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.

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