Reversing an award of attorney’s fees, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that a district court abused its discretion in making an exceptional-case determination where patent and trademark infringement claims were reasonable. Munchkin, Inc. v. Luv N-Care, LTD., Admar International, Inc., Case No. 19-1454 (Fed. Cir. June 8, 2020) (Chen, J.).
Munchkin sued LNC for trademark infringement, unfair competition, trade dress infringement and patent infringement based on LNC’s no-spill drinking cups. LNC filed a petition for inter partes review (IPR) with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). While the IPR was pending, Munchkin voluntarily dismissed all of its non-patent claims with prejudice. The PTAB subsequently found Munchkin’s patent was unpatentable. After the PTAB’s finding, Munchkin dismissed its patent infringement claim.
LNC filed a motion for attorney’s fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 and 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a), arguing that the trademark and trade dress infringement claims were substantively weak and that Munchkin should have been aware of the weakness of the patent’s validity. The district court agreed that the case was exceptional and granted LNC’s motion. Munchkin appealed.
The Patent Act and Lanham Act allow courts to award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party, but only in exceptional cases. The Federal Circuit reviewed the district court’s award for abuse of discretion under the Ninth Circuit standard for attorney’s fees as set forth in Octane Fitness LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc. (IP Update, Vol. 17, No. 5). The Supreme Court in Octane Fitness held that an exceptional case is “one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (considering both the governing law and the facts of the case) or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.”
The Federal Circuit noted that the district court’s exceptional-case determination rested on issues that were not fully litigated before the court. Addressing the patent infringement claim, the Court first found that the district court’s claim construction ruling favored Munchkin, creating a serious hurdle for LNC’s invalidity challenge. However, to find the case exceptional, the district court dismissed its own Markman construction as merely a non-final interim order. The Court found that was not the right question, and instead, the relevant question was whether Munchkin’s validity position was reasonable—not whether there is a possibility of reconsideration of the claim construction.
LNC argued that Munchkin was unreasonable in maintaining its patent infringement lawsuit once the PTAB instituted the IPR because, based on the statistics, it was more likely than not that the patent would be found invalid. The Federal Circuit disagreed, stating clearly that IPR statistics combined with the merits outcome is not enough. What is required is a “fact-dependent, case-by-case” analysis. The Federal Circuit found nothing unreasonable about Munchkin’s patent infringement claim.
Addressing the trademark claims, the Federal Circuit determined that Munchkin cannot be faulted for litigating a claim it was granted permission to pursue. Since the district court allowed Munchkin to amend its complaint, finding no grounds for prejudice, bad faith or futility, Munchkin’s actions were objectively reasonable. With respect to Munchkin’s dismissal of its claims with prejudice, the Court determined that does not establish, by itself, a finding that the merits were so substantively weak as to render the claims exceptional. The Court refused to adopt a categorical rule that a party’s litigating position is presumptively so meritless as to stand out from the norm whenever it dismisses its claims with prejudice.
Addressing the trade dress claims, the Federal Circuit found that the district court lacked adequate support in finding Munchkin’s trade dress claims were particularly weak. Importantly, LNC never filed a motion to dismiss, and the merits of Munchkin’s claims were never adjudicated. The Court determined that LNC’s fee motion presented a conclusory and inadequate case to demonstrate that it was objectively unreasonable for Munchkin to assert any protectable trade dress rights.