United States: Supreme Court Makes Landmark Rulings On Attorney Fees In Patent Cases

Today the U.S. Supreme Court made it much easier to recover attorney fees in patent lawsuits, issuing two unanimous landmark decisions overruling Federal Circuit precedent. The statute at issue, 35 U.S.C. §285, allows for the court to award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party in "exceptional cases." Since its decision in Brooks Furniture Mfg., Inc. v. Dutailier Int'l, Inc., 393 F. 3d 1378, 1381 (2005), the  Federal Circuit has held that exceptional cases are those cases which are proven by clear and convincing evidence to be both "objectively baseless" and "brought in subjective bad faith." Also, in the past several years, the Federal Circuit has reviewed the objectively baseless element of its test for exceptional cases de novo without deference to the district courts. Today's decisions have rejected all these principles. In doing so, the two decisions continue the Supreme Court's series of cases overturning Federal Circuit principles in patent cases that may be viewed as at odds with principles applied in analogous circumstances in non-patent cases. These decisions also undoubtedly will compel litigants to re-consider their exposure to fee awards and how to approach requests for fee awards.

In Octane Fitness LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness Inc., case number 12-1184, the Court overruled Federal Circuit precedent that "[a] case may be deemed exceptional" under §285 only in two limited circumstances: "when there has been some material inappropriate conduct," or when the litigation is both "brought in subjective bad faith" and "objectively baseless."  Brooks Furniture Mfg., Inc., v. Dutailier Int'l, Inc., 393 F. 3d 1378, 1381 (2005). The Supreme Court pointed out that, in the five decades following the adoption of §285, both before and after the creation of the Federal Circuit, the courts had applied the statute "in a discretionary manner, assessing various factors to determine whether a given case was sufficiently "exceptional" to warrant a fee award." It found that since the Brooks Furniture case in 2005, the Federal Circuit "abandoned that holistic, equitable approach in favor of a more rigid and mechanical formulation." Continuing its tradition of mining copyright cases for analogous principles (and mining patent cases similarly in copyright cases), the Supreme Court pointed to its decision in Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 114 S.Ct. 1023 (1994) and to dictionary definitions of the word "exceptional," the Supreme Court held that:

an "exceptional" case is simply 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. District courts may determine whether a case is "exceptional" in the case-by-case exercise of their discretion, considering the totality of the circumstances. As in the comparable context of the Copyright Act, "[t]here is no precise rule or formula for making these determinations,' but instead equitable discretion should be exercised 'in light of the considerations we have identified." (quoting Fogerty).

The Supreme Court also rejected the "clear and convincing" evidentiary hurdle established by the Federal Circuit to recovering fees under §285. In doing so, the Court stated:

We have not interpreted comparable fee-shifting statutes to require proof of entitlement to fees by clear and convincing evidence....And nothing in § 285 justifies such a high standard of proof. Section 285 demands a simple discretionary inquiry; it imposes no specific evidentiary burden, much less such a high one. Indeed, patent-infringement litigation has always been governed by a preponderance of the evidence standard....

In the companion case of Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Systems Inc., case number 12-1163, the Court also dealt with attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. §285. Again, the Court rejected Federal Circuit precedent and held that decisions to award attorneys' fees are not reviewed de novo by the Federal Circuit. In doing so, the Court stated "that an appellate court should apply an abuse-of-discretion standard in reviewing all aspects of a district court's §285 determination." Here again, the Supreme Court pointed to principles that other non-patent cases had applied in similar situations:

Traditionally, decisions on "questions of law" are "reviewable de novo," decisions on "questions of fact" are "reviewable for clear error," and decisions on "matters of discretion" are "reviewable for abuse of discretion." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 558, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988). For reasons we explain in Octane, the determination whether a case is "exceptional" under § 285 is a matter of discretion. And as in our prior cases involving similar determinations, the exceptional-case determination is to be reviewed only for abuse of discretion...As in Pierce, the text of the statute "emphasizes the fact that the determination is for the district court," which "suggests some deference to the district court upon appeal,"....As in Pierce, "as a matter of the sound administration of justice," the district court "is better positioned" to decide whether a case is exceptional...because it lives with the case over a prolonged period of time. And as in Pierce, the question is "multifarious and novel," not susceptible to "useful generalization" of the sort that de novo review provides, and "likely to profit from the experience that an abuse-of-discretion rule will permit to develop.

Over the past several years, the Supreme Court has overturned Federal Circuit precedent that applied idiosyncratic rules in patent cases when other non-patent cases dealing with similar matters have generally applied other rules. These two cases continue in the same vein, sending a clear message that patent cases are not so exceptional, at least as to common procedural matters, as to warrant special rules. 

It is uncertain what impact these decisions will have on the number of patent cases being brought or on the types of patent cases brought. It is also uncertain how many more cases will be the subject of attorney fee awards. Nonetheless, today's decisions should provide district court judges with confidence that fees awarded in the proper circumstances will be upheld on appeal. 

It also remains to be seen what impact these decisions will have on legislation aimed squarely at non-practicing entities ("NPEs") that is currently making its way through Congress. The Innovation Act, which has been passed by the House, specifically provides for fee shifting through which a court may force the losing party to pay the winning party's attorney's fees and/or costs. Such a change would represent a fundamental shift in the U.S. litigation principle that each side ordinarily pays its own fees and costs. Perhaps the Senate, which is debating a reduced version of the Innovation Act, will consider the Supreme Court's decisions as sufficiently empowering the district courts to address abusive patent-litigation practices and will drop fee shifting from the Innovation Act. Click here for more information about the Innovation Act.

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.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Emails

From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.