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Blame the Lawyer: In Exceptional Case, Plaintiff’s Attorney Liable for Court and Appellate Fees

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed an award of attorneys’ fees against a plaintiff and his counsel, and further granted defendants’ motion for appellate attorneys’ fees and double costs where plaintiff had brought baseless claims, engaged in litigation misconduct and brought a frivolous appeal. Pirri v. Cheek, Case No. 20-1959 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 22, 2021) (non-precedential) (per curiam).

When Plaintiff saw Defendant present her patented idea for “online dating in reverse” on the television show “Shark Tank,” he knew that she had gotten the idea from his therapist, Richards, who had betrayed his confidence. Through his counsel, Plaintiff sued Richards as well as Defendant, her company and her co-inventors (whom he never served) (collectively, Cheek) for joint inventorship of the patent (Richards was not a named inventor), and several state law claims, including breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, conversion and unjust enrichment. At the initial pretrial conference, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed some of the state law claims and the joint inventorship claim against Richards. The district court dismissed the remaining state law claims as “obviously time-barred,” leaving only the joint inventorship claim against Cheek. Defendant moved for Rule 11 sanctions, which the district court denied.

Plaintiff sought leave to amend the complaint to add several new defendants and claims, but the district court denied the motion as futile. Notwithstanding the dismissal of Richards from the suit, Plaintiff subpoenaed Richards’s employment records, but withdrew the subpoena when Richards moved to quash. Plaintiff requested a discovery extension, which the Court denied as relating to irrelevant material. Just before the close of discovery, Plaintiff moved for voluntary dismissal with prejudice. Defendant opposed the dismissal motion in order to seek fees, and the district court denied the motion. Six days later, Plaintiff renewed the motion for dismissal, arguing that the previous denial of Rule 11 sanctions collaterally estopped a fees award. Again, Defendant opposed, and the Court denied the motion.

Two months later, the district court held a pre-summary-judgment conference, before which it ordered Plaintiff to file a letter indicating whether and why he would oppose summary judgment. After declining on several occasions to concede summary judgment or identify any evidence supporting his claims, Plaintiff finally consented to summary judgment for Defendants, which the district court granted.

The district court later granted Defendant’s motion for fees, finding that the case was exceptional. Because Plaintiffs’ counsel had prepared, signed and filed all the relevant submissions, the district court held counsel jointly and severally liable for the award.

Plaintiff appealed, and Defendant moved for appellate fees and double costs.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the fee award, finding no abuse of discretion, and further found that the appeal was frivolous as argued in part because Plaintiff’s counsel distorted the factual and legal bases for the fees award and “leveraged inapposite legal doctrines to make arguments that can only be described as baffling.” The Court concluded that “[w]hen an appeal is frivolous as argued, we may hold a party’s counsel jointly and severally liable.”




The Steep Price of Not Being Exceptional

Addressing the appropriate standard for determining what makes a trademark case sufficiently exceptional to warrant an award of attorney fees, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the denial of a renewed motion for attorneys’ fees under the Octane Fitness standard. LHO Chicago River, LLC v. Rosemoor Suites, LLC, Case No. 20-2506 (7th Cir. Feb.19, 2021 (Kanne, J.)

Some say that imitation is the highest form of flattery—but not in the world of trademarks. And certainly not according to LHO Chicago River. In 2014, LHO rebranded one of its Chicago hotels as “Hotel Chicago.” Two years later, Rosemoor did the same to its hotel on the west side of Chicago. LHO sued Rosemoor for trademark infringement (among other claims). Ultimately, LHO dropped the lawsuit after an unsuccessful motion for preliminary injunction. Rosemoor’s quest for attorneys’ fees, however, lived on.

Rosemoor’s initial request for attorneys’ fees amounted to $500,000. According to Rosemoor, the case was exceptional as defined by the Lanham Act and therefore justified reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees. Rosemoor’s first request was denied. Rosemoor appealed, arguing that the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees was based on an incorrect standard as to what makes a trademark case exceptional. The renewed request for attorneys’ fees totaled $630,000. Once again Rosemoor was left to cover its own fees, and once again it appealed, but to no avail.

In denying Rosemoor’s initial request for attorneys’ fees, the district court used the “abuse-of-process” standard as explained in Burford v. Accounting Practice Sales. According to Rosemoor, the district court should have used the standard articulated in Octane Fitness v. ICON Health & Fitness to determine whether the case was exceptional. The Seventh Circuit agreed with Rosemoor regarding the appropriate standard, but did not agree that the case was exceptional.

Under Octane, “a case can be ‘exceptional’ if the court determines, under the totality of the circumstances, that it ‘stands out from others with respect to [1] the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (considering both the governing law and the facts of the case) or [2] the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.'” Relevant considerations for a party’s litigating position “include ‘frivolousness’ and ‘objective unreasonableness.'”

The Seventh Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the case was not exceptional and did not warrant fee shifting. The Court explained that LHO’s preliminary injunction pleading was not “frivolous or unreasonable,” LHO provided evidence of actual customer confusion, the disputed mark was “not plainly unworthy of protection,” LHO provided evidence of the mark’s secondary meaning, and Rosemoor failed to show that LHO engaged in exceptional litigation misconduct.

Practice Note: When the post-litigation dust settles, practitioners should help their clients evaluate whether their case truly is exceptional within the meaning of the Lanham Act and would thus warrant an award of attorneys’ fees. Appealing a disappointing judgment without strong “exceptional” grounds may end up costing more than it is worth.




More Than a Feeling: No Fees for Frivolous Claim Where “Perceived Wrongs Were Deeply Felt”

Addressing the appropriateness of the district court’s decision to deny attorneys’ fees relating to a copyright claim it labeled “frivolous,” the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial, despite the strong presumption in favor of awarding fees. Timothy B. O’Brien LLC v. Knott, Case No. 19-2138 (7th Cir. June 17, 2020) (Flaum, J).
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Supreme Court: PTO Not Entitled to Attorney’s Fees in District Court Appeals

PATENTS / PTO ATTORNEY’S FEES

In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is not entitled to recover its attorney’s fees in an appeal to a district court from an adverse decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) under 35 USC § 145. Peter v. NantKwest, Inc., Case No. 18-801 (Supr. Ct. Dec. 11, 2019) (Sotomayor, Justice).

The question posed in this case was:

[W]hether such “expenses” [in § 145 proceedings] include the salaries of attorney and paralegal employees of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).

The answer was a resounding “no.”

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Seventh Circuit Formally Adopts Octane Fitness Standard for Trademark Cases

TRADEMARKS / ATTORNEY’S FEE AWARD

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit officially joined its sister circuits in holding that the Supreme Court standard for awarding attorney’s fees in patent cases, set forth in Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., was equally applicable to attorney’s fees claims under the Lanham Act. In doing so, the Seventh Circuit overruled its prior holding that a plaintiff’s claims were only “exceptional” under the Lanham Act if they constituted an abuse of process. LHO Chicago River, LLC v. Perillo, Case. No. 19-1848 (7th Cir. Nov. 8, 2019) (Manion, J).

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