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Power Play: District Court Properly Transferred Bad Faith Anticipatory Suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denied a petition for mandamus relief from an order transferring a first-filed declaratory judgment action from the District of New Jersey to the Western District of Texas, finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in departing from the first-to-file rule. In re Amperex Tech. Ltd., Case No. 22-105 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 14, 2022) (Lourie, Prost, Taranto, JJ.) (per curiam).

Maxell, Ltd. owns patents related to lithium-ion battery technology. To facilitate licensing discussions regarding Maxell’s patents, Maxell and Amperex entered into a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) stipulating that neither party would sue the other for one year. At the end of the one-year period, Amperex proposed extending the NDA because the parties had not reached an agreement. Maxell replied that Amperex’s products infringed Maxell’s patents and cautioned that if “Maxell and Amperex are not able to enter into a licensing agreement by Friday, April 9, 2020, Maxell will be left with no choice but to pursue litigation.”

After some discussion, Maxell’s counsel expressed interest in having another meeting and requested Amperex’s presentation materials in advance. Amperex’s counsel replied, “I will be in touch as soon as I can get the materials,” just two hours before filing a 90-page complaint seeking a declaratory judgment of noninfringement in the US District Court for the District of New Jersey. Two days later, Maxell filed an infringement action in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas. Maxell moved the New Jersey court to decline jurisdiction over the declaratory judgment action or transfer the action to the Western District of Texas. Amperex subsequently moved to enjoin Maxell’s action, and Maxell filed a motion to dismiss or transfer Amperex’s complaint, arguing that the action was brought in bad faith and in anticipation of Maxell’s actions.

Departing from the first-to-file rule, the district court granted Maxell’s transfer request. The district court acknowledged that a “first-filed action is preferred . . . unless considerations of judicial and litigant economy, and the just and effective disposition of disputes, require otherwise.” The district court then addressed several factors, including whether Amperex’s suit was anticipatory and the relative convenience of the forums. The district court concluded that Amperex’s suit was anticipatory because “when one party gives a deadline by which a dispute must be resolved non-judicially and the other party quickly files a declaratory action, the declaratory action is anticipatory.” Moreover, while neither bad faith nor ongoing negotiations are required for a suit to be anticipatory, bad faith actions that “disrupt the non-judicial settlement of disputes or . . . string the defendant along so that the plaintiff can win the race to the courthouse . . . weigh strongly in favor of transfer or dismissal.” Thus, the district court found that Maxell’s clear ultimatum coupled with Amperex’s “feigned cooperation” weighed heavily in Maxell’s favor.

The district court next noted that neither district was more convenient for the parties or witnesses, whereas Amperex’s failure to properly serve Maxell [...]

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First-to-File Rule Requires That Action Could Have Been Brought in Transferee Forum

After issuing a rare grant of a mandamus petition directing a district court to stay proceedings until ruling on a pending motion to transfer, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denied a subsequent mandamus petition to compel transfer after that district court denied the transfer. In re SK hynix Inc., Case No. 21-114 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 25, 2021) (Taranto, J.) (non-precedential). The Federal Circuit found that the doctrine of forum non conveniens and the first-to-file rule did not establish a basis for transfer because the action could not have initially been brought in the transferee forum and the patentee’s prior filings in that forum did not give consent for subsequently filed actions.

Netlist and SK hynix are competitors in the memory semiconductor space. Netlist sued SK hynix for patent infringement in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas. SK hynix moved to transfer the case to the US District Court for the Central District of California. With no ruling after eight months (while the case continued to move forward), SK hynix sought mandamus from the Federal Circuit to compel the district court to transfer the case. The Federal Circuit declined to transfer the case and instead stayed the district court proceedings until the district court ruled on the transfer motion. The district court then denied the transfer motion, rejecting SK hynix’s arguments that the doctrine of forum non conveniens and the first-to-file rule required transfer to the Central District of California. The district court also advanced the Markman hearing and trial dates. SK hynix again sought mandamus from the Federal Circuit to compel transfer and requested a stay of the district court proceedings because of the advanced Markman and trial dates.

Applying Fifth Circuit law, the Federal Circuit denied the mandamus petition, concluding that SK hynix had not shown that the district court clearly abused its discretion in denying the transfer motion. On the forum non conveniens issue, the Court found no clear abuse in the district court’s determination that SK hynix did not meet the threshold conditions for transfer under 28 USC § 1404(a), namely that the action “might have been brought” in the Central District of California or that, in the alternative, all the parties had consented to that venue for the action. As to the “might have been brought” inquiry, the Court found that the district court properly focused on whether the action might have been brought against SK hynix America, a domestic entity subject to the venue requirements of 28 USC § 1404(b) and headquartered in the Northern District of California, rather than SK hynix, a foreign entity not subject to the same venue requirements. The Court also found that SK hynix did not differentiate between the foreign and domestic SK hynix entities in its transfer motion. This was not an action that might have been brought against SK hynix in the Central District of California because SK hynix America lacked sufficient presence there to confer venue under [...]

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