Articles Posted in Attorney’s Fees

Washington, D.C. – In the matter of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that, among the factors considered in awarding attorneys’ fees under the Copyright Act, courts must give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position.

The Court was not persuaded that special consideration should be given to whether the lawsuit resolved important and close legal issues, expressing doubt that fee shifting will encourage parties to litigate such issues. While the Second Circuit test is close to what the Supreme Court prescribes, Justice Kagan wrote, in the Second Circuit, “substantial weight” has become “dispositive weight.” However, the Court also stressed that all circumstances of the case must be considered in light of the goals of the Copyright Act, acknowledging that fees may be warranted despite the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position.

The decision is consistent with the position advocated in an AIPLA amicus brief filed in this case.

Background

Supap Kirtsaeng, born in Thailand, attended college in the United States. While he was studying in the United States, Kirtsaeng asked his friends and family in Thailand to buy and mail to him copies of foreign edition English language textbooks at Thai book shops, where they are sold at low prices. When publisher John Wiley & Sons (“Wiley”) learned about Kirtsaeng’s sales in the United States at low prices, it sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kirtsaeng, concluding that Wiley’s sales of the books in Thailand exhausted its copyright interest in the U.S. sales under the first sale doctrine. On remand, Kirtsaeng’s motion for attorneys’ fees was denied. In affirming the decision, the Second Circuit relied on the objective reasonableness of Wiley’s position that the first sale doctrine did not apply to extra-territorial transactions.

Kirtsaeng asked the Supreme Court to review the attorney fee decision.

Competing Factors

Justice Kagan noted that Section 505 of the Copyright Act states that district courts “may” award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in copyright litigation, but said that the statute provides no standards for deciding when such awards are appropriate. Guidance for fee awards can be found in the Court’s decision in Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc, she added, which includes a non-exclusive list of factors that further the goals of the Copyright Act.

In this litigation, each party asserted a factor believed to merit substantial weight: for Kirtsaeng, it is whether the lawsuit resolved an important and close legal issue; for Wiley, it is whether the position unsuccessfully argued by the losing party was objectively reasonable.

The Court concluded that the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position is more important than the lawsuit’s role in settling a significant and uncertain legal issue. According to Justice Kagan, Wiley’s proposal “both encourages parties with strong legal positions to stand on their rights and deters those with weak ones from proceeding with litigation.” The copyright holder with no reasonable infringement claim has good reason not to sue in the first instance, she explained, and the infringer with no reasonable defense has every reason to give in quickly, before each side’s litigation costs mount.

By contrast, the Court continued, Kirtsaeng’s proposal would not produce any sure benefits. While litigation of close cases can advance the public interest by helping to clearly demarcate the boundaries of copyright law, it is not clear that fee shifting will necessarily, or even usually, encourage parties to litigate those cases to judgment, according to the Court. Justice Kagan explained as follows:

Fee awards are a double-edged sword: They increase the reward for a victory–but also enhance the penalty for a defeat. And the hallmark of hard cases is that no party can be confident if he will win or lose. That means Kirtsaeng’s approach could just as easily discourage as encourage parties to pursue the kinds of suits that “meaningfully clarif[y]” copyright law. … It would (by definition) raise the stakes of such suits; but whether those higher stakes would provide an incentive–or instead a disincentive–to litigate hinges on a party’s attitude toward risk. Is the person risk-preferring or risk-averse–a high-roller or a penny-ante type? Only the former would litigate more in Kirtsaeng’s world. … And Kirtsaeng offers no reason to think that serious gamblers predominate. … So the value of his standard, unlike Wiley’s, is entirely speculative.

What is more, Wiley’s approach is more administrable than Kirtsaeng’s. A district court that has ruled on the merits of a copyright case can easily assess whether the losing party advanced an unreasonable claim or defense. That is closely related to what the court has already done: In deciding any case, a judge cannot help but consider the strength and weakness of each side’s arguments. By contrast, a judge may not know at the conclusion of a suit whether a newly decided issue will have, as Kirtsaeng thinks critical, broad legal significance. The precedent-setting, law-clarifying value of a decision may become apparent only in retrospect–sometimes, not until many years later. And so too a decision’s practical impact (to the extent Kirtsaeng would have courts separately consider that factor). District courts are not accustomed to evaluating in real time either the jurisprudential or the on-the-ground import of their rulings. Exactly how they would do so is uncertain (Kirtsaeng points to no other context in which courts undertake such an analysis), but we fear that the inquiry would implicate our oft-stated concern that an application for attorney’s fees “should not result in a second major litigation.”

Substantial, But Not Dispositive, Factor

All of that said, objective reasonableness can be only an important factor in assessing fee applications–not the controlling one, Justice Kagan cautioned. “Although objective reasonableness carries significant weight, courts must view all the circumstances of a case on their own terms, in light of the Copyright Act’s essential goals,” she wrote.

The Court particularly acknowledged the serious concerns raised over the Second Circuit approach. While it frames the inquiry in a similar way, the Second Circuit language at times suggests that a presumption against a fee award arises from a finding of reasonableness. That perspective goes too far in limiting the district court’s analysis, according to the Court, observing that district courts in the Second Circuit appear to have turned “substantial” weight into something closer to “dispositive” weight. In particular, the Court acknowledged that hardly any of those decisions have granted fees when the losing party raised a reasonable argument (and none have denied fees when the losing party failed to do so).

Without suggesting that a different conclusion be reached, the Court vacated and remanded the case for further consideration in line with this analysis.

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Indianapolis, Indiana – In the trademark lawsuit between of Plaintiff Wine & Canvas Development, LLC (“WNC”) and Defendants Christopher Muylle, Theodore Weisser, YN Canvas CA, LLC and Weisser Management Group, LLC, the Southern District of Indiana found that Plaintiffs had engaged in abuse of process and awarded an additional $175,882.68 in attorneys’ fees and costs to Defendant Muylle.

Plaintiff WNC sued Defendants in 2011 on allegations of trademark infringement and false designation of origin after disputes arose regarding the parties’ franchising agreement. Defendants counterclaimed for abuse of process against WNC and its principals Anthony Scott (“Scott”), Tamara McCracken Scott (“Ms. McCracken”), and Donald McCracken (“Mr. McCracken”).

Following a November 2014 trial, the jury found in favor of Defendant Muylle, returning a verdict that there had been no trademark infringement or false designation of origin by Muylle. The jury also found for Muylle on his claim of abuse of process. It awarded him $81,000 from WNC, $81,000 from Scott, $81,000 from Ms. McCracken, and $27,000 from Mr. McCracken.

In this order, the court ruled on Muylle’s most recent petition for attorneys’ fees. These fees had been incurred after September 30, 2014 and consisted of attorneys’ fees that had been neither requested from the jury nor already paid as part of any of three prior payments of Muylle’s attorneys’ fees that had earlier been awarded by the court as sanctions against Plaintiff for failing to follow discovery or court rules.

The court evaluated both whether the fees should be awarded and, if so, whether the amount requested, $175,882.68, was reasonable. Under Seventh Circuit jurisprudence, attorneys’ fees are available when a trademark infringement lawsuit is deemed to be “exceptional.” An example of such an exceptional circumstance under the Lanham Act would be if the plaintiff lost and was also guilty of abuse of process.

The Plaintiff in this litigation lost. At trial, Muylle contended that the trademark infringement lawsuit had been brought for the purpose of causing him to incur considerable litigation costs to put on a defense and, thus, force the closing of the business. Muylle claimed that Scott had told him during a telephone conversation that Scott expected to lose the lawsuit against Muylle but that winning was not the goal of the litigation. Instead his goal was to put Defendants out of business. The jury found that Plaintiff had engaged in abuse of process.

The court also considered whether the amount of the fees was unreasonable. Judge Walton Pratt admitted that, at first blush, the fees did seem questionable for two months of legal services. Upon reviewing the detailed time records, however, the court found that neither the amount of time nor the rates charged per hour were unreasonable. The full amount of attorneys’ fees was awarded to Defendant.

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Hammond, Indiana – In the matter of Biomet, Inc. v. Bonutti Skeletal Innovations, LLC, the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division granted Defendant Bonutti’s motion to dismiss with prejudice its counterclaim. Bonutti’s counterclaim alleged that Biomet had infringed U.S. Patent No. 7,806,897 (the “‘897 patent”). Patent attorneys for Biomet Inc. asked the court to impose attorneys’ fees as a condition of the dismissal but this motion was denied.

On March 8, 2013, patent lawyers for Plaintiff Biomet filed an action for declaratory judgment against Bonutti Skeletal Innovations LLC. At issue were contentions of patent infringement of fifteen patents. Bonutti counterclaimed against Biomet and several other counterclaim Defendants. This multi-faceted dispute had been resolved with respect to some of the patents prior to this order. Other allegations of patent infringement remained.

Among the assertions by Bonutti that had remained was a counterclaim that Biomet had infringed the ‘897 patent. In this order, the court granted Bonutti’s request under Rule 41(a)(2) to dismiss this counterclaim with prejudice. The court also addressed Biomet’s contention that it should be awarded attorneys’ fees as a “prevailing party” in this portion of the patent litigation.

The court denied attorneys’ fees to Biomet on several grounds. First, it noted that, while attorney’s fees are available as part of a Rule 41(a)(2) dismissal without prejudice, this is justified as compensation for requiring a defendant to incur unnecessary litigation expenses. That same rationale does not apply where, as in this case, the dismissal is with prejudice.

Additionally, the court noted that any request for attorneys’ fees was premature. Such fees are only available to the “prevailing party” and Biomet had not established itself as such a prevailing party. Biomet may yet be able to recover attorneys’ fees if, at the conclusion of the patent lawsuit, Biomet is held to be the prevailing party.

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Chicago, Illinois – The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act by the District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

Plaintiff William Burford and Defendant Accounting Practice Sales, Inc. (“APS”) were parties to a contract under which Burford had agreed to market and facilitate the purchase and sale of accounting practices on behalf of APS. APS terminated the contract. Shortly thereafter, Burford started a competing business. For this business, Burford chose the name “American Accounting Practice Sales.” Burford also sued APS and Gary Holmes, the owner of APS, for breach of contract.

In response to Burford’s contract-claims lawsuit, APS filed a four-count counterclaim. Included in those counterclaims was an allegation that Burford had misappropriated APS’s trade name in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1051 et seq. by using the business name “American Accounting Practice Sales.”

The district court held for APS on the contract claim, reasoning that the contract between the parties was of indefinite duration and was therefore terminable at will. After this ruling in favor of APS, but before the district court could consider the counterclaim, APS voluntarily dismissed its counterclaim under the Lanham Act with prejudice.

Burford then contended that, as the prevailing party on the Lanham Act claim, he was entitled to attorneys’ fees under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a), asserting that APS’s pursuit of the Lanham Act claim was meritless and amounted to an abuse of process. The district court refused to grant attorneys’ fees on the theory that APS’s claim under the Lanham Act claim could have been pursued by a rational party seeking to protect its trademark.

Burford appealed. As part of his appeal, he asked the Seventh Circuit to reverse the district court’s denial of his request for attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act. Circuit Judges William J. Bauer and David F. Hamilton, and District Court Judge Sara L. Ellis, sitting by designation, heard the matter.

The Seventh Circuit first held that the district court had erred in holding that the contract had not been breached. While indefinite-term contracts are by default terminable at will, it noted that the parties had contracted around that general rule by providing that APS could terminate the contract only if Burford violated the terms of the contract. On this issue, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court.

On the question of attorneys’ fees, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court. Under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a)(3), district courts have the discretion to award attorneys’ fees to those prevailing under the Act in “exceptional cases.” Such an “exceptional case” within the meaning of the Lanham Act can be found in those cases where the district court determines that the decision to bring the claim could be called an abuse of process.

In turn, such an abuse of process can be discerned in cases where, for example, “a rational litigant would pursue [the claim] only because it would impose disproportionate costs on his opponent” or where there was evidence that the party advancing the Lanham Act claim had done so “to obtain an advantage unrelated to obtaining a favorable judgment.”

The Seventh Circuit noted that Burford had failed to persuade the district court that the pursuit of the claim was objectively unreasonable or was intended to harass or to obtain an advantage unrelated to winning a favorable judgment. Consequently, because decision whether to award attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act is left to the district court’s sound discretion, the lower court’s refusal to grant such fees was affirmed.

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Indianapolis, Indiana – Plaintiff and Indiana copyright attorney Richard Bell of McCordsville, Indiana was ordered by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the Southern District of Indiana to pay almost $34,000 in attorney’s fees and costs to Defendant Charles Lantz, whom Bell had sued on unsupported allegations of copyright infringement.

Indiana copyright attorney Richard Bell, who is also a professional photographer, has sued hundreds for copyright infringement. The lawsuits began in 2011. At issue in Bell’s spate of litigation were allegations of unauthorized use of his copyrighted photograph of the Indianapolis skyline, which had been registered at the U.S. Copyright Office. The ongoing saga of this multiplicity of copyright lawsuits took an interesting, if unsurprising, turn last week.

According to an article in The Indiana Lawyer, Bell has said that most Defendants whom he has sued have settled early. Acknowledging the expense of litigation – and the relative ease of escaping litigation by simply paying a settlement without any finding of liability – Bell said, “A responsible lawyer and their clients, they obviously know it’s going to be far more expensive to try it.”

A current copyright-infringement lawsuit, filed January 8, 2013 by Bell, named forty-seven Defendants. Forty-six of those Defendants were dismissed from the lawsuit, including some who settled and some against whom a default judgment was issued. Default judgments of $2,500 were awarded in this litigation.

One Defendant, Charles Lantz, refused to pay for copyright infringement that he had not committed and hired Indiana intellectual property attorney Paul Overhauser (publisher of this blog) to defend him. In December 2014, Lantz’s perseverance paid off and the court granted an unopposed motion for voluntary dismissal of the litigation against Lantz. Last week, Lantz’s perseverance paid off again when Overhauser, on behalf of Lantz, sought and was awarded $33,974.65 in attorney’s fees and costs from Plaintiff Bell.

The court explained that, because Bell’s copyright litigation against Lantz had been dismissed with prejudice, Lantz became the “prevailing party” under the Copyright Act. Under 17 U.S.C. § 505, in any civil copyright action, the district court may award litigation costs, including attorney’s fees, to the prevailing party.

In evaluating whether to exercise its discretion to award such costs to Lantz, the court stated, “Defendants who defeat a copyright infringement action are entitled to a strong presumption in favor of a grant of fees.” The court looked to the Fogerty factors, which are so named after Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517 (1994), a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the shifting of costs in copyright litigation. These factors are nonexclusive and include: “(1) the frivolousness of the action; (2) the losing party’s motivation for filing or contesting the action; (3) the objective unreasonableness of the action; and (4) the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence.”

The court found that each of these factors weighed against Bell. It stated that Bell had possessed no evidence against Lantz that would prove either a conversion or a copyright claim. It also characterized Bell’s motivation for filing the lawsuit as “questionable,” noting that Bell had attempted to save himself “extensive filing fees” by improperly joining defendants and had “sued forty-seven defendants and then quickly offered settlements to defendants who were unwilling to pay for a legal defense.”

Regarding the third and fourth factors, the court held that the litigation was objectively unreasonable, given that Lantz had been sued “without any evidence to support the claims.” The court then turned to the last of the Fogerty factors, the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. It noted that Bell had leveraged his status as a practicing attorney “to file meritless suits and to attempt to outmaneuver the legal system” (which was perhaps a hat tip to the now-famous opinion written by Judge Otis D. Wright III, who employed similar language against another copyright plaintiff widely regarded as a copyright troll).

Finally, the court was not swayed by Bell’s assertions that Lantz had failed to inform Bell that the wrong defendant had been sued and that Lantz had incurred unnecessary attorney’s fees. In response to these claims, the court noted that Lantz had “denied liability at his first opportunity.” The court also opined that, while defense counsel is not required to take the most economical defense strategy in defending a copyright lawsuit, it appeared that the “most economical approach feasible” may have been taken.

With all Fogerty factors weighing against Bell and no viable opposition permitting either an escape from fees and costs or a lessening of the amount, the court awarded to Defendant Lantz $33,974.65, the full amount requested.

Practice Tip: The Indiana Lawyer wrote an interesting piece regarding Judge Pratt’s order. That article may be viewed here.

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Indianapolis, IndianaMagistrate Judge Mark J. Dinsmore recommended that Judge William T. Lawrence deny Malibu Media’s motion for fees and sanctions against two Defendants and copyright lawyer Jonathan Phillips.

This Indiana federal lawsuit involves allegations of the use of BitTorrent to illegally download copyrighted adult films. Plaintiff Malibu Media, LLC of Malibu, California initiated copyright litigation in the Southern District of Indiana alleging that Charles and Kelley Tashiro, husband and wife, violated its intellectual property rights by downloading copyrighted videos without authorization.

On the morning of a scheduled evidentiary hearing in the matter, attorney Phillips, who at the time represented both husband and wife, learned of Mr. Tashiro’s intent to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid testifying about certain matters. The defense attorney for the Tashiros advised the court that, as a result, a conflict of interest between husband and wife had arisen and that he would be withdrawing as the defense attorney for Mr. Tashiro. As a result, the court postponed that day’s hearing.

Malibu Media subsequently filed a motion asking the court for sanctions, seeking to hold Mr. Tashiro and his copyright attorney jointly and severally liable for the costs and fees incurred in its preparations for the postponed hearing. Malibu Media contended that the defense lawyer’s failure to recognize the conflict of interest between the two Defendants in a timely manner had required Malibu Media to incur unnecessary expenses for the evidentiary hearing. More specifically, Malibu Media contended that it incurred several thousand dollars in unnecessary fees, travel expenses, and other costs. It sought to recover those fees, expenses, and costs 1) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37; 2) under 28 U.S.C. § 1927; 3) through an exercise of the court’s inherent authority; and 4) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16.

Magistrate Judge Dinsmore first concluded that FRCP 37 was inapplicable, as it was generally appropriate for “disputes or misconduct during discovery” and the delay of the evidentiary hearing had not resulted from discovery misconduct.

Plaintiff’s claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 was also rejected. That section provides that the court may order costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of an attorney’s unreasonable or vexatious expansion of the proceedings in litigation.

Malibu Media asserted that this section applied because the copyright attorney’s failure to timely recognize a conflict of interest between the husband-and-wife Defendants failed to meet the standard of care required of attorneys. The court disagreed, stating that the case had involved no incompatibility of the copyright Defendants’ positions, as both had steadfastly asserted that neither had infringed any of Malibu Media’s copyrighted material and that no evidence had been destroyed. Consequently, the defense attorney’s belief that he could provide concurrent representation to both Defendants was neither unreasonable nor vexatious and, thus, relief under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 was unavailable.

Moreover, the court explained, even had § 1927 applied, it provided recompense only for the excess costs and fees incurred – those that would not have been otherwise necessary. Because much of the material prepared by intellectual property counsel for Malibu Media would likely prove useful later in the litigation, those costs and fees had not been incurred unnecessarily.

Magistrate Judge Dinsmore also rejected Malibu Media’s argument that the court should sanction Mr. Tashiro and the defense attorney under the inherent authority that the court holds to manage its affairs through the sanctioning of a party that has abused the judicial process. The court had already determined during its analysis under § 1927 that the defense attorney had acted neither unreasonably nor vexatiously. Thus, a sanction against the defense attorney for abuse of process was similarly found to be improper. The court also declined to hold that Mr. Tashiro’s decision to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights was an abuse of judicial process.

The court then addressed Malibu Media’s contention that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16 authorized sanctions in this case. It concluded that, as the rule authorized the imposition of sanctions only in matters regarding scheduling conferences or other pre-trial conferences, it did not apply to the evidentiary hearing at issue in this request for sanctions.

Finally, Magistrate Judge Dinsmore recommended to Judge Lawrence that Malibu Media’s motion, which had been filed without the required statement showing that Plaintiff’s attorney made reasonable efforts to confer with opposing counsel prior to filing the motion for sanctions, be denied for failure to comply with Local Rule 7-1(g).

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Indianapolis, Indiana – Indiana copyright attorneys for Redwall Live Corporation (“Redwall”) of Indianapolis, Indiana asked the Southern District of Indiana to dismiss Redwall’s own copyright litigation. Redwall’s complaint alleged that ESG Security, Inc. (“ESG”), also of Indianapolis, Indiana, infringed the logo that Redwall had designed for ESG. That logo has been registered by the U.S. Copyright Office. The court dismissed the complaint in its entirety. Redwall will be permitted to refile the non-copyright counts in Indiana state court but the copyright count was dismissed with prejudice.

Redwall is a consulting and design-services firm engaged in the business of strategic branding and advertising. Its services include developing a clear message and a unique visual image as well as developing brand value for its clients.

In its 2013 complaint against ESG, Redwall stated that it had been hired by ESG to reinvent ESG’s brand. As part of this project, it created a new logo design for ESG, which was copyrighted under Registration No. VA 1-874-872. Redwall asserted that ESG had failed to pay Redwall in full for the work done and that ESG nonetheless had continued to use Redwall’s copyrighted logo on a variety of items. Indiana copyright lawyers for Redwall sued for copyright infringement under federal law, as well as breach of contract and unjust enrichment under Indiana state law.

Redwall later decided that pursuing the copyright portion of the claim was not worth the expense. As the Judge Sarah Evans Barker put it, they concluded that “the game is not worth the candle.” Copyright attorneys for Redwall asked the court to dismiss the copyright complaint without prejudice. Attorneys for ESG asked the court instead to dismiss Redwall’s copyright claim with prejudice.

In evaluating Redwall’s motion to dismiss, the court cited its discretion to attach conditions to the dismissal of a lawsuit – “the quid for the quo of allowing the plaintiff to dismiss his suit without being prevented by the doctrine of res judicata from bringing the same suit again.” The court noted that Redwall seemed to have added a less-than-robust copyright claim as leverage to obtain its true goal of payment under its contract with ESG. Judge Barker concluded that to allow Redwall to withdraw that copyright claim without any res judicata consequences would reward that gamesmanship. The court determined that, as a proper exercise of its discretion, it would dismiss Redwall’s copyright claim with prejudice but permit Redwall’s remaining state-law claims to be refiled in state court.

Practice Tip: Filing a copyright lawsuit can be perilous, as the plaintiff may later be unable to dismiss that litigation without incurring liability for the defendant’s attorney fees. As the Seventh Circuit held in Riviera Distribs., Inc. v. Jones, a voluntary dismissal of a copyright claim by the plaintiff – if that claim is dismissed with prejudice – is sufficient to trigger the duty of the plaintiff to pay the attorney’s fees incurred defending against the allegations of copyright infringement: “[Defendant] Midwest obtained a favorable judgment. That this came about when [Plaintiff] Riviera threw in the towel does not make Midwest less the victor than it would have been had the judge granted summary judgment or a jury returned a verdict in its favor. Riviera sued; Midwest won; no more is required.” Similarly here, ESG qualifies as a “prevailing party” under the Copyright Act and is thus presumptively entitled to attorneys’ fees for the litigation of that claim under 17 U.S.C. § 505.

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Indianapolis, IndianaJudge Tanya Walton Pratt (pictured) of the Southern District of Indiana struck a response brief in the matter of Wine & Canvas Development, LLC. v. Theodore Weisser, Christopher Muylle, YN Canvas CA, LLC and Art Uncorked, noting that the brief was both late and longer than permitted.

In 2011, Wine & Canvas Development, LLC (“Wine & Canvas”) sued Muylle and others alleging the wrongful use of Wine and Canvas trademarks as well as the breach of non-competition agreements. Muylle counterclaimed against Wine and Canvas asserting abuse of process. In November 2014, after a four-day trial, the jury found for Muylle on all claims and awarded him $270,000.

After the conclusion of the trial, the Indiana trademark lawyer for Muylle petitioned the court for attorneys’ fees under § 1117(a) of the Lanham act, which provides that the court may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party in “exceptional cases.” Muylle, via his trademark attorney, contended that this case was properly deemed exceptional as a result of the jury’s finding of abuse of process by Wine & Canvas. Muylle also noted that “the Court previously determined that ‘Wine & Canvas, Mr. Scott, [Ms. McCracken], and Mr. McCracken have flooded the Court with filings which has increased the work expended on the case and Wine & Canvas has filed numerous claims that the Court has found to be without merit.’ … And the Court has already sanctioned the Plaintiff not once but three times for failing to comply with discovery or court rules.” Muylle asked for $175,882.68 in attorneys’ fees.

Wine & Canvas asked for an extension of time to respond to this request, to January 15, 2015, which the court granted. Wine & Canvas subsequently requested an additional extension of time to file its response, specifically asking for a new deadline of January 19, 2015. The court granted this request, also.

Wine & Canvas filed its response brief on January 20, 2015. Muylle’s trademark attorney asked the court to strike that brief. The court noted that “[Wine & Canvas’] counsel’s repeated disregard for and supposed ignorance of the rules is no excuse, and an apology does not allow counsel to continue to disregard the rules and court orders” and admonished the trademark lawyer for Wine & Canvas for failing to meet his filing deadlines.

The court also noted that, in addition to the untimeliness of the filing, the 40-page brief was also overlong in violation of Local Rule 7-1(e)(1), which limits the length of response briefs to 35 pages.

Consequently, the court granted the motion to strike Wine & Canvas’ response brief. The court, however, also granted Wine & Canvas leave to file a belated response to Muylle’s petition for attorneys’ fees.

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Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled on the patent infringement litigation between Zimmer of Warsaw, Indiana and Stryker of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Federal Circuit upheld the jury’s finding that Zimmer had infringed three of Stryker’s patents but overturned the decision of the Western District of Michigan to triple the damage award, reducing the award from $228 million to $70 million, and vacated the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees.

Stryker and Zimmer are the two principal participants in the market for orthopedic pulsed lavage devices. A modern, orthopedic pulsed lavage device is a combination spray-gun and suction-tube, used by medical professionals to clean wounds and tissue during surgery.

In 2010, Stryker Corp, Stryker Puerto Rico, Ltd. and Stryker Sales Corp. (collectively, “Stryker”), sued Zimmer, Inc., Zimmer Surgical, Inc. and Zimmer Orthopaedic Surgical Products of Warsaw, Indiana (collectively, “Zimmer”) alleging that Zimmer’s line of Pulsavac Plus pulsed lavage devices infringed three of Stryker’s patents – U.S. Patent No. 6,022,329 (“the ‘329 patent”), U.S. Patent No. 7,144,383 (“the ‘383 patent”) and U.S. Patent No. 6,179,807 (“the ‘807 patent”). A jury awarded $70 million in damages and the district court increased that figure by approximately $2.4 million to reflect sales made by Zimmer during a time period that had not been considered by the jury.

Stryker also moved for enhanced damages under 35 U.S.C. § 284, alleging willful patent infringement by Zimmer. Under § 284, “the court may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed” at trial. For this determination, the court referred to Read Corp. v. Portec, Inc.. In Read, the Federal Circuit had held that the “paramount determination in deciding to grant enhancement and the amount thereof is the egregiousness of the defendant’s conduct based on all the facts and circumstances.” In evaluating the egregiousness of the defendant’s conduct, courts typically rely on the nine Read factors, which are:

1. whether the infringer deliberately copied the patentee’s ideas or design;

2. whether the infringer investigated the scope of the patent and formed a good faith belief that it was invalid or not infringed;

3. the infringer’s conduct during litigation;

4. the infringer’s size and financial condition;

5. closeness of the case;

6. duration of the infringing conduct;

7. remedial actions, if any, taken by the infringer;

8. the infringer’s motivation for harm; and

9. whether the infringer attempted to conceal its misconduct.

The district court found that all nine Read factors favored substantial enhancement of the jury’s award and trebled both the jury’s award of $70 million and the court’s award of supplemental damages.

In the current opinion, the Federal Circuit affirmed the jury’s findings that Stryker’s patents were valid and had been infringed by Zimmer, as well as the jury’s award of damages to Stryker but reversed the district court’s judgment that Zimmer’s infringement was willful.

To establish willfulness, the patentee has the burden of showing “by clear and convincing evidence that the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent.” If and only if the patentee establishes this “threshold objective standard” does the inquiry then proceed to the question of whether the objectively defined risk was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to a party accused of patent infringement.

The Federal Circuit noted that the district court had failed to undertake the required objective assessment of Zimmer’s specific defenses to Stryker’s claims. The Federal Circuit then considered the question of objective recklessness, which “will not be found where the accused infringer’s position is susceptible to a reasonable conclusion of no infringement.” The court held that the objective standard showed that Zimmer had presented reasonable defenses to all of the asserted claims of Stryker’s patents. Consequently, Zimmer was found not to have acted recklessly and the decision to award enhanced damages was reversed.

Because the appellate court reversed the trial court’s determination that the infringement of the patents had been willful – and because district court’s award of attorneys’ fees was based on that determination – the Federal Circuit vacated district court’s finding that the case was exceptional as well as the award of attorneys’ fees and remanded the issue to the trial court for further consideration.

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Washington, D.C. – In two related rulings, the United States Supreme Court addressed the standards for granting and reviewing awards of legal fees in patent infringement lawsuits.

In the first matter, Octane Fitness, LLC was sued by Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. At issue was Icon’s contention that the use of a particular component in elliptical fitness machines constituted patent infringement. After Octane prevailed, it sought $1.8 million in attorneys’ fees. The district court denied these fees and an appeal was taken on the issue.

In its review, the Federal Circuit applied the rule from Brooks Furniture Mfg., Inc. v. Dutailier Int’l, Inc. In Brooks Furniture, the Federal Circuit had defined an “exceptional case,” which would warrant an award of legal fees, as one that either involves “material inappropriate conduct” or is both “objectively baseless” and “brought in subjective bad faith.” It then rejected Octane’s assertion – that attorneys’ fees were appropriate because Icon had asserted an unreasonable claim construction – as not falling within the Brooks Furniture definition and declined to overrule the district court’s denial of attorney’s fees.

In Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness, Case No. 12-1184, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded. Justice Sotomayor, writing for a unanimous court, said that the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of 35 U.S.C. §285 was overly rigid and “superimposes an inflexible framework onto statutory text that is inherently flexible.” Instead, the 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.

The Court also revised the standard of proof that had been required by the Federal Circuit. In Brooks Furniture, the Federal Circuit had held that §285 requires that parties establish the “exceptional” nature of a case by “clear and convincing evidence.” The Supreme Court opined that such a high standard was not supported by the statute. Instead, as patent infringement litigation is generally governed by a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, that standard was also appropriate for the award of attorneys’ fees.

The second patent infringement litigation decided by the Supreme Court pertained to a patent infringement lawsuit filed by Allcare Health management Systems. After Allcare lost in the district court, the district judge awarded $5 million in attorneys’ fees to Highmark. The Federal Circuit reviewed the district court’s judgment de novo and reversed the award.

In Highmark v. Allcare Health Management Systems, Case No. 12-1163, the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit’s reversal, holding that, in light of the traditional framework of review, the Federal Circuit should be more deferential to the trial court on the issue of the award of fees. The Supreme Court stated, “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.'” The determination of whether a case should be considered to be “exceptional” for the purposes of awarding attorneys’ fees is a matter of discretion. As such, it is properly reviewed not de novo but instead for abuse of discretion.

Practice Tip: Under U.S. patent law, a trial court may award attorneys’ fees in case of patent infringement litigation that it deems “exceptional.” These Supreme Court rulings revisiting how “exceptional” is defined may benefit Google, Apple and other large technology companies, which are often targets of questionable patent infringement lawsuits, as trial judges will now have greater latitude to award attorneys’ fees in those cases in which they determine that the conduct of the losing party “stands out from others.”

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