The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a US International Trade Commission (ITC) decision denying a petition for rescission of a general exclusion order (GEO) prohibiting importation of products accused of patent infringement, because a post-investigation invalidity attack is not a changed condition warranting rescission. Mayborn Grp., Ltd. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 19-2077 (Fed. Cir. July 16, 2020) (Lourie, J.).
Several parties filed a complaint at the ITC against several respondents, not including Mayborn Group, Ltd., and Mayborn USA, Inc. The complaint alleged infringement of a patent disclosing a self-anchoring beverage container that prevents spills. The complainants sought a GEO barring importation of infringing goods by any party, including unnamed respondents such as Mayborn. In contrast to GEOs, limited exclusion orders only prohibit infringing goods imported by named respondents in an investigation. The ITC instituted an investigation, and the administrative law judge determined that two respondents were in default and liable for unfair acts (patent infringement) in connection with importation. The defaulting respondents did not raise any invalidity challenge during the investigation. On the administrative law judge’s recommendation, the ITC issued a GEO.
Following issuance of the GEO, Mayborn continued to import potentially infringing products. The complainants notified Mayborn that they were working with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to enforce the GEO against Mayborn’s importations. In response, Mayborn petitioned the ITC to rescind the GEO pursuant to its power to rescind or modify an order if there is a change in the conditions that led to the GEO. Mayborn argued that the “changed condition” requirement was satisfied because it contends the asserted claims are invalid.. The ITC denied Mayborn’s petition, holding that a petitioner’s asserted discovery of invalidating prior art after the issuance of a GEO was not a changed condition. Mayborn appealed, arguing that the ITC erred in rejecting its request for rescission. The ITC alleged that Mayborn lacked standing to appeal because Mayborn’s alleged injury stemmed from the complainants’ threat to enforce the GEO rather than any act by the ITC.
The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that Mayborn’s post-investigation invalidity challenge was not a basis for rescission of the GEO. The Court first addressed the ITC’s standing argument, and determined that Mayborn had standing because it was injured by the GEO and the GEO was enforced by the ITC. The ITC or CBP could act to enforce the GEO at any time. Mayborn had also lost sales and incurred other harm stemming from the complainants’ threats to assert the GEO, including reputational injury, market share loss and damaged business relationships. Standing did not require the ITC to have already barred importation of Mayborn’s products.
After finding that Mayborn had standing, the Federal Circuit determined that Mayborn’s invalidity challenge was not a permissible basis to seek rescission of the GEO for two reasons. First, although patent invalidity is an affirmative defense to patent infringement, the ITC is constrained to adjudicating patent validity only when a respondent raises an invalidity defense during an investigation or an enforcement proceeding. The ITC therefore lacked the authority to adjudicate Mayborn’s post-investigation invalidity challenge. Second, Mayborn’s invalidity challenge was not a changed condition relating to fact, law or the public interest, as required for rescission of an exclusion order. The Court distinguished between a final judgment holding a patent invalid, which would be a changed condition of law, and a party’s invalidity allegations, which would not be a changed condition because they do not affect the legal status of a patent.
The Federal Circuit accordingly affirmed the ITC’s decision.
Practice Note: A company whose products are potentially implicated in a Section 337 investigation involving allegations of patent infringement should ascertain whether the complaint seeks a GEO, even if the company is not a named respondent. A GEO has broad reach to exclude importation of infringing goods by any party, including an unnamed respondent. An unnamed respondent should consider whether to intervene in the investigation to defend against allegations of patent infringement and avoid seizure of its products by CBP in the event of a GEO. Although an unnamed respondent could potentially challenge patent validity in an enforcement proceeding initiated by a victorious complainant, that approach is time consuming in terms of its resolution (during which the product in question will be excluded) and subject to uncertainty regarding the outcome of the enforcement proceeding.