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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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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.




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