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Functionality Dooms Alleged Trade Dress Protection

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment of noninfringement in a trade dress suit, finding that the trade dress was functional and the attorneys’ fee award—as diminished by the district court—was appropriate. Pocket Plus, LLC v. Pike Brands, LLC, Case No. 21-3414 (8th Cir. Nov. 15, 2022) (Gruender, Melloy, Erickson, JJ.)

Since 2009, Pocket Plus has sold vertically oriented pouches that attach to waistbands or belts to carry water bottles, cell phones and other small objects. Pike Brands, d/b/a Running Buddy, began selling similar pouches in 2012 and introduced a vertical version in 2015. In 2021, Pocket Plus sent cease and desist letters to Running Buddy, then sued for trade dress infringement under Iowa common law and the Lanham Act. Running Buddy moved for summary judgment, arguing that Pocket Plus’s trade dress was unprotectable. Running Buddy also threatened Rule 11 sanctions because of the weakness of the case. After winning summary judgment, Running Buddy moved to recover attorneys’ fees, which the district court partially granted. Both parties appealed, with Pocket Plus challenging the summary judgment grant and both parties challenging the amount of the attorneys’ fee award.

The Eighth Circuit began by noting that the issue of validity was complicated by Pocket Plus’s shifting explanation of what its trade dress was, explaining that its “definition evolved throughout the litigation,” becoming increasingly detailed. Eventually, the Court reasoned that regardless of which definition prevailed, the result was the same.

Addressing the noninfringement finding, the Eighth Circuit recited the relevant legal principles, explaining that to prove infringement, a plaintiff must show that its trade dress is nonfunctional and distinctive and that a lack of protection may confuse customers. The Court explained that it must consider trade dress in its entirety—not as individual elements—and determine whether features are protectable “arbitrary embellishment” or simply essential to product use. In this case, Pocket Plus never registered its trade dress so it did not benefit from a presumption of nonfunctionality. Pocket Plus argued that its vertical orientation and over-the-hip design were nonfunctional elements since competitors made pouches differently and that packaging illustrations likewise made the trade dress nonfunctional. The Court was not persuaded, finding that each feature the plaintiff pointed to was designed to “affect [the pouch’s] suitability for carrying objects,” making each feature essential to purpose and therefore functional. Because the Court found functionality, it affirmed noninfringement without addressing the other requirements.

The Eighth Circuit next considered the attorneys’ fees. Under the Lanham Act, a court may, in its discretion, grant attorneys’ fees to the winning party but only in “exceptional cases” after “considering the totality of the circumstances.” Pocket Plus argued that this case was not “exceptional” while Running Buddy argued that the district court abused its discretion in awarding only a portion of the attorneys’ fees.

The Eighth Circuit addressed both exceptionality and the amount awarded, in turn. To be “exceptional,” a case must be objectively unreasonable, motivated by ill will or frivolous. The Court noted Pocket Plus’s weak [...]

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A Healthy Dose of Seeds: Unique Combination Trade Secrets Entitled to Protection

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a jury verdict finding a dietary supplement company liable for misappropriating another company’s research and development (R&D) related to broccoli-seed extract. Caudill Seed & Warehouse Co., Inc. v. Jarrow Formulas, Inc., Case No. 21-5354 (6th Cir. Nov. 10, 2022) (per curiam) (Moore, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). The decision addressed several issues relating to so-called “combination” trade secrets.

Caudill manufactures and sells various nutritional supplements, including a supplement made using broccoli-seed extract. Caudill sued Jarrow Formulas for trade secret misappropriation after its Director of Research Ken Ashurst left Caudill and joined Jarrow. Ashurst had led Caudill’s R&D efforts for nine years, including extensively researching the development of broccoli-seed derivatives and assembling a large body of research related to broccoli seeds. After he joined Jarrow, Ashurst delivered a curated collection of broccoli product research to Jarrow and helped it bring its own competing broccoli-seed extract supplement to the market in just four months.

The case proceeded to trial. The jury found that Caudill had a protectable trade secret; Jarrow misappropriated said trade secret; and Caudill was entitled to more than $2 million in actual losses, more than $400,000 in unjust enrichment damages, and exemplary damages. Jarrow moved for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. After the district court denied the motions, Jarrow appealed.

Jarrow argued that Caudill improperly asserted a “kitchen-sink theory” of trade secrets by broadly defining all its research activities as a single trade secret. Jarrow also argued that Caudill failed to show that it had acquired the alleged trade secret. Finally, Jarrow challenged the damages awards on legal grounds. The Sixth Circuit rejected each of Jarrow’s arguments on appeal.

The Sixth Circuit first found that Caudill properly defined its alleged trade secret as its “research and development on supplements, broccoli, and chemical compounds.” The Court treated Caudill’s alleged trade secret as a “combination” trade secret (i.e., a collection of elements that individually are generally known but are unique in combination.) The Court concluded that Caudill demonstrated it had assembled a unique collection of processes and information relating to its R&D process, and therefore, Caudill properly defined its entire R&D process as a trade secret. The Court rejected Jarrow’s argument that Caudill’s alleged trade secret mostly consisted of public domain materials on the basis that the materials were unique in combination.

The Sixth Circuit also rejected Jarrow’s argument that Caudill failed to show that Jarrow acquired and used the entire combination trade secret. The Court noted differing authority on whether a plaintiff alleging a combination trade secret must show acquisition and use of the entire combination but concluded that trade secret law does not require proving acquisition of “each atom” of the combination trade secret. The Court reasoned that when a trade secret consists of a “mass of public information” that has been collected, the defendant will always be able to identify some minute detail of the combination that it did [...]

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When Are Compulsory Copyright Licenses Compulsory?

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit partially affirmed a district court’s summary judgment order holding that audiovisual recordings of live concerts do not fall within the scope of the Copyright Act’s compulsory license provision while purchasers of audio-only recordings obtain a compulsory license in the copyright of the work fixed by their predecessors/sellers. ABKCO Music, Inc. et al. v. Sagan et al., Case No. 20-3816 (2d Cir. Oct. 6, 2022) (Jacobs, Wesley, Menashi, JJ.)

In 2002, William Sagan purchased, through Norton, a collection of audio and audiovisual live concert recordings from Bill Graham Archives. All three parties are named defendants in this case. The agreement conveyed all intellectual property that the Archives held (from a transaction with Sagan) and included a disclaimer stating that record company and artist approval was required to exploit the recordings. The defendants’ subsequent purchases of other recordings contained similar limited assurance language regarding intellectual property rights. In 2006, the defendants made the entire collection publicly available online for a streaming and downloading fee. A year later, the defendants began using a third-party licensing agent to obtain compulsory licenses under 17 USC § 115 and negotiated licenses from plaintiff music publishers in the audio and audiovisual live concert recordings.

Section 115 of the Copyright Act requires persons seeking to make and distribute phonorecords of a previously published musical work to obtain a compulsory license by providing notice to the copyright owner before distribution and paying government-prescribed royalties. (§ 115(a)(1), (b), (c).) The Copyright Act defines phonorecords as “[m]aterial objects in which sounds, other than those accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work, are fixed.” (§ 101.) Section 115’s substantive requirements for duplications of audio/sound recordings fixed by another include requirements that the sound be fixed lawfully, and that duplication be authorized by the copyright owner. (§ 115(a)(1).)

In 2015, the music publishers sued defendants for copyright infringement of 197 musical works posted online without valid compulsory licenses. The music publishers alleged that the defendants did not obtain compulsory licenses for audiovisual works as required by § 115 and that the defendants failed to comply with § 115 substantive compulsory licensing requirements for audio-only works. Defendants argued implied license and equitable estoppel as affirmative defenses. The publishers sought damages and a permanent injunction pursuant to the Copyright Act.

The district court, on summary judgment, ruled that the defendants had no valid license authorizing the reproduction and distribution of the musical works in either audio or audiovisual format, that the defendants had neither an implied license nor any basis for estoppel, and that Sagan (a principal in several of the defendant streaming services) was liable for direct infringement. The district court denied the publishers’ request for an injunction but granted the publishers an award of attorneys’ fees. The defendants appealed from the summary judgment order and the order granting fees and costs. The plaintiffs cross-appealed denial of an injunction.

The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that the defendants infringed each musical work [...]

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Play It Again and Again (Sam): Meanwhile No Injunction, No Fees

In its third opportunity to review the district court’s decision in this trade secret case involving flooring, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again reversed, this time vacating a permanent injunction and an award of attorneys’ fees. The Eleventh Circuit noted that the district court failed to make the findings required to support an injunction and abused its discretion in awarding full fees notwithstanding prior reversal of relief awarded. AcryliCon USA, LLC v. Silikal GmbH, Case No. 21-12853 (11th Cir. Aug. 29, 2022) (Newsom, Marcus, JJ.; Middlebrooks, Distr. J.)

In an earlier appeal in this case, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a ruling on trade secret misappropriation rendered by the district court in favor of AcryliCon USA (AC-USA) and vacated the damages award. An aspect of the Court’s ruling was that the “permanent” injunction entered by the district court was only preliminary in nature (not permanent) and was, as a matter of law, dissolved because the district court did not include it in the original final judgment. On remand, the district court was ordered to determine the appropriate amount of attorneys’ fees the prevailing party should receive. However, the district court just entered the same amount of attorneys’ fees it had originally awarded and again entered a “permanent” injunction barring the use of the trade secret at issue, concluding that it was obliged to do so by the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in the first appeal.

In the second appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that AC-USA failed, as a matter of law, to prove its misappropriation claim and reversed the judgment entered in favor of AC-USA on that count. The Court also reversed the district court’s judgment that its $1.5 million damages award could be sustained on the basis of the contract claim once the misappropriation claim was reversed. The Court ruled that, as a matter of law, since AC-USA had failed to prove actual damages on its consequential damages theory, it could only recover nominal damages based on its breach of contract claim. Finally, the Court concluded that AC-USA was entitled to attorneys’ fees only on its breach of contract claim because, under Georgia law, even a nominal damages award would still materially alter the legal relationship between the parties.

In the second remand, the district court awarded essentially the same amount of attorneys’ fees ($1.3 million) to AC-USA but acknowledged that, since Silikal prevailed in vacating the award of compensatory and punitive damages, Silikal “was the prevailing party on the appeal under the terms of the [agreement]” and was entitled to almost $500,000 in attorneys’ fees for its successful appeal. The district court also awarded $100 in nominal damages to AC-USA for its successful appeal on the breach of contract claim. The district court then entered a permanent injunction enjoining Silikal “from disclosing or using in any way, directly or indirectly, the [ . . . resin . . . ] to anyone other than Plaintiff.”

Both parties appealed. AC-USA appealed the award of [...]

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Too Little Too Late: No Tenable Misappropriation Claim Based on 11-Year-Old Prototype

In a dispute between an employer and a former employee, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment against an employer asserting trade secret misappropriation and breach of implied-in-fact contract claims relating to an 11-year-old prototype developed by a former employee. The Court also affirmed the district court’s finding of litigation misconduct by the former employer but vacated the lower court’s award of attorneys’ fees, remanding the case for a more detailed justification for the considerable award. REXA, Inc. v. Chester, Case Nos. 20-2953; -3213; -2033 (7th Cir. July 28, 2022) (Wood, Hamilton, Brennan, JJ.)

Mark Chester is a former employee of Koso America, a manufacturer of hydraulic actuators. Chester participated in a 2002 project at Koso that sought to develop a new flow matching valve for Koso’s actuators. While the project team failed to design a new flow matching valve, they did manage to develop an experimental prototype of an actuator with solenoid valves. Koso abandoned the new design because of the improbability of commercial success, and the prototype was disassembled. Chester—who had never signed a confidentiality or employment agreement with Koso—resigned from Koso in 2003 and later joined MEA Inc. in 2012. In 2013, 11 years after developing the Koso prototype, Chester helped MEA design a new actuator with solenoid valves and an improved motor. MEA filed a patent application in 2017 claiming the actuator, and the US Patent & Trademark Office issued a notice of allowance in 2018 based on the improved motor limitations.

REXA, a successor company to Koso, sued Chester and MEA for misappropriation under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA) and for breach of an implied-in-fact contract. REXA alleged that MEA and Chester misappropriated the 2002 designs by filing the 2017 patent application and by incorporating the 2002 designs into MEA’s Hawk brand actuator, and that Chester breached an implied-in-fact obligation to assign any patent rights associated with the 2017 application to REXA. Chester and MEA accused REXA of improper conduct during discovery after REXA appended a confidentiality agreement that Chester had never received to Chester’s 2002 bonus letter and used the manipulated document during Chester’s deposition. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The district court ruled for Chester and MEA and awarded them almost $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees for REXA’s litigation misconduct. REXA appealed.

Misappropriation of Trade Secrets

The Seventh Circuit first considered the trade secret misappropriation claim, specifically whether REXA had identified a trade secret with enough specificity. The ITSA requires that a plaintiff “present a specific element, or combination of elements, that is unknown to the trade and was allegedly misappropriated.” Applying this standard, the Court found that REXA had not identified any protectable trade secrets because it had broadly asserted that the “2002 designs” qualified as trade secrets without explicitly identifying an element that was not well known in the industry.

The Seventh Circuit further concluded that even if REXA had identified a specific and protectable trade secret, [...]

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Holdover Trademark Licensee Status Can’t Do Heavy Lifting on “Exceptionality”

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit addressed issues of enhanced remedies in a dispute regarding the sale of weightlifting equipment beyond the expiration of a licensing agreement between the involved parties. Pointing to the different standard required to prove a violation and damages, the Court ultimately reduced a trademark infringement award to about a quarter of the amount initially awarded. Max Rack, Inc. v. Core Health & Fitness, LLC, et al., Case No. 20-3598 (6th Cir. July 14, 2022) (Cole, Rogers, Murphy, JJ.)

In 2006, Max Rack exclusively licensed its patents and trademarks relating to weightlifting racks to Star Trac Strength. Core Health subsequently acquired Star Trac and its licensing agreements. The final patent covering the Max Rack equipment expired on November 21, 2015, thereby terminating the licensing agreements between Max Rack and Core Health. The agreements permitted Core Health to sell any remaining Max Rack units for six months following expiration of the license.

Following expiration of the licensing agreements, Max Rack learned that Core Health failed to update web pages, marketing materials and owner’s manuals to reflect the termination of Core Health’s affiliation with Max Rack. Core Health’s failure to scrub references to “Max Rack” extended to third-party sellers’ websites advertising Core Health’s competing “Freedom Rack” product using the Max Rack name. Core Health also sold 271 more units manufactured as Max Racks after the license expired, 238 of which were sold during the six-month grace period. Of the remaining 33 units, 24 were sold after the six-month window had closed, and nine were alleged to have had their labels changed from Max Rack to Core Health’s Freedom Rack. Core Health further failed to pay Max Rack royalties for any of the 271 sales made after the license expired.

Max Rack brought two federal claims under 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114(1)(a) and 1125(a)(1)(A), alleging trademark infringement and unfair competition. Max Rack also brought three claims under Ohio’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act, alleging that Core Health passed off the Max Rack as its own machine and caused a likelihood of confusion regarding the source of the machine and regarding Core Health’s affiliation with the Max Rack trademark. The jury awarded Max Rack $1 million in damages and $250,000 in Core Health’s profits. Ruling on post-trial motions, the district court overturned the $1 million damages award for lack of evidence of any consumer confusion but enhanced the $250,000 award to $500,000 and further awarded Max Rack attorneys’ fees. Both parties appealed.

The Sixth Circuit sidestepped the fact-laden analysis to determine whether Core Health’s actions created a likelihood of consumer confusion, reasoning that the dispute related to the “holdover licensee.” Citing its own precedent and precedent from the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Circuits, the Court applied a much more objective standard, finding that unauthorized use of a licensed trademark by a licensee after the license has expired is by itself sufficient to establish a likelihood of confusion in the mind of the consumer.

Although the Sixth Circuit used [...]

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Fee Award Appropriate for Trying to Refresh and Replay Case

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld an attorneys’ fees award after the patent owner brought successive patent infringement suits attempting “to refile to wipe the slate clean” after the first court was poised to issue an adverse merits ruling. Realtime Adaptive Streaming, LLC v. Netflix, Inc., Netflix Streaming Services, Inc., Case Nos. 21-1484; -1485; -1518; -1519 (Fed. Cir. July 27, 2022) (Newman, Chen, JJ.) (Reyna, J., concurring-in-part, dissenting-in-part).

Realtime brought three patent infringement suits against Netflix alleging infringement of six different patents and the same accused products. Realtime first sued in Delaware, and Netflix moved to transfer to California for convenience (which Realtime vehemently opposed as an unfair burden) and to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that four of the six patents were ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 for being directed to an ineligible abstract idea. After briefing, the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation finding the four patents ineligible under § 101. The court also denied the motion to transfer. Meanwhile, Netflix filed corresponding petitions for inter partes review (IPR) of the asserted patents, all of which were instituted by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board. Realtime moved to amend its complaint—for support pointing to five related patents that were subsequently found invalid under § 101 by the same judge—then voluntarily dismissed the Delaware action before the district court judge could rule on the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation.

The very next day, Realtime filed two new suits against Netflix in California asserting the same six patents, divvying up the four § 101-challenged patents as separate from the other two. Netflix moved to transfer both cases back to Delaware and moved for attorneys’ fees. Realtime opposed, this time arguing that California was more convenient than Delaware. However, before the California court could rule on the motion to dismiss, Realtime again voluntarily dismissed the California actions without prejudice.

Netflix renewed its motion for attorneys’ fees for the California actions, IPRs and related Delaware action. The district court awarded attorneys’ fees for the California actions under § 285 and, in the alternative, the court’s equitable powers. The district court declined to award attorneys’ fees for the related actions, IPRs or costs under Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(d). Realtime appealed the fee award, and Netflix cross-appealed the denial of fees for related proceedings.

The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion in awarding fees pursuant to equitable powers or in denying fees for related proceedings. Because the district court’s “inherent power to impose sanctions in the form of attorneys’ fees is not a substantive patent question,” the Federal Circuit considered the issue under the Ninth Circuit’s framework that “the court must find that the sanctioned behavior ‘constituted or was tantamount to bad faith.’” As for fees under § 285, “a district court ‘may award’ attorneys’ fees to ‘the prevailing party’ in ‘exceptional cases’”—an analysis unique to patent law and therefore governed by Federal Circuit precedent.

In affirming the award of fees, the [...]

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No Winners Here: A Case Can Have No Prevailing Party

In a matter of first impression, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that there may be no prevailing party for purposes of assessing costs and attorneys’ fees under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d). Royal Palm Properties, LLC v. Pink Palm Properties, LLC, Case No. 21-10872 (11th Cir. July 7, 2022) (Wilson, Rosenbaum, Covington, JJ.)

Royal Palm Properties sued Pink Palm Properties for trademark infringement. Pink Palm countersued, seeking cancellation of the trademark and a declaratory judgment of noninfringement. Following a three-day trial, the jury found that Pink Palm did not infringe the trademark and that the trademark was not invalid on the grounds asserted by Pink Palm. Pink Palm moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL), asking the court to overrule the jury’s determination that the trademark was valid. The district granted Pink Palm’s motion and invalidated the trademark. Pink Palm subsequently moved for costs, which the district court granted because Pink Palm was the prevailing party in light of the order granting JMOL. Royal Palm appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of JMOL, reinstating the jury’s verdict and the trademark’s validity. In light of this reversal, the district court, on remand, ruled that Pink Palm was no longer the prevailing party for purposes of costs and was not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act’s exception case doctrine. Pink Palm appealed.

Before addressing whether the district court erred by failing to name Pink Palm as the prevailing party, the Eleventh Circuit addressed the threshold question of whether courts are required to name a prevailing party in every case. The Court noted that while the Supreme Court of the United States has issued multiple opinions providing guidance on how to determine the prevailing party, it has not yet addressed whether there must be a prevailing party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54.

Not finding any precedent in its own circuit, the Eleventh Circuit first looked to Federal Circuit precedent, which has stated that a district court must declare a prevailing party and that “punting is not an option.” The Court next explored holdings by the Eighth, Fifth and Second Circuits. Those courts have found that where the parties each brought unsuccessful claims and outcome did not materially alter the legal relationship between the parties, there is no prevailing party.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Eighth, Fifth and Second Circuit precedent and concluded that the text of Rule 54(d) does not allow for multiple prevailing parties, and there is not always a prevailing party in every case. A district court in the Eleventh Circuit may find (at most) one prevailing party, but it is not required to do so in every case. The Court found that both Royal Palm and Pink Palm had rebuffed the other’s claim regarding the trademark, leading to no material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties, and thus there was no prevailing party.




Self-Dealing Lawyer Held Jointly and Severally Liable in Trade Secret Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a judgment holding a lawyer jointly and severally liable for trade secret misappropriation and fraudulent transfer and enjoining any further use of the trade secrets until a money judgment against the lawyer-purchased client business was satisfied. Thomas v. Hughes, Case No. 20-50671 (5th Cir. Mar. 3, 2022) (Wilson, J.)

James Pearcy founded Performance Products, Inc., (PPI) to develop and sell probiotics for livestock. In 2006, Pearcy sold PPI to his lawyer, Lou Ann Hughes. Hughes paid cash for PPI’s stock and agreed that PPI would pay Pearcy a 14% licensing royalty for use of his proprietary formulations, up to $1.35 million over five years, at the end of which PPI would have the option to purchase Pearcy’s formulations for $100,000. When PPI did not fully pay the royalties, Pearcy brought a Texas state court action against Hughes and PPI for breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of fiduciary duty. The jury found for Pearcy, and the Texas court entered judgment against PPI in the amount of $1 million. Hughes and PPI appealed the Texas judgment and posted a supersedeas bond, but the appeal was unsuccessful. Pearcy received the supersedeas bond, but PPI never paid the balance of the judgment. Pearcy sought post-judgment discovery and set a hearing on a motion to compel. The day before the hearing, PPI filed for bankruptcy.

Earlier, in 2006, Hughes had formed a second entity called Performance Products International, LLC. At the time of the Texas judgment, the LLC had no assets. During pendency of the Texas appeal, Hughes changed the second entity’s name to Performance Probiotics, LLC, and obtained a license to sell and distribute commercial livestock feed. In January 2012, Hughes ceased selling products through PPI and began selling them through the LLC. Hughes also formed a third entity called Advance Probiotics International, LLC (API).

Shortly after PPI declared bankruptcy, Pearcy’s widow (also Pearcy) and PPI’s bankruptcy trustee (Thomas) sued Hughes, Performance Probiotics and API in federal court for misappropriation of trade secrets and fraudulent transfer of PPI’s assets in violation of the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (TUFTA). The plaintiffs sought to pierce the corporate veil of both Performance Probiotics and API, alleging that Hughes had used them to commit fraud. Thomas further alleged that Hughes had breached her fiduciary duty to PPI. At trial, the jury found for Pearcy and Thomas, awarding about $1.4 million plus interest in actual damages, which was derived from the amount then due under the Texas judgment. The jury further awarded $1.2 million in exemplary damages., The district court entered final judgment, further ordering Hughes to disgorge $860,000 in compensation from Performance Probiotics. The district court enjoined Hughes and Performance Probiotics from using Pearcy’s trade secrets until the judgment was fully satisfied and held Hughes and Performance Probiotics jointly and severally liable for “all relief granted” and “all amounts due” under the Texas judgment. The district court retained jurisdiction over API in case [...]

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This Case Is Both Hot and Exceptional—Attorneys’ Fees and Inequitable Conduct

In a second visit to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, after the Court affirmed a finding of unenforceability due to inequitable conduct based on “bad faith” non-disclosure of statutory bar prior sales on the first visit, the Court affirmed a remand award of attorneys’ fees based on a finding of exceptionality under 35 U.S.C. § 285. Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, LLC, Case No. 20-2038 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 14, 2021) (Prost, J.)

In its earlier decision, the Federal Circuit remanded the case after reversing a district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees, finding that while the district court correctly found that Heat On-The Fly (HOTF) committed inequitable conduct in failing to disclose to the US Patent & Trademark Office multiple instances of prior use of the claimed method, the district court failed to articulate a basis for denying attorneys’ fees other than that HOTF articulated substantial arguments (experimental use) against the finding of inequitable conduct.

On remand, the district court found the case “exceptional” because it “stands out from others within the meaning of § 285 considering recent case law, the nature and extent of HOTF’s inequitable conduct, and the jury’s findings of bad faith.” HOTF appealed.

HOTF contended that the district court abused its discretion by relying on the jury’s bad-faith finding because that finding “had nothing to do with the strength or weakness of HOTF’s litigation positions.” Citing the 2014 Supreme Court decision in Octane Fitness, the Federal Circuit rebuffed that argument, explaining that “HOTF made representations in bad faith that it held a valid patent [which] was within the district court’s ‘equitable discretion’ to consider as part of the totality of the circumstances of HOTF’s infringement case.”

HOTF also argued that the district court erroneously relied on the jury verdict in finding exceptionality because, since the jury found that HOTF did not commit the tort of deceit, it could not have engaged in inequitable conduct. The Federal Circuit rebuffed this argument as well, noting that inequitable conduct was tried to the district court—not the jury—resulting in a judgment of unenforceability that the Court affirmed in the prior appeal and that the jury’s finding of no state-law “deceit” had no bearing on inequitable conduct.

The Federal Circuit further explained that HOTF’s assertion that under the Court’s 2020 decision in Electronic Communication Technologies v. ShoppersChoice.com, the district court was not required to affirmatively weigh whether HOTF’s purported “lack of litigation misconduct” was incorrect. Rather, “the manner in which [patentee] litigated the case or its broader litigation conduct” is merely “a relevant consideration.” Under Octane, the test for whether a case is “exceptional” under § 285 is whether it is “one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position . . . or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.”

Finally, the Federal Circuit noted that the district court correctly explained that “[a] finding of inequitable conduct [...]

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