Watson v. Philip Morris Companies, Inc.

PETITIONER:Lisa Watson et al.
RESPONDENT:Philip Morris Companies, Inc., et al.
LOCATION:United States District Court for the District of Colorado

DOCKET NO.: 05-1284
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 551 US 142 (2007)
GRANTED: Jan 12, 2007
ARGUED: Apr 25, 2007
DECIDED: Jun 11, 2007

David C. Frederick – for the petitioners
Irving L. Gornstein – for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court
Theodore B. Olson – for the respondents

Facts of the case

Lisa Watson filed a class action lawsuit against the tobacco company Philip Morris, claiming that the company had violated Arkansas law by misrepresenting the amount of tar and nicotine in cigarettes branded as “light.” Seeking to have the case removed to federal court, Philip Morris invoked 28 U.S.C. 1442(a)(1), which allows removal when a party is sued for actions taken while “acting under” a federal officer. Philip Morris claimed that it was acting under the direct control of regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), so 28 U.S.C. 1442(a)(1) applied. After the federal District Court denied Watson’s motion to have the case sent back to state court, Watson appealed.

The dispute centered on the degree of control exercised by the FTC over Philip Morris. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Philip Morris, allowing the case to continue in the federal court system. The Eighth Circuit held that the question of whether 28 U.S.C. 1442(a)(1) applies “depends on the detail and specificity of the federal direction of the defendant’s activities and whether the government exercises control over the defendant.” In the case of the tobacco industry, the Eighth Circuit found “unprecedented” government involvement, including detailed FTC regulations concerning the testing and disclosure of tar and nicotine levels. Therefore, Philip Morris was “acting under a federal officer” and consequently entitled to remove the case to federal court.


Is the need to comply with Federal Trade Commission advertising regulations sufficient to establish that a tobacco company is a “person acting under a federal officer” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. 1442(a)(1)?

Media for Watson v. Philip Morris Companies, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 25, 2007 in Watson v. Philip Morris Companies, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 11, 2007 in Watson v. Philip Morris Companies, Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has the opinion of the court in two cases this morning.

Stephen G. Breyer:

The first case is Watson versus Philip Morris and about Philip Morris is marketing of two brands of cigarette Marlboro and Cambridge Lights and when it markets them it says that they are light cigarettes that means they contain less tar and nicotine than other cigarettes.

The petitioners Loretta Lawson, Lisa Watson, they had filed a State Court Law suit claiming that when Philip Morris markets the cigarettes in that way they violate a state unfair business practice law.

Philip Morris removed the case to Federal Court under a statute that permits removal by “any officer of the United States or any agency thereof” but there is a parenthetical in there which says or any person acting under that officer.

Now, the lower courts held the removal even though it seems to talk about federal officers was permissible here because when Philip Morris tested and labeled the cigarettes it was acting under officers of the Federal Trade Commission which is the agency of the federal government so they could remove it.

But we disagree with that.

The basic question concerns the meaning of the term ‘acting under’ acting under a federal officer and we decide and we set forth the reasons that created length in our opinion that that term encompasses a private person.

When that person is subject to the guidance and control of the federal official that only affect private person also assists or helps to carry out the duties of tasks of the federal officer and what does that mean.

A case law provides some examples, as a case for example when the statute used to discover federal revenue officer and there was a person who wasn’t a federal revenue officer, he was in the army and he helped the revenue officer break up in illegal risky steal and in the process he chopped the suspect who was trying to escape through a hole in the wall and Tennessee indicted him for murder and he removed the case.

The court said, that was proper, you were aiding the federal official and there was another case where a group of federal prohibition agents were trying to do their work and they had a driver but the driver wasn’t working for the federal government but still the court said that driver even though is a private person was helping and assisting the federal officers so you’re within the statute but is so if you look at those cases just complying with the law is not the kind of help or assistance they’re talking about.

Even though in English sometime you could say a tax payer who fills out a complex form for a well-behaved federal prisoner you could say they are helping law enforcement but that isn’t the sense of help that is involved here.

So, history language president purpose all make clear that a company that’s regulated and just complies with a regulatory order even if it’s a very complicated one cannot remove under this probation.

Now, Philip Morris says that well, we are actually the delegatee of the Federal Trade Commission in doing testing of cigarettes.

Well, we’ve looked to that and we don’t see that they were employees of the Federal Trade Commission.

There is no agency principle relationship; there is no federal contract or government relationship.

The FTC does not pay Philip Morris to do this and we can’t find any formal order of delegation.

So we think it just a regulated company and a regulated isn’t really helping the federal government in the sense that this statute means.

So we reverse the circuit Court of Appeals and our decision is unanimous.