Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. Thompson et al.

478 U.S. 804 (1986)

Quick Summary

Families from Canada and Scotland (defendants) sued Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (plaintiff) over birth defects allegedly caused by the drug Bendectin. They cited both common law theories and an alleged violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).

The dispute centered on whether this inclusion of a federal standard in their state-law claim allowed for federal jurisdiction despite no specific federal cause of action for FDCA violations.

The Supreme Court ultimately decided against federal jurisdiction in such circumstances based on Congressional intent and principles governing the division of state and federal judicial powers.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs in this case, the Thompsons (defendants) from Canada, and the MacTavishes from Scotland, initiated legal action against Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (plaintiff), a drug manufacturer. The basis of their complaints was that the children born to the mothers in these families had multiple deformities due to the mothers’ consumption of Bendectin, a drug produced by Merrell Dow, during pregnancy.

Alongside various state law claims, they also claimed that the drug was ‘misbranded’ under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), due to inadequate warning labels regarding potential dangers.

Merrell Dow contended that the federal standard incorporated into a state-law action, even though there was no federal cause of action for violations of that standard, justified the removal of the case from state court to federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. This federal involvement formed the crux of the dispute between the parties.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The Thompsons and MacTavishes filed complaints against Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in an Ohio state court.
  2. Merrell Dow petitioned for removal to federal district court based on an alleged federal claim.
  3. The district court denied a motion to remand back to state court, asserting federal jurisdiction.
  4. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision.
  5. Merrell Dow appealed, leading to a grant of certiorari by the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the incorporation of a federal standard in a state-law private action, when Congress has not provided a federal private action for violations of that standard, results in a case ‘arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States’ under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Rule of Law

The principle that a case ‘arises under’ federal law for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1331 must be determined by reference to the well-pleaded complaint rule. A claim cannot be said to arise under federal law when Congress has clearly indicated no intention to provide a private federal remedy for the violation of that law.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed whether a federal standard included within a state-law claim could confer federal-question jurisdiction. The analysis hinged on Congressional intent and the relationship between federal and state judicial systems. The Court noted that typically, a federal question arises when federal law creates the cause of action.

However, in this case, no federal cause of action was created by FDCA violations. The Court reasoned that allowing federal jurisdiction merely because a federal violation is cited as an element of a state law claim would go against Congressional intent.

The Court underscored that when Congress chooses not to provide a private federal remedy, it indicates a preference against extending federal-question jurisdiction for such claims. This decision respects both Congressional intent and maintains a clear distinction between federal and state judicial responsibilities.


The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, holding that a complaint alleging a violation of a federal statute as an element of a state cause of action does not confer federal-question jurisdiction when Congress has indicated no intention for such a private federal remedy.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Brennan, joined by Justices White, Marshall, and Blackmun, dissented. They argued that limiting federal-question jurisdiction in cases where Congress had not provided a private federal remedy did not align with the purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1331. According to them, the presence of a federal issue in a state-created cause of action should be sufficient to confer federal-question jurisdiction.

Key Takeaways

  1. The well-pleaded complaint rule is critical in determining whether a case arises under federal law for jurisdictional purposes.
  2. Congressional intent not to provide a private federal remedy is significant in deciding whether federal-question jurisdiction should extend to claims involving federal standards within state-law actions.
  3. The Supreme Court respects the delineation between state and federal judicial roles by limiting jurisdiction in accordance with Congressional intent.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What determines whether a claim 'arises under' federal law for the purpose of federal-question jurisdiction?

A claim ‘arises under’ federal law when a well-pleaded complaint establishes that the plaintiff’s right to relief necessarily depends on the resolution of a substantial question of federal law. The determination hinges on whether federal law creates the cause of action or if the plaintiff’s right to relief relies significantly on a federal statute’s interpretation.

  • For example: If a state law claim implicates a significant feature of a federal law like an essential patent law concept, even without a federal cause of action, it might still arise under federal law.

How does Congressional intent affect the extension of federal-question jurisdiction?

Congressional intent is pivotal; if Congress has indicated that there should be no private federal remedy for a particular federal statute violation, courts typically conclude that it intends to preclude federal-question jurisdiction for state-law claims alleging such a violation.

  • For example: When Congress designs a regulatory scheme and deliberately omits a private right of action, this suggests that Congress did not intend for these matters to be litigated in the federal courts.

Why is the well-pleaded complaint rule important in determining the scope of federal-question jurisdiction?

The well-pleaded complaint rule ensures that federal-question jurisdiction cannot be invoked based on anticipated defenses or counterclaims citing federal law; only claims appearing from plaintiffs’ statements of their own rights can establish such jurisdiction.

  • For example: If a suit is initiated claiming breach of contract based on state law and the defense responds with a federal preemption argument, the case does not become removable to federal court as the claim itself does not rely on federal law.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Civil Procedure