On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc. (14-1513) and Stryker Corporation v. Zimmer, Inc. (14-1520), which have been consolidated for appeal. These two cases will force the Court to dive into one of the most thorny patent litigation issues – the issue of enhanced damages for willful patent infringement.
The statute in question says very little that is relevant, merely saying that the district court judge “may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” 35 U.S.C. § 284. Simple and straightforward enough, but over the years the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has issued rulings that make it virtually impossible for a victorious patent owner to ever receive enhanced damages. The rigid structure of the enhanced damages test has effectively removed the permissive and discretionary language of the statute, which just says that the district court judge “may increase the damages.”
In the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Systems, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1744 (2014) and Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1749 (2014) the Court, interpreting 35 U.S.C. § 285, found that there was no textual support in the statute to impose an onerous, rigid test for the awarding of attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party in a patent infringement lawsuit. Most notably, the Supreme Court explained to the Federal Circuit that they misinterpreted a key ruling of the Supreme Court when they created the test that would result in attorneys’ fees never being award. That same exact misinterpretation is at the heart of Federal Circuit case law relating to the awarding of enhanced damages to a victorious patent owner.
A patent is an exclusive right. This means that the owner of a patent can prevent others from engaging in activities that are covered by an issued patent. But as is true with any right, a patent is only worth something if the owner is willing to take action to preserve the rights and litigate against those who are treading on the rights granted. In the United States, that means litigation in federal district court, which can easily cost millions of dollars.
Today, given the climate within the industry, being willing to take action when infringement is suspected is only the first hurdle. Yes, the decision to undertake litigation is a difficult one regardless of whether it is made by a company or an individual. Attention is diverted from other endeavors and opportunities, and there is a very real financial cost associated with litigating a dispute. Litigation is not free.
On December 28, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a $63.7 million jury verdict against Cisco Systems. The Court, in an opinion by Chief Judge Prost (pictured), concluded that substantial evidence did not support the jury’s finding that Cisco’s devices, when used, perform the “running” step of the asserted claims.
Commil owns U.S. Patent No. 6,430,395, which relates to a method of providing faster and more reliable handoffs of mobile devices from one base station to another as a mobile device moves throughout a network area. In 2007, Commil brought a patent infringement action against Cisco, which makes and sells wireless networking equipment. In a first jury trial, Commil alleged that Cisco directly infringed the ’395 patent by making and using networking equipment, and also that Cisco induced its customers to infringe by selling them the infringing equipment. The jury concluded that Commil’s patent was valid, that Cisco was liable for direct but not induced infringement, and awarded $3.7 million in damages. Commil then filed a motion for a new trial on induced infringement and damages, which the district court granted. The second jury concluded that Cisco was liable for induced infringement and awarded $63.7 million in damages.
Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, decided SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, which required the Court to determine the continued applicability of the laches defense for patent infringement actions. This issue presents itself in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), which determined that laches is not a defense to a copyright infringement action brought within the statute of limitation.
Petrella involved an assertion that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (“MGM”) 1980 film “Raging Bull” infringed a copyright in a 1963 screenplay authored by Frank Petrella. Frank Petrella’s daughter renewed the copyright in 1991, but did not contact MGM until seven years later. Over the next two years, Petrella and MGM exchanged letters concerning Petrella’s copyright claim. Petrella then went silent, and did not file suit until January 6, 2009, about nine years after her last correspondence with MGM. MGM moved for summary judgment based on laches, which the district court granted and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
On May 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided Commil USA, LLC v. Cisco Systems, Inc., a case that dealt with inducement to infringe. More specifically, the issue considered by the Supreme Court was whether a good faith belief of patent invalidity is a defense to a claim of induced infringement. In a 6-2 decision written by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court ruled that belief of invalidity is not a defense to a claim of induced infringement.
Justice Kennedy started his substantive analysis with a discussion of direct infringement, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan. Justice Thomas, who joined in the majority with respect to Parts II-B and III, did not join the majority relative to the background discussion. Justice Thomas did not write a separate opinion so we can’t know for sure, but it seems that Thomas chose not to join parts of the decision that were historical in nature (Part I) and the part of the decision where the majority discussed substantive legal issues not specifically germane to the issue presented.
Moving beyond direct infringement being a strict liability offense, and inducement requiring direct infringement, Justice Kennedy ultimately reached the question presented, namely whether a good faith belief of patent invalidity is a defense to a claim of induced infringement. Kennedy explained: “[B]ecause infringement and validity are separate issues under the Act, belief regarding validity cannot negate the scienter required under §271(b).” Kennedy concluded: “Were this Court to interpret §271(b) as permitting a defense of belief in invalidity, it would conflate the issues of infringement and validity.”
Kennedy seemed sympathetic to those who argue that an invalid patent cannot be infringed, which seems to make common sense. But he went on to explain that logic and semantics sometimes must give way to interpretation of an otherwise clear statutory framework:
[T]he questions courts must address when interpreting and implementing the statutory framework require a determination of the procedures and sequences that the parties must follow to prove the act of wrongful inducement and any related issues of patent validity. “Validity and infringement are distinct issues, bearing different burdens, different presumptions, and different evidence.” 720 F. 3d, at 1374 (opinion of Newman, J.). To be sure, if at the end of the day, an act that would have been an infringement or an inducement to infringe pertains to a patent that is shown to be invalid, there is no patent to be infringed. But the allocation of the burden to persuade on these questions, and the timing for the presentations of the relevant arguments, are concerns of central relevance to the orderly administration of the patent system.
In addition to the statutory language that Kennedy found clearly on point, he explained that there were also several practical reasons why a good faith defense should not be allowed. For example, if someone believes that a patent is invalid, they should file a declaratory judgment action (assuming they have standing) or could file a petition for inter partes review with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).
Kennedy also specifically explained that the Court is mindful of abusive litigation tactics employed by so-called patent trolls. Raising the issue seemed wholly out of place and a bit odd given that Kennedy also quickly explained that in this case the parties raised no issue of frivolity. The issue of patent trolls must be weighing on the Court very heavily for it to be inserted by Kennedy in a decision where no one was alleged to have been a patent troll.