United States: To Plead Or Not To Plead; Knowledge Is The Question

Motion to Dismiss Claims of Inducement, Contributory Infringement, and Willful Infringement Denied, Sykworks Solutions, Inc. v. Kinetic Technologies Inc., Case No. C 14-00010 (Judge Susan Illston)

"Ignorance is the curse of God;  knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven."  William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part II.

You don't need to be the Bard of Avon to prepare a complaint setting out allegations of patent infringement.  As underscored by a recent ruling from Judge Illston denying a motion to dismiss a complaint for patent infringement, so long as a patentee can successfully plead pre-suit knowledge of the patents-in-suit, it also should be relatively straightforward for the patentee to plead theories of willful infringement, contributory infringement, and inducement.

In her ruling, Judge Illston indicated that in the Northern District of California, at least, simply filing a complaint is enough to establish post-suit knowledge of the patents-in-suit (a position which is not necessarily true in every District).  Post-suit knowledge is only enough, however, to implicate post-filing conduct.  A patentee has to plead pre-suit knowledge to reach the defendant's pre-filing conduct.  Judge Illston held that plaintiff Skyworks did so by pleading that an inventor of the patents-in-suit, Mr. Jan Nilsson, is the founder and employee of the defendant Kinetic.  Mr. Nilsson had helped develop the patented technology while working at a previous company that Skyworks had subsequently acquired.  Moreover, these allegations also proved to be sufficient to plead Kinetic's knowledge of the patents prior to Skywork's filing of an independent action in the District of Massachusetts.  This was important, because Kinetic argued that the Massachusetts filing marked the earliest date it could be charged with knowledge of Skywork's patents.

Judge Illston further concluded that Skyworks was able to plead all the other elements of its infringement theories.  The company pled inducement by alleging that Skyworks's customers infringed, Kinetic knew that they infringed, and that Kinetic provides detailed design specifications regarding the fabrication, manufacture, test and assembly, implementation, use, and performance of the LED driver products.  Judge Illston concluded that such allegations were sufficient to support "an inference of Kinetic's intent to induce infringement by its customers."

Skyworks's allegations of contributory infringement were also sufficient.  Skyworks had again alleged that Kinetic's customers had directly infringed, and that Kinetic knew of that infringement.  Skyworks also pled that Kinetic's LED driver products are especially made or adapted for infringing the patents-in-suit, and have no substantially non-infringing uses.  Such allegations of contributory infringement were sufficient to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion because Judge Illston concluded that a plaintiff's complaint is not required to plead, in detail, how the accused products contributorily infringe.

Finally, Skyworks also sufficiently pled willful infringement.  Judge Illston noted that in addition to pleading pre-suit knowledge of the patents-in-suit, a plaintiff also must plead that the defendant acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions infringed the patents-in-suit.  Skyworks's complaint contained language that precisely tracked this standard, alleging that Kinetic "acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent."  Kinetic argued that at the pleading stage, these sparse allegations were insufficient to establish the "objectively high likelihood" prong.  But Judge Illston held that it is enough that the complaint identifies the accused products, alleges pre-suit knowledge, alleges that the infringing actions were willful, intentional, and conscious, and that plaintiff has and will continue to be irreparably harmed.  Accordingly, she found Skywork's allegations of willful infringement to be sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

As Shakespeare's Hamlet might appreciate, Judge Illston's order reflects that at least when pleading patent infringement, "brevity is the soul of wit."

The link to Judge Illston's order is here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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