Exceptional Case
Subscribe to Exceptional Case's Posts

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 Cir. Mar. 22, 2021) (non-precedential) (per curiam).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.




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 [...]

Continue Reading




BLOG EDITORS

STAY CONNECTED

TOPICS

ARCHIVES