibly alleged that the policy is 'so closely associated' with disabled people" that it amounts to discriminating against them.

In May, a Rhode Island federal judge allowed a similar lawsuit against Walgreens, Costco and CVS Pharmacy Inc to go forward, finding that the plaintiff in that case had offered studies that supported a strong correlation between disability and opioid prescriptions.

Walgreens and other pharmacy operators are currently facing a trial over their alleged role in the opioid epidemic in New Mexico.

In August, Walgreens, CVS and Walmart Inc were ordered to pay a combined $650.6 million to two Ohio counties, and Walgreens was found liable for fueling San Francisco's opioid crisis.

The case is Smith v. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 3:20-cv-05451.

For Smith: Thomas Haklar of Law Office of Thomas D. Haklar, Scott Hirsch of Scott Hirsch Law Group and others

For Walgreens: Kaspar Stoffelmayr or Bartlit Beck and others

Read more:

Walgreens prescriptions added to San Francisco's opioid epidemic - judge

CVS, Walmart and Walgreens ordered to pay $650.6 million to Ohio counties in opioid case

Pharmacy operators Walmart, Walgreens, Kroger begin opioid trial in New Mexico

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.