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Federal Circuit: Contractual Arbitration Agreements Don’t Bind PTAB Institution Decisions

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued an order declining to intervene in inter partes review (IPR) institution decisions by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) and further denied a writ of mandamus to stay the PTAB’s IPR institution pending contractually required arbitration of the dispute between MaxPower and ROHM Japan. In re: MAXPOWER SEMICONDUCTOR, INC., Case No. 21-146 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 8, 2021) (Reyna, J.) (O’Malley, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

MaxPower owned patents directed to silicon transistor technology and licensed the patents to ROHM Japan. The license agreement contained an arbitration clause that applied to any disputes arising from or related to it—including patent validity. A dispute arose between the parties as to whether the patents covered certain silicon carbide transistor ROHM products. After MaxPower notified ROHM that it was initiating arbitration under the terms of their license agreement, ROHM challenged the validity of four MaxPower patents at the PTAB, which granted ROHM’s petitions to institute IPRs for the four challenged patents.

MaxPower appealed the PTAB’s institution decision to the Federal Circuit and sought a writ of mandamus to stay or terminate the IPR proceedings without prejudice to later institution if an arbitrator decided that IPR proceedings were appropriate.

The Federal Circuit held that the PTAB’s decision to institute IPR is non-appealable under 35 U.S.C. §314(d), which plainly “confirms the unavailability of jurisdiction” for the Court to hear direct appeals. The Court also found that MaxPower failed to meet the criteria necessary to invoke the collateral order doctrine, which allows appeals from interlocutory rulings if they decide an issue “separate from the merits of the case” that would not be reviewable after final judgment. The Court noted that MaxPower could still raise its arbitration-related challenges after the PTAB issued its final written decisions in these cases.

The Federal Circuit also rejected arguments that the appeals were authorized under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1) and that MaxPower failed to show that its mandamus petition was not “merely a ‘means of avoiding the statutory prohibition on appellate review of agency institution decisions,’” citing the Court’s 2018 decision in In re Power Integrations.

Since the PTAB is not bound by private contracts enforcing arbitration agreements between parties, the Federal Circuit ruled that MaxPower had failed to show that the PTAB’s institution decisions in this case “clearly and indisputably exceeded its authority,” also stating that 35 U.S.C. § 294 does not authorize the PTAB to enforce private arbitration agreements.

In a partial dissent, Judge Kathleen O’Malley argued that the majority decision casts “a shadow over all agreements to arbitrate patent validity” and goes against strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements. While concurring with the majority that the PTAB’s IPR institution decisions are not appealable, Judge O’Malley stated that the case “provides exactly the sort of extraordinary circumstances under which mandamus review is appropriate” in what she called an important issue of first impression. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that [...]

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Federal Circuit Finds Interlocutory Appeal Untimely

Addressing the time limits for filing an interlocutory appeal in patent cases, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit dismissed such an appeal as untimely, finding that the appellant did not file within 30 days of all liability issues except for a determination of damages being resolved. Mondis Technology Ltd. v. LG Electronics Inc., Case No. 20-1812 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 3, 2021) (Hughes, J.)

Mondis Technology sued LG Electronics for infringement of a patent related to display technology. In a consolidated district court case joining other parties to dispute with LG, a jury found that (1) LG infringed certain claims of the patent owned by Mondis, (2) the patent claims were not invalid and (3) LG’s infringement was willful. The jury awarded $45 million in damages. LG filed multiple post-trial motions relating to infringement, invalidity, willfulness and damages. In September 2019, the district court denied LG’s motions regarding infringement, invalidity and willfulness. Then, in April 2020, the district court granted LG’s motion for a new trial on damages.

Within 30 days of the April 2020 order, LG filed a notice of interlocutory appeal with the Federal Circuit, seeking to challenge the denial of its three post-trial motions.

The Federal Circuit first discussed its jurisdiction to hear interlocutory appeals under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(c)(2), which provides the Court with exclusive jurisdiction over “an appeal from a judgment in a civil action for patent infringement which would otherwise be appealable to the . . . Federal Circuit and is final except for an accounting.” The Court explained that appeals under this section are subject to the time limits of § 2107(a), which in this case would give LG 30 days from the date the judgment became “final except for an accounting.” The Court cited to a previous case in which it held that a judgment is “final except for an accounting” under § 1292(c)(2) when all liability issues have been resolved and only a damages determination remains. The Court further supported its position by citing the Supreme Court of the United States’ 1988 decision in Budinich v. Becton Dickinson in which it found that the merits decision was final after the first post-trial order that resolved all issues except for attorneys’ fees. The Court thus found that all such liability issues were resolved as of the district court’s September 2019 order and that the 30-day clock started at that time.

LG also argued that Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure tolled the time to file its appeal. Rule 4(a)(4) provides that “the time to file an appeal runs for all parties from the entry of the order disposing of the last such remaining motion.” The Court disagreed with LG’s characterization, citing a Third Circuit opinion which found that a motion only tolls the time to file interlocutory appeals if the motion relates to the interlocutory judgment. The Court found that Rule 4(a)(4) did toll the time to file the interlocutory appeal but only until motions concerning liability [...]

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Federal Circuit Lacks Appellate Jurisdiction over Standalone Walker Process Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ordered the transfer of a case asserting standalone Walker Process antitrust claims involving an unenforceable patent to the regional circuit, in this case the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Chandler v. Phoenix Services LLC, Case No. 20-1848 (Fed Cir. June 10, 2021) (Hughes, J.) The case originated in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, over which the Fifth Circuit has appellate jurisdiction. The decision to transfer was based on a subject matter jurisdiction analysis for Walker Process claims. The Federal Circuit reiterated that its precedent does not mandate exclusive Federal Circuit jurisdiction over all Walker Process cases.

In 2006, Phoenix Services and Mark Fisher (collectively, Phoenix) acquired a company called Heat On-The-Fly and its patent to protect a purported proprietary fracking process. Heat-On-The-Fly, and later Phoenix, sought to enforce the patent against numerous parties. During the patent application process, however, Heat On-The-Fly had failed to disclose numerous public uses of the fracking process prior to the application filing. In 2018, in an unrelated case, Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, the Federal Circuit, held that “failure to disclose prior uses of the fracking process rendered the . . . patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.” The plaintiffs in the case at hand, Ronald Chandler, Chandler MFG., Newco Enterprises and Supertherm Heating Services (collectively, Chandler), alleged that Phoenix’s continued enforcement of the patent violated Walker Process pursuant to § 2 of the Sherman Act.

Walker Process monopolization claims originate from a 1965 Supreme Court decision that recognized an antitrust cause of action under the Sherman and Clayton Acts when a party fraudulently obtains a patent for the purpose of attempted monopolization. Walker Process Equipment, Inc. v. Food Machinery & Chemical Corp. To succeed on a Walker Process claim, a plaintiff must satisfy two elements:

  • The plaintiff must show that the defendant obtained the patent through knowing and willful fraud on the US Patent & Trademark Office and enforced that patent with knowledge of its fraudulent procurement.
  • The plaintiff must be able to satisfy all other elements for a Sherman Act monopolization claim.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(1), the Federal Circuit retains jurisdiction over any civil case arising under any act of Congress relating to patents. In this instance, the Federal Circuit stated that Walker Process antitrust claims may relate to patents “in the colloquial use of the term,” but under 1988 Supreme Court precedent, Christianson v. Colt Indus., the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction only extends to cases where the cause of action is created under federal patent law, or where the plaintiff’s right to relief “necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal patent law.”

Here, the Federal Circuit relied on its own 2018 precedent where it analyzed subject matter jurisdiction for Walker Process claims. Xitronix Corp v. KLA-Tencor Corp. (Xitronix I). Xitronix I involved alleged fraud by the defendants to obtain a patent. The Court acknowledged [...]

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Use is ACTUALLY Measured by Benefit

Addressing whether a service mark owner had established a protectable interest in his marks through actual or analogous use, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed in part the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the alleged infringer, explaining that by focusing on sales, the district court applied the wrong legal standard for analyzing actual use. Underwood v. Bank of Am. Corp., Case Nos. 19-1349, 20-1087 (10th Cir. Apr. 30, 2021) (Matheson, J.)

In 2010, Erik Underwood and My24HourNews.com (collectively, Underwood) applied for, and were granted, registration of a service mark in Georgia for a computer-animated woman named Erica who verbally reports the news through cell phones and computer programs. In 2012, Underwood registered the domain name for a website, my24erica.com. On the website, E.R.I.C.A. could answer questions and offer recommendations regarding movies and television shows. In 2016, Bank of America filed an intent to use application with the US Patent and Trademark Office for ERICA, a mark for goods and services including voice-controlled information, personal assistant banking and finance services. Underwood sued Bank of America, alleging common law service mark infringement of two marks, E.R.I.C.A. and my24erica.com.

The district court granted summary judgment for Bank of America, concluding that Underwood had not established a protectable interest in either of the marks through actual or analogous use. Underwood appealed.

The 10th Circuit concluded that the district court applied the wrong legal standard and committed two legal errors in its analysis of the issue of actual use of the E.R.I.C.A. mark. First, the district court erred by assuming that in order to establish actual use, Underwood’s customers must have purchased the services offered or Underwood must have generated revenue, because actual use is measured by benefit—not sales to third parties. Second, the district court erred by limiting the services at issue to those listed on the Georgia registration (i.e., newscasting). Instead, the district court should have considered all services identified by the mark, including those on the my24erica.com website (i.e., search engine and personal assistant services). The Court remanded the issue of actual use to permit the district court to address the factual issues under the correct legal standard.

Analogous use of a mark is use in commerce that is non-transactional, e.g., promotional efforts for the goods or services, such as advertising brochures, catalogs, newspaper ads, and articles in newspapers and trade publications. Although actual use need not have a substantial impact on the purchasing public, analogous use must be “of such a nature and extent as to create public identification of the target term with the [user’s] product or service.” To qualify as analogous use, the use must be open and notorious, i.e., “of such a nature and extent that the mark has become popularized in the public mind so that the relevant segment of the public identifies the marked goods with the mark’s adopter.” Because the analogous use in terms of the E.R.I.C.A. mark had large gaps in time; consisted only of PowerPoint presentations at [...]

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School’s Out: Trademark Settlement Agreement Enforceable

Addressing issues relating to jurisdiction, contract enforceability and trademarks, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that two schools that used similar names had a valid and enforceable settlement agreement obligating one school to pay for the other to change its name. The Commonwealth School, Inc. v. Commonwealth Academy Holdings LLC, Case No. 20-1112 (1st Cir. Apr. 14, 2021) (Selya, J.)

It came to the attention of a Boston private school, The Commonwealth School (the School), that a more recently founded private school in Springfield, Massachusetts, was operating under a similar name, Commonwealth Academy (the Academy). In 2016, the School brought suit against the Academy under the federal Lanham Act, claiming that the School had a trademark on its “Commonwealth School” name, and that “Commonwealth Academy” infringed on that trademark. The parties entered into settlement mediation, and agreed that the School would pay the Academy $25,000 and in return the Academy would change its name to “Springfield Commonwealth Academy.”

The district court issued an order that a settlement was reached. Three years passed, and the Academy took steps to change its name in promotional materials and on its website. But the School would not pay the Academy because it claimed the Academy still had the “Commonwealth Academy” name appearing prominently on its students’ basketball jerseys. At a hearing to resolve the dispute, the district court reversed its earlier order: the parties had not actually reached a settlement agreement because there had been no “meeting of the minds” for contract formation, despite the other steps the Academy took to fulfill the agreement. The district court dismissed the case because neither party showed cause to reopen the case. The Academy appealed, arguing that the district court erred in refusing to enforce the settlement agreement.

The First Circuit addressed three main issues on appeal: (1) whether there was appellate jurisdiction to hear the appeal, (2) whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the initial settlement agreement dispute, and (3) on the merits, whether the settlement agreement was a validly formed contract.

The First Circuit concluded it had jurisdiction to review the district court’s dismissal order. Generally, under the final judgment rule, only final decisions are appealable. But here, the order at issue was merely interlocutory, meaning it was issued during the course of litigation. The Academy claimed the order was in fact reviewable because the order resulted in the case’s dismissal, and thus it should fall under the merger doctrine exception, where interlocutory orders merge into final judgments. The Court considered this in the context of the School’s failure to prosecute, and whether the order actually fell under an exception to the exception – i.e., where a dismissal is based on a failure to prosecute, it does not fall under the merger doctrine. In its analysis, the Court considered the policy considerations underlying the merger doctrine: to preserve integrity of the final judgment rule by preventing any reward for bad faith tactics. Here, the School, as the [...]

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No Second Bite at the Apple: Injury Must Be Imminent and Non-Speculative to Support Standing

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that a party did not have Article III appellate standing to obtain review of a final ruling of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board because the underlying district court proceedings had been dismissed with prejudice after a settlement and license agreement were reached. Apple Inc. v. Qualcomm Inc., Case Nos. 20-1561; -1642 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 7, 2021) (Moore, J.)

After Qualcomm sued Apple in district court, Apple filed petitions for inter partes review (IPR) of the asserted patent claims. The Board instituted on both petitions but found that Apple did not prove the challenged claims were obvious. Apple appealed the Board’s final written decisions finding non-obviousness.

While the IPR proceedings were pending, the parties settled their litigation worldwide. The settlement included a license to Apple and payment of royalties to Qualcomm. The parties filed a joint motion to dismiss Qualcomm’s district court action with prejudice, which the district court granted.

At the Federal Circuit, Qualcomm argued that Apple waived any argument to establish its appellate standing by failing to address or submit supporting evidence in its opening brief. However, the Federal Circuit exercised its discretion to reach the issue of standing, explaining that the issue of standing was fully briefed, there was no prejudice to Qualcomm, and the question of standing impacted these and other appeals. Qualcomm sought leave to file a sur-reply addressing Apple’s evidence and arguments on standing, and agreed that if its motions to file a sur-reply were granted, it would not suffer any prejudice, and that evaluating the evidence may resolve standing in other pending cases. The Court granted Qualcomm leave to file a sur-reply.

Apple argued that it had appellate standing based on its ongoing payment obligations that conditioned certain rights in the license agreement, the threat that Apple would be sued for infringing the two patents-at-issue after the expiration of the license agreement, and the estoppel effects of 35 USC § 315 on future challenges to the validity of the asserted patents. The Federal Circuit disagreed.

LICENSE RIGHTS

Distinguishing the 2007 Supreme Court case MedImmune v. Genentech (where standing was found based on license agreement payment obligations after analyzing evidence for injury in fact or redressability), the Federal Circuit explained that Apple did not allege that the validity of the patents-at-issue would affect its contract rights and ongoing royalty obligations. The license agreement between the parties involves tens of thousands of patents. Apple did not argue or present evidence that the validity of any single patent (including the two patents-at-issue) would affect its ongoing payment obligations, or identify any related contractual dispute that could be resolved through determining the patents-at-issue’s validity. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Apple failed to establish Art. III standing under MedImmune.

THREAT OF POST-LICENSE SUITS

Apple’s second argument was based on the possibility that Qualcomm might sue Apple for infringing the patents-at-issue after the license expired. The Federal Circuit found the mere possibility of any such suit [...]

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