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.
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.
Jeff Kichaven (pictured left) is one of California’s leading mediators. I met Kichaven several months ago while I was in Newport Beach, California, to speak at the Orange County Bar Association. At the conclusion of our breakfast meeting I asked if he would be interested in an on the record conversation for publication. He agreed. What follows are except from our conversation, which took place on Monday, December 22, 2014. To read the full transcript of the interview please see Working toward settlement wherever possible.
Here is our dialogue on the reality that in most circumstances neither party really wants a court to make a decision and would be better off reaching a negotiated resolution.
QUINN: … And my experience usually when the judge or the jury makes the decision neither party is happy.
KICHAVEN: That’s true. So many times it has cost so much, taken so long and been so grueling along the way, that even the winner questions whether it was worth it.
KICHAVEN: It’s especially true in intellectual property cases because when people get too involved in litigation focusing on the past and perhaps lose their focus on the marketplace, new competitors can come in and beat them in the marketplace. So it’s important, particularly for technology companies in fast moving industries, to keep their eyes focused on the future and competing in the marketplace rather than focused on the past and competing in the courtroom, other than in a small number of cases where that focus really is absolutely necessary.
On November 19, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in e.Digital Corporation v. Futurewei Technologies, Inc. e.Digital appealed from a judgment of non-infringement made by the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of California. The district court based its determination of non-infringement on the fact that e.Digital was collaterally estopped from seeking a construction of a claim limitation in e.Digital’s U.S. Patent Nos. 5,491,774 and 5,839,108 different from another court’s previous construction of the same limitation in the ’774 patent.
The Federal Circuit, with Judge Moore writing and joined by Judges O’Malley and Reyna, held that the district court correctly applied collateral estoppel to the ’774 patent, but improperly applied the doctrine to the unrelated ’108 patent.
To understand the ruling in this case one must first look at the prior case that construed the critical claim. Previously, in a litigation in the United States Federal District Court for the District of Colorado, e.Digital asserted claims 1 and 19 of the ’774 patent. The ’774 patent discloses a device with a microphone and a removable, interchangeable flash memory recording medium that allows for audio recording and playback. Asserted claims 1 and 19 recited “a flash memory module which operates as sole memory of the received processed sound electrical signals.” The district court construed the sole memory limitation to require “that the device use only flash memory, not RAM or any other memory system” to store the “received processed sound electrical signals.” The district court based its construction on the written description of the ’774 patent and its determination that the use of RAM had been disclaimed during prosecution. With this claim construction decided, the parties stipulated to a dismissal of the case with prejudice.
I have absolutely no problem with enforcing patent rights, and frankly I don’t think it should matter how the patents were acquired, but there is something exceptionally seedy about the use of shell companies going after competitors, or large tech companies selling to known patent trolls. They complain about the troll problem in the halls of Congress on the one hand, but use them to their advantage on the other hand.
The question should be whether there is infringement of a solid patent. If there is a solid patent and there is infringement, then there should be recourse, period. Having said that, it would be naive to pretend that there is not real evil lurking in the patent infringement realm. Stories of $500 to $1,000 offers to settle and avoid patent infringement litigation that would cost millions of dollars to defend abound. False and misleading demand letters prey on unsophisticated businesses.