The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court’s opinions and orders and remanded the case for further proceedings before a different district court judge because the original judge had failed to divest all financial interests in the case. Centripetal Networks, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc., Case No. 21-1888 (Fed. Cir. June 23, 2022) (Dyk, Taranto, Cunningham, JJ.)
Centripetal sued Cisco for patent infringement. The original district court judge presided over a 22-day bench trial, which included a more than 3,500-page record, 26 witnesses and more than 300 exhibits. The court heard final arguments on June 25, 2020. While the case was still pending before the district court, the judge learned that his wife owned Cisco stock, valued at $4,687.99. The district court judge notified the parties on August 12, 2020, that he had discovered that his wife owned 100 shares of Cisco stock. He stated that his wife purchased the stock in October 2019 and had no independent recollection of the purchase. He explained that at the time he learned of the stock, he had already drafted a 130-page draft of his opinion on the bench trial, and virtually every issue had been decided. He further stated that the stock did not—and could not have—influenced his opinion on any of the issues in the case. Instead of selling the stock, which might have implied insider trading given his knowledge of the forthcoming order, the judge placed it in a blind trust. Under the terms of the trust, the judge was to be notified when the trust assets had been completely disposed of or when their value became less than $1,000.
Centripetal had no objections. Cisco, however, filed a motion for recusal under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) and (b)(4). The judge ordered Centripetal to file a response. On October 2, 2020, the court denied Cisco’s motion for recusal. On October 5, 2020, the court issued a 167-page opinion and order containing the judge’s findings that Cisco willfully infringed the asserted claims of the patents-at-issue and awarded Centripetal damages of more than $755 million, pre-judgment interest of more than $13 million and a running royalty of 10%. Cisco moved for amended findings and judgment under Rule 52(b) or a new trial under Rule 59(a)(2). The court denied both motions. Cisco appealed the district court’s findings and asserted that the judge was required to recuse himself under 28 U.S.C. § 455(b) absent divestiture under § 455(f) (the only exception to the bright line rule that a federal judge is disqualified based on a known financial interest in a party).
On appeal, the Federal Circuit addressed two issues: whether the district court judge was relieved of his duty to recuse under § 455(b)(4) because his wife had divested herself of her interest in Cisco under § 455(f), and, if the requirements of § 455(f) were not satisfied, a determination as to the proper remedy.
The Federal Circuit analyzed whether placement of the stock in a blind trust satisfied the divesture requirement of § 455(f). The Court explained that a blind trust is “an arrangement whereby a person, in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest, places certain personal assets under the control of an independent trustee with the provision that the person is to have no knowledge of how those assets are managed.” Centripetal admitted that there are no cases holding that placement of stock in a blind trust constitutes divestment. The Court next turned to the intent of Congress when it drafted the statute. The Court reasoned that to “divest” was understood at the time to mean “dispossess or deprive,” which is only possible when an interest is sold or given away. The Court also noted that Congress used the present tense—that a judge should not sit when he or she has a financial interest in a party. The Court concluded that while placing the stock in a blind trust removed the judge’s wife from control over the stock, it did not eliminate her beneficial interest in Cisco. The Court also found that the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Codes of Conduct had previously ruled that a judge’s use of a blind trust does not obviate the judge’s recusal obligations. Accordingly, the Court found that placing assets in a blind trust is not divestment under § 455(f) and, thus, the district court judge was disqualified from further proceedings in the case.
As for the appropriate remedy, the Federal Circuit considered whether rulings made after August 11, 2020, when the district court judge became aware of his wife’s financial interest in Cisco, should be vacated as a remedy for his failure to recuse. The Court determined that the risk of injustice to the parties weighed against a finding of harmless error and in favor of vacatur. The Court reversed the district court’s opinion and order denying Cisco’s motion for recusal; vacated the opinion and order regarding infringement, damages and post-judgment motions and remanded for further proceedings before a new judge.