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Absent Explicit Statutory Language? The American Rule Still Applies

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court’s award of attorney’s fees under the prevailing party rule but affirmed the district court’s denial of the US Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) request for expert witness fees under 35 U.S.C. § 145. Hyatt v. Hirshfeld, Case Nos. 20-2321;–2325 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (Hughes, J.). The case involved prolific inventor Gilbert Hyatt and the latest chapter in his battles with the PTO.

Mr. Hyatt is known for his prolific patent and litigation filings (including hundreds of extraordinarily lengthy and complex patent applications in 1995 alone) and for often “’adopt[ing] an approach to prosecution that all but guaranteed indefinite prosecution delay’ in an effort to submarine his patent applications and receive lengthy patent terms.” After the PTO denied some of his patent applications, Mr. Hyatt elected to pursue a district court appeal under 35 U.S.C. § 145 to challenge the PTO’s decisions. The district court ordered the PTO to issue some of the patents and awarded Mr. Hyatt attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. The PTO spent millions of dollars examining Mr. Hyatt’s applications and sought, under §145, reimbursement of its expert witness fees from the case. The district court denied the PTO’s request for expert witness fees, holding that its shifting of “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings” to the applicant does not overcome the American Rule presumption against shifting expert fees. The PTO appealed.

The PTO challenged both the award of attorney’s fees and the denial of expert fees. In an earlier appeal by the PTO, the Federal Circuit held that the PTO correctly asserted prosecution laches as a defense against Mr. Hyatt, which “render[s] a patent unenforceable when it has issued only after an unreasonable and unexplained delay in prosecution that constitutes an egregious misuse of the statutory patent system under a totality of the circumstances.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s decision ordering the issuance of patents, and in this appeal, the Court vacated the district court’s holding that Mr. Hyatt is entitled to attorney’s fees—since he is no longer the prevailing party—and remanded for further proceedings.

According to the statute, in an action under § 145, “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings shall be paid by the applicant.” However, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the statutory language was not sufficiently explicit to overcome the presumption against fee-shifting under the American Rule and that litigants pay their own fees “unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.” In doing so, the Court looked at statutory phrasing, dictionary definitions (e.g., Black’s and Webster’s), legislative history, relevant case law and similarly phrased statutes to confirm whether expert fees were specifically and explicitly contemplated as being included by US Congress in the statute. The Supreme Court of the United States’ 2019 NantKwest decision (that “expenses” under §145 does not invoke attorney’s fees with enough clarity to overcome the American Rule) guided the Court’s analysis as did [...]

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$6 Million Verdict Vacated in Flooring Tech Trade Secrets Row

The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed a judgment of trade secret misappropriation because the plaintiff had not proved that the defendant’s duty to maintain the secret arose at the time it acquired the secret. AcryliCon USA, LLC v. Silikal GmbH, Case No. 17-15737 (11th Cir. Jan. 26, 2021) (Tjoflat, J.)

AcryliCon USA, LLC (AC-USA), AcryliCon International, Ltd. (AC-I) (collectively, AcryliCon), and Silikal are in the industrial flooring business. Hegstad is a chemical engineer who founded AC-I. In 1987, Hegstad invented, with Silikal’s help, a formula for a special industrial flooring material called 1061 SW. The formula belonged to Hegstad, and Silikal possessed the formula as the manufacturer of 1061 SW resin for Hegstad and AC-I. In 1997, AC-I and Silikal contractually established AC-I as the exclusive distributor of 1061 SW resin. In 2008, AC-USA was incorporated and entered into license agreements to obtain the right to import, market and sell 1061 SW (among other products) in the United States.

Thereafter, a dispute arose between AC-I and Silikal. The dispute was resolved by a 2010 global settlement agreement (GSA), which ended the prior agency relationship but provided (inter alia) that Silikal would preserve the secrecy of the formula and not sell 1061 SW resin to anyone but AcryliCon. The GSA also contained a forum selection provision stating that disputes arising from activities in the United States would be governed by Georgia law and waiving objections to personal jurisdiction in the Northern District of Georgia.

AC-USA sued Silikal in 2014 in the Northern District of Georgia, claiming that Silikal breached the GSA by manufacturing 1061 SW resin, selling it globally and taking credit for 1061 SW in its marketing. AC-USA’s complaint included several other causes of action, including misappropriation of trade secrets. Silikal moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, contending that it had not sold 1061 SW to anyone other than AcryliCon in the United States. The district court denied the motion on evidence that such sales had occurred. AC-USA moved for partial summary judgment on its contract claim and sought a permanent injunction barring Silikal from producing or selling 1061 SW. The district court granted the motion and injunction because “previous counsel for Silikal admitted” that there had been sales of 1061 SW in violation of the GSA and Silikal did not dispute that there had been a breach of contract. After trial, the jury found for AC-USA, awarding $1.5 million on the misappropriation claim and $1.5 million on the contract claim. The district court added $3 million in punitive damages. Silikal moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL), arguing that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction, that AcryliCon had failed to prove misappropriation, and that AcryliCon had failed to prove cognizable damages on its contract claim. The district court denied the motion, awarded AC-USA attorneys’ fees and entered judgment for AC-USC. Silikal appealed.

The 11th Circuit held that Silikal waived its challenge to personal jurisdiction by appealing only the pre-trial jurisdiction ruling [...]

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“Can’t Hold Us” Liable: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Win Affirmance in Copyright Suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment on the issue of copyright infringement and an award of attorneys’ fees against the plaintiff under the Copyright Act. Although the Court noted that it lacked jurisdiction to review sanctions against the plaintiff’s attorney, it observed that counsel went beyond “vigorous representation.” Batiste v. Lewis, Case Nos. 19-30400, -30889 (5th Cir. Sept. 22, 2020) (Clement, J.).

Batiste, a local musician, sued Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, an internationally famous hip-hop duo, for copyright infringement. Batiste alleged that the duo sampled his songs without authorization. As support, Batiste submitted the expert report of a musicologist, Milton, but Milton later admitted that Batiste had conducted the analysis and written the report, and that Milton did not even have access to the necessary software. The district court excluded the report, which Batiste then sought leave to resubmit in his own name. The district court denied leave because Batiste had not disclosed himself as an expert and because the new report was untimely. The district court subsequently granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Batiste had failed to submit sufficient evidence of Macklemore and Lewis’s alleged access to Batiste’s work or of probative similarity between Macklemore and Lewis’s works and Batiste’s. The district court then awarded fees to Macklemore and Lewis under the Copyright Act (17 USC § 505) and made Batiste’s attorney (Hayes) jointly and severally liable for the fees award as a sanction under 28 USC § 1987. Batiste appealed.

Addressing the district court’s summary judgment of no infringement, the Fifth Circuit considered Batiste’s proofs as to access and similarity.

Batiste tried to prove access through “widespread dissemination” and “chain of events” theories. The Court held that Batiste’s evidence of widespread dissemination was insufficient because it only established “quite limited” dissemination of Batiste’s music. Batiste’s chain of events theory—under which Macklemore and Lewis allegedly accessed Batiste’s work by playing a concert at a venue near a record store that sold Batiste’s music—raised only a “bare possibility” of access and was therefore also insufficient.

On the issue of similarity, the Court explained that because of Batiste’s failure to show access, he needed to show “striking similarity” to withstand summary judgment. The Court rejected Batiste’s argument that “overwhelming evidence of access” obviated any need for him to show similarity. The Court compared the allegedly infringing songs to Batiste’s and found them insufficiently similar for a jury to find striking similarity. The Court also rejected Batiste’s invitation to adopt the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Bridgeport, which held a showing of similarity unnecessary in some circumstances. The Fifth Circuit noted that Bridgeport has been widely criticized, and pointed out that Bridgeport considered the issue of substantial similarity (which dictates whether factual copying, once established, is legally actionable), whereas the issue in this case was probative similarity (which raises an inference of factual copying).

Batiste challenged the award of attorneys’ fees as erroneous absent a [...]

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Buzz-sawed: Give Copyright Credit or Face Statutory Damages, Fees, Costs

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s award of statutory damages where the defendant knowingly distributed a photograph without first getting permission to use the photograph. Gregory Mango v. BuzzFeed, Inc., Case No.19-446 (2nd Cir. Aug.13, 2020) (Park, J.).

Gregory Mango, a freelance photographer, sued BuzzFeed, an online media company, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), for using one of his photographs in a news article without first obtaining his permission and crediting him. Mango asserted copyright infringement, alleging that BuzzFeed removed or altered the copyright management information (CMI), a violation under the DMCA. Mango sought statutory damages of $30,000 for his copyright infringement claim, $5,000 for his DMCA claim, and attorney’s fees. BuzzFeed argued that it could not be held liable under the DMCA because there was no evidence that it knew its conduct would lead to future, third-party infringement of Mango’s copyright.

The photo at issue was of Raymond Parker, who was the lead figure in a discrimination lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors in New York. The New York Post licensed the photo and published it, including Mango’s name in an attribution known as “gutter credit.” A few months later, BuzzFeed published an article about Parker and used Mango’s photo. The BuzzFeed journalist did not ask for permission to use the photo; instead, he listed the name of Parker’s attorneys’ law firm in the gutter credit. The journalist, a six-year veteran at BuzzFeed, had written more than 1,000 articles for the company, all of which included a photograph, and it was his custom to give credit to the photographers by “name or by photo outlet.” However, in this case, he asked the law firm for a photo of Parker but ultimately downloaded the photo from the New York Post website himself and attributed the photo to the law firm.

Prior to a bench trial, BuzzFeed stipulated to liability on the copyright infringement claim. The district court noted that under “Section 1202(b)(3) of the DMCA, plaintiffs must prove (1) actual knowledge … that CMI was removed and/or altered without permission and (2) constructive knowledge … that such distribution will induce, enable, facilitate or conceal an infringement.” The court found that Mango’s gutter credit constituted CMI and that BuzzFeed knew that the CMI had been removed and altered without permission, rejecting the journalist’s claims that he had believed he obtained permission and that BuzzFeed had reasonable grounds to know that such removal and distribution was infringement. The court found BuzzFeed liable on both claims and awarded Mango $8,750 in statutory damages and $65,132 in attorney’s fees. BuzzFeed appealed.

The Second Circuit determined that the district court correctly applied the DMCA in the case, finding that the journalist had distributed Mango’s photo knowing that his gutter credit had been removed or altered without Mango’s permission and distributed it with a gutter credit of the law firm, knowing that doing so would conceal that he did not have permission to use the photo.

BuzzFeed argued [...]

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Attorney’s Fees Properly Awarded in Unsuccessful Trade Secret Misappropriation and Civil Theft Suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a take-nothing judgment and an attorney’s fees award against plaintiffs in a trade secret misappropriation and civil theft suit under Texas law, finding that the fee award did not need to be segregated to various claims. ATOM Instrument Corp. v. Petroleum Analyzer Co., L.P., Case Nos. 19-29151, -20371 (5th Cir. Aug. 7, 2020) (Southwick, J.). The Court also remanded for an additional award of appellate attorney’s fees.

Olstowski was a consultant for Petroleum Analyzer Co., L.P. (PAC), during which time he developed a krypton-chloride-based excimer lamp to detect sulfur with ultraviolet fluorescence. Although he developed the lamp independently, he used PAC resources to test the technology.  Olstowski and PAC negotiated but failed to agree on licensing. Olstowski founded ATOM Instrument to assist him in the licensing discussions. Subsequently, PAC filed a declaratory judgment action in Texas court alleging that it owned the lamp technology. The state court ordered the claim to arbitration. The arbitration panel declared Olstowski the owner of the technology and enjoined PAC from using it. The state court confirmed the arbitral award, and a Texas appellate court upheld the confirmation order.

PAC thereafter developed a new sulfur-detecting excimer lamp called MultiTek that also used krypton-chloride with UV fluorescence. Olstowski and ATOM filed in state court for contempt of the injunction, but the state court denied the contempt motion as moot because PAC had ceased selling MultiTek.

ATOM filed for bankruptcy the following year. Olstowski and ATOM initiated a district court proceeding against PAC alleging misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition and civil theft. After holding a bench trial, the court found that MultiTek did not practice Olstowski’s technology and therefore entered a take-nothing judgment in favor of PAC. The district court also awarded attorney’s fees to PAC under a provision of the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA) that awards fees to prevailing parties. Olstowski and ATOM appealed both issues, and PAC sought an award of its appellate attorney’s fees.

As to liability, ATOM argued that the district court erred in finding that the MultiTek lamp did not practice Olstowski’s technology. ATOM characterized the error as a legal one regarding interpretation of the arbitral award, but the Fifth Circuit held that “whether one company used another’s protected technology” is a factual question for which Olstowski and ATOM had failed to carry the burden of proof at trial. ATOM further argued that the district court had ignored the alleged law of the case in deviating from the scope of technology defined in the arbitral award, but the Court again rejected ATOM’s argument because the district court had explicitly stated that the description of Olstowski’s technology in the arbitral award remained in effect.

As to the award of attorney’s fees, ATOM argued that the district court had not appropriately segregated fees related to the TTLA claim from those related to other claims. Applying Texas law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that the TTLA claim was sufficiently related to the other claims [...]

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Patent Owners Beware: Serial Filings, Rent-Seeking May Be Grounds for Adverse Fee Award

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s denial of attorney’s fees to an accused infringer, finding the district court did not properly consider the Patent Owner’s manner of litigation, including the history of plaintiff’s actions in other jurisdictions and the broader context of its litigation practices. Elec. Commc’n Techs., LLC v. ShoppersChoice.com, LLC, Case No. 19-2087 (Fed. Cir. July 1, 2020) (Wallach, J.).

Following a finding by a Florida district court that a patent asserted by Electronic Communication Technologies (ECT) was ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101, ShoppersChoice filed a motion for attorney’s fees, citing ECT’s use of standardized demand letters and repeated infringement actions seeking nuisance-value settlements. ShoppersChoice also informed the district court of a recent award of attorney’s fees against ECT in the Central District of California (the True Grit decision) for conduct relating to the same asserted patent. The district court denied ShoppersChoice’s motion, finding that the case was not exceptional and that ECT’s litigation position was not so obviously weak. ShoppersChoice appealed.

The Federal Circuit reviewed the district court’s denial of attorney’s fees under the abuse of discretion standard, analyzing whether the district court made “a clear error of judgment in weighing relevant factors or in basing its decision on an error of law or on clearly erroneous factual findings” and whether it provided a “concise but clear explanation of its reason[ing].” The Court explained that “a pattern of litigation abuses characterized by the repeated filing of patent infringement actions for the sole purpose of forcing settlements, with no intention of testing the merits of one’s claims, is relevant to a district court’s exceptional case determination under § 285.” The Court found that the district court failed to conduct this analysis and erred by not considering ECT’s manner of litigation and the broader context of ECT’s litigation practices. Addressing the True Grit decision, the Federal Circuit noted that the California district court provided a detailed account of the nuisance value rent-seeking practices of ECT (and other affiliated shell companies), but ultimately found that the court failed to conduct an adequate inquiry into ECT’s litigation conduct.

The Federal Circuit thus vacated the attorney’s fee award and remanded the case, directing the district court to consider both ECT’s manner of litigation and the objective unreasonableness of its claims.

Practice note: While the California District Court’s decision is not binding in the Florida court, the Federal Circuit made clear that a court cannot ignore developments in other jurisdictions in connection with § 285 fee determinations.




Munchkin Is Luv-n This Win

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 [...]

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Fee Shifting Under § 285 Does Not Apply to Conduct Solely Arising in IPR

Considering for the first time whether fee shifting of § 285 applies to exceptional conduct arising solely from an inter partes review (IPR) proceeding, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that § 285 does not authorize an award of fees based on conduct at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) during the course of an IPR proceeding. Amneal Pharma. LLC v. Almirall, LLC, Case No. 2020-1106 (Fed. Cir. June 4, 2020) (Dyk, J.).

Almirall owns certain Orange Book-listed patent rights to medication used to treat acne. Its competitor, Amneal, planned to market a generic version of the acne medication. Before seeking approval to do so, Amneal filed an IPR petition challenging the validity of certain claims of Almirall’s patents. Amneal then filed an Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA), identifying Almirall’s patents in the Paragraph IV certification. Almirall subsequently filed a district court action against Amneal for infringement. Shortly after the district court action was filed, the parties entered into settlement negotiations, during which Almirall offered Amneal a covenant-not-to-sue, provided that Almirall drop its pending IPR. The parties were unable to reach agreement at that time, and the IPR culminated in the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB)’s final written decision, finding the challenged claims not unpatentable. Amneal appealed the PTAB’s final determination. Shortly after the appeal was filed, the parties reached an agreement and jointly moved to dismiss the appeal. Almirall also moved for fees under § 285 for Amneal’s allegedly unreasonable conduct in maintaining its IPR, even after Amneal offered it a covenant-not-to-sue.

Comparing IPRs to interference proceedings, the Federal Circuit looked to a decision of its predecessor, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, which determined that § 285 did not extend to appeals of administrative proceedings at the USPTO, and IPRs were no different. Stopping short of proclaiming a categorical rule that § 285 applies only to conduct in district court proceedings, the Court explained that at most, § 285 speaks to awarding fees that were incurred during, in close relation to, or as a direct result of district court proceedings. In the circumstance here, where the alleged exceptional conduct was solely before the USPTO and an appeal of the USPTO decision—not a district court’s decision—an award under § 285 was not appropriate. In addition, the Court noted that the USPTO has its own procedures for sanctioning exceptional conduct under 37 C.F.R. § 42.12, where the PTAB may award “compensatory expenses, including attorney’s fees,” among other sanctions.




Prayer for Declaratory Relief Invokes Copyright Act and Available Attorneys’ Fees

Vacating the district court’s order denying a defendant’s recovery of attorneys’ fees under the Copyright Act, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that, even when asserted as a claim for declaratory relief, any action that turns on the existence and potential infringement of a valid copyright invokes the Copyright Act and therefore gives the district court discretion to award reasonable attorneys’ fees pursuant to § 505 of the Copyright Act. Doc’s Dream, LLC v. Dolores Press, Inc. and Melissa Scott, Case No. 18-56073 (9th Cir. May 6, 2020) (Callahan, J.).

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Bad Conduct During Litigation Means Attorneys’ Fees Against the Government, Regardless of Damage Amount

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the US Court of Federal Claims attorneys’ fees award for patent infringement by the United States solely based on its actions during litigation. Hitkansut LLC, Acceledyne Technologies, LTD, LLC v. United States, Case No. 19-1884 (Fed. Cir. May 1, 2020) (Prost, CJ).

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