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Category: Fee Statute

USPTO to SCOTUS: We’re Entitled to Attorney Fees Win or Lose

May 22, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Ryan Davis, “USPTO Tells Justices Law is Clear-Cut on Win-Or-Lose Fees,” reports that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office told the U.S. Supreme Court that it is entitled to recover attorney fees whenever it is sued over rejected applications, even if it loses, saying that outcome is "unambiguously" required by the statute.  The office made the argument in its opening brief for a case the justices agreed to hear in March to resolve a circuit split over whether disappointed applicants who file suit must pay the office's legal bills.

The statute governing such suits states that the applicant must pay "all the expenses" of the proceeding.  The Federal Circuit ruled last year that the phrase is not specific enough to include the USPTO's attorney fees, but in its brief, the office said "that reasoning is unsound."  "Both in its ordinary usage and in the specific context of civil litigation, the term 'expenses' unambiguously encompasses the increments of employee salary that the USPTO seeks to recoup," the office said.

Citing dictionary definitions of the word "expenses" as the expenditure of money, time or resources to accomplish a result, the office said it is clear that the money the office spends defending lawsuits count as expenses, and "that observation resolves this case."  While the Federal Circuit said the office's reasoning runs afoul of the "American Rule" that each side pays its own attorney fees, the office said the expenses requirement is not a fee-shifting provision that triggers the rule.

Fee-shifting typically applies based on which party prevails in a case, but since the expenses requirement is imposed on all applicants who sue the agency, even if they prevail, the American Rule is not implicated, the USPTO said.  Even if it were, the meaning of the word "expenses" is clear enough to show that Congress intended to override the rule and require applicants to pay the office's attorney fees, it said.

When the USPTO rejects an application for a patent or trademark, the applicant has two options.  The first is a Federal Circuit appeal, which does not require the applicant to pay the office's expenses but is decided only on evidence that the office considered, and the second is to file suit in district court, which carries the expense requirement but permits new evidence that wasn't before the office.  For years, the office only sought relatively minor expenses like travel costs and expert fees in district court cases, but it reversed course in 2013 and began seeking attorney fees from applicants, which can be much more substantial.

The Fourth Circuit blessed that practice in a trademark case in 2015, saying the provision is not a fee-shifting statute that implicates the American Rule.  The high court took the case after the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, reached the opposite conclusion last year in a case where NantKwest Inc. unsuccessfully appealed the office's rejection of a cancer drug patent and was ordered to pay the USPTO's attorney fees of over $78,000.

The USPTO's brief said the office began seeking attorney fees in 2013 because such cases had become increasingly complex and expensive to defend, and because Congress had recently granted the office the authority to set its own fees, which officials wanted to ensure just recouped the cost of its services.  By seeking attorney fees when it is sued, "the agency has attempted to recoup those expenses from the particular applicants who cause the agency to incur them, rather than from other fee-paying users of the USPTO's services," it said.

In its January brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, NantKwest argued that the American Rule applies whenever a litigant seeks attorney fees from opponents, not just when the award is based on who prevailed, as the USPTO contends.  The word "expenses" is too ambiguous to overcome the rule, it said.  "That 'expenses' could plausibly be understood to encompass attorneys' fees is not enough," it said.

Also last week, the USPTO urged the justices not to consolidate the NantKwest case with an appeal by Booking.com raising the same issue in a trademark case.  Instead, the court should just apply the outcome in NantKwest to that case, the office said.  Earlier this month, the title of the NantKwest case was changed when USPTO Director Andrei Iancu was recused from the case and substituted as the petitioner by USPTO Deputy Director Laura Peter.

The case is Peter v. NantKwest Inc., case number 18-801, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Federal Circuit Rejects Use of Laffey Matrix in Calculating Fee Award

May 21, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “DC Circ. Vacates $7M Atty Fee Award in Civil Right Row,” reports that a split D.C. Circuit panel tossed a nearly $7 million fee award in a long-running civil rights class action in Washington, D.C., finding a lower court used a matrix for calculating fees that improperly included attorneys based outside of the district and specialized in irrelevant legal areas.  A majority of the three-judge appellate panel held that the federal court in the District of Columbia erred by relying on a new fee calculation matrix proposed by the district that included attorneys practicing in rural Virginia and West Virginia as well as those who worked in areas of law such as real estate and wills, rather than focusing on attorneys practicing complex federal litigation within the district.

The new matrix runs counter to statutory requirements that those who file and prevail in civil rights cases should be able to collect attorney fees based on "rates prevailing in the community" for the "kind and quality of services furnished," according to the majority opinion.  The plaintiffs in the case had sought $9.76 million in fees under a different matrix, according to court documents.  "It is obvious that the rates charged for, say, simple wills are lower than those for complex federal litigation," the panel majority wrote, which vacated the award and remanded it to the lower court for a recalculation.  "Worse still, nothing in the record reveals what percentage of respondents in the ... custom cross-section of ... data were litigators."

The plaintiffs — parents of children in Washington who fit within the class — sought the fees after prevailing in a class action they initiated in July 2005, claiming that the district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to identify disabled children and to deliver adequate and timely education to a broader set of minors, according to the opinion.  The lower court in August 2017 awarded the plaintiffs $6.96 million in attorneys' fees, finding that the matrix proposed by Washington had a "statistically significant sample size" and "'more narrowly defined' experience categories," according to the opinion.

U.S. Circuit Judge David B. Sentelle dissented, holding that the appellate court could only toss the fee calculation matrix used by the lower court had it abused its discretion or clearly misapplied legal principles or demonstrated a "disregard" for the evidence entered in the case.  "The district court found another matrix to be more factually appropriate," Judge Sentelle wrote.  "The making of that factual determination, under the law in general and under the governing statute in particular, is the district court's province."

The case is DL et al. v. District of Columbia et al., case number 18-7004, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Texas Legislation Changes Fee-Shifting Provision in Dismissals

May 17, 2019

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Angela Morris, “Why Are Civil Defense Lawyers Thrilled the Texas House Passed This Bill?,” reports that, just as lawmakers are pushing to narrow Texas’ anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, the Texas House also passed a bill that would sweeten the deal for civil defense attorneys to make more use of a different type of motion to dismiss.

Under current law, this motion, known as the “91a motion to dismiss” because it’s located in Texas Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 91a, allows attorneys to argue for the dismissal of a case that has no basis in law or fact.  There’s a mandatory loser-pays provision that says the prevailing party collects attorney fees from the losing party.  Defendants have not used the motion too frequently because they don’t want to risk paying attorney fees to plaintiffs if they lose a dismissal fight.

House Bill 3300, which the Texas House passed 136-5, proposes a small but significant tweak to the law.  In the loser-pays provision, it changes the word “shall” to “may,” which gives a judge discretion to decide to award fees.  The bill heads to the Senate where, in the final weeks of the session, it must get a public hearing in committee, pass committee and pass the full Senate.

Texas Lawyer asked attorneys on Twitter whether this legislation, if passed, might lead defendants to file 91a motions to dismiss more often.  Here are a handful of the tweets we got in reply, edited for style and grammar.

“Yes — no question. Loser-pays is the only disincentive to filing a 91a motion in every case.  And defendants often waive their fee recovery from plaintiffs because courts are more likely to grant 91a dismissal if it doesn’t require saddling plaintiffs with fees,” tweeted Anne Johnson, a partner in Haynes and Boone in Dallas.

“As things stand, TRCP 91a creates a sort of game of chicken: A lot of defendants will file the motion but then pull it down before it is heard, unless they are almost 100% confident they will prevail.  With mandatory fees, the risk of paying the other side money is just too high,” tweeted Christopher Kratovil, managing member of Dykema’s Dallas office.

“As someone who works more in federal court — where 12(b)(6) reigns — I’ve always thought 91[a]‘s mandatory fee-shifting was a big problem.  This would be helpful.  I suspect more plaintiff oriented folks strongly disagree,” tweeted Raffi Melkonian, a partner in Wright, Close & Barger in Houston.

“I’m against the mandatory fees provision.  The fees usually aren’t too high, but it still discourages the use of an otherwise valuable tool,” tweeted Jadd Masso, a member of Clark Hill Strasburger in Dallas.

“This is a welcome change, though the Rule 91a standard itself should be clarified and improved,” tweeted Lee Whitesell, an associate with Hogan Lovells in Houston.

Article: Cautionary Tales on Recovering Attorney Fees in the Third Circuit

April 17, 2019

A recent Legal Intelligencer article by Colin Wrabley and Devin Misour of Reed Smith LLP, “Cautionary Tales on Recovering Attorney Fees in the Third Circuit,” reports on a trio of appellate decisions and trial court rulings on the recovery of attorney fees in the Third Circuit.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In the past year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has issued three precedential rulings laying down clear and strict limits on the recovery of attorney fees.  While these kinds of rulings rarely draw attention, this trio of appellate decisions and the trial court rulings they affirm should because they are emphatic reminders that courts take their duty in reviewing fee petitions and awards just as seriously as they do in any other case.  Practitioners and their clients should take heed.

The Cases

The first case we’ll discuss, Young v. Smith, 905 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 2018), is perhaps the most glaring example of how a fee petition can go wrong.  The appellant attorney in that case represented a group of students who brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1988 civil rights suit against a school district and a teacher.  After two trials, the lone remaining defendant (the teacher) made an offer of judgment for $25,000, which the plaintiffs accepted, and the parties’ entered a settlement agreement allowing for “reasonable attorney fees and costs as to the claims against the teacher only.”  Plaintiffs counsel proceeded to submit a petition seeking over $700,000 in fees and costs against the school district, which had won a complete defense verdict.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the district court thought the fee request excessive and issued a show cause order.  Plaintiffs counsel responded with a 44-page, single-spaced, six- or eight-point font fee petition purporting to justify the request.  That prompted, in the Third Circuit’s words, a “scathing 136-page opinion” from the district court denying all requested fees, levying a $25,000 sanction on the plaintiffs counsel, and referring counsel to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board.

The Third Circuit affirmed.  The court of appeals focused on the problems with the plaintiffs counsel’s billing practices, noting that the “district court’s meticulous opinion paints a picture of an attorney whose attitude toward billing and the court is cavalier in the extreme and whose conduct and demeanor bear no relationship whatsoever to an attorney’s obligations to the court.”  Concluding that Section 1988 gives a district court the discretion to reject a fee petition in its entirety, the Third Circuit found that the fee petition was “not only grossly excessive and absurd, but also fraudulent.”

The second case, Clemens v. New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance, 903 F.3d 396 (3d Cir. 2018), involved a fee award under Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute.  There, after settling an uninsured motorist claim for $25,000 and obtaining a jury verdict of $100,000 in punitive damages on the bad faith claim, plaintiffs counsel submitted a fee petition seeking in excess of $900,000 in fees and costs.  Here again, the district court scrutinized counsel’s request, which resulted in a 100-page opinion rejecting the petition in its entirety.  The district court reviewed every one of counsel’s time entries and found that 87 percent of the hours billed had to be disallowed as “vague, duplicative, unnecessary or inadequately supported by documentary evidence.”

On appeal, the Third Circuit found that the denial of this petition was not an abuse of discretion either.  Of note, the attorney kept no contemporaneous records of his time, so everything had to be recreated after the fact for purposes of the petition.  And when the attorney did recreate those records, he did so largely with one-word explanations, such as “other,” “communicate,” “analysis/strategy, or “review/analyze,” with no other explanation.  The court of appeals also highlighted the “staggering 562 hours” billed for trial preparation, which amounted to 70 straight eight-hour days of preparation for a four-day trial with only five witnesses.  On this record, the Third Circuit held that the district court was well within its discretion to reject the fee petition in its entirety because it was “outrageously excessive.”

The third case involved an award of attorney fees to defendants after the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed a case pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  In Carroll v. E One, 893 F.3d 139 (3d Cir. 2018), the plaintiffs alleged that they had suffered hearing loss caused by fire sirens manufactured by the defendant.  But the defendant’s investigation and discovery revealed that the plaintiffs—some of whom did not even know that they were parties to a lawsuit until after the case was filed—had asserted time-barred claims, and at least one of the plaintiffs did not suffer from hearing loss attributable to noise exposure.  Armed with this information, the defendant’s counsel sought voluntary dismissal with prejudice.  The district court concluded that the plaintiffs could not voluntarily dismiss the action without prejudice—as they had tried to do—and instead dismissed the case with prejudice and awarded fees and costs to the defendants.

The Third Circuit affirmed, finding that dismissal with prejudice and the award of fees and costs was appropriate given the plaintiffs’ “failure to perform a meaningful pre-suit investigation,” coupled with counsel’s “repeated practice of bringing claims and dismissing them with prejudice after inflicting substantial costs on the opposing party and the judicial system.”  Addressing plaintiffs’ pre-filing investigation, the court of appeals noted that even a cursory review of the evidence or an interview with the potential plaintiffs would have revealed the problems with their case.  Having failed to do so, the court concluded that the “exceptional circumstances” warranted an award of fees and costs.

The Takeaways

If you’re a practitioner, you may be thinking, “I’ve never filed a fee petition like the ones in these cases” or “I’ve never conducted such a slipshod pre-filing investigation” of claims I’ve filed.  So, why do these cases—and understanding how they were decided and why—matter to me?  There are plenty of reasons.

First, the legal principles outlined in each of these cases hinged on a district court’s broad discretion in the context of attorney fees.  Whether it is a denial of fees sought—as in Young and Clemens—or an award of fees in the Rule 41 context—as in Carroll—it is important to remember that the courts have a wide berth in deciding how much, if any, fees should be awarded.  This is equally true before the trial court in the first instance and on appellate review.  Litigants therefore must keep this in mind when preparing and filing a fee petition to avoid any unwanted surprises once the court explores into the substance of the request.

Second, when the court (either trial or appellate) does dig into that substance, no one wants their fee petition to become the next teachable moment.  It should go without saying that parties seeking fees and costs must be scrupulous about how they keep time, record it and present it to the court.  On a practical level, this means that counsel and their clients should file user-friendly fee petitions that allow the court to quickly determine what was done (consistent with the attorney-client privilege), how long it took and at what cost.  From that, a “lodestar” fee calculation—based on a reasonable rate and a reasonable amount of time worked, which is how federal courts determine fee awards—easily follows.  As the Third Circuit reminded in Clemens, while courts “have never strictly required that fee petitions be supported by contemporaneous records … they have long been ‘the preferred practice.’” Needless to say, avoiding six- or eight-point fonts in petitions is also prudent.

Third and above all else, these cases serve as an important reminder that—perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom—courts can, and often do, spend significant time and resources on reviewing fee petitions.  The trial court opinions in Young and Clemens tipped the scales at 100-plus pages and reflected a substantial investment of judicial energy.  And the Third Circuit decisions discussed above—each published, one argued orally—were relatively extensive and reflected the same commitment of resources.  In other words, don’t hope or expect courts to gloss over questionable or deficient fee requests.

Accordingly, while these cases may be outliers, they offer important lessons about what counsel can do to make life easier for the courts tasked with reviewing even innocuous filings (like fee petitions).  By taking steps to carefully consider how courts will receive petitions, counsel can help to save judicial resources and ultimately better serve their clients.

Colin Wrabley is a Reed Smith partner and a member of the firm’s appellate group. He has experience counseling and representing clients in litigations and substantive legal issues before state and federal courts across the country.  Devin Misour is an associate at the firm and a member of the appellate group.  He focuses his practice on a wide array of substantive legal matters including False Claims Act, regulatory matters and issues involving state and federal laws.

Article: Fee Award Highlights Patent Litigation in Claims Court

April 15, 2019

A recent Law 360 article by Matthew Rizzolo and Steve Meil of Ropes & Gray LLP, “Fee Award Highlights Patent Litigation in Claims Court,” reports on patent attorney fee awards in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  This article was posted with permission.  This article was originally published in Law 360.  The article reads:

Subject to certain exceptions, patent litigation in the United States typically adheres to the “American rule”: Each party pays its own attorney fees, win or lose.  But many may not be aware that assertions of patent infringement against the United States government itself are not governed by this same rule, making it easier for some successful plaintiffs to recover attorney fees at the conclusion of litigation.

A recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims awarding a plaintiff more than $4 million in attorney fees explains the different standard in detail, and may lead to increased interest in bringing patent claims against the government.

Section 1498 Actions and Attorney Fees

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1498, the Court of Federal Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over patent infringement suits brought against the federal government.  Because “infringement” by the government is generally treated as a Fifth Amendment taking of a license to use a patented invention, plaintiffs in such suits cannot receive injunctive relief, but are limited only to “reasonable and entire compensation” for the use or manufacture of the patented invention by or for the government.

Originally, the statute did not clarify whether “reasonable and entire compensation” included costs and attorney fees; the Court of Federal Claims has also found that Section 1498 claims are not directly analogous to other takings claims.  It therefore determined that the Equal Access to Justice Act (the statute that typically provides for attorney fee awards in claims against the government) did not apply to Section 1498 claims, leaving patent owners with no avenue to obtain attorney fees even in the most egregious Section 1498 cases.

Recognizing this disparity between the taking of real property and intellectual property, in 1996 Congress amended Section 1498(a) to expressly provide awards of “reasonable costs, including reasonable fees for expert witnesses and attorneys.”  The sponsors of the amendment noted that without the ability to recover fees, small businesses in particular may be unable to afford the expense of defending patents against government expropriation.

Accordingly, Congress limited the awards to certain types of plaintiffs: independent inventors, nonprofit organizations, and small businesses with less than 500 employees.  Congress further limited the awards to exclude cases where “the position of the United States was substantially justified” (mirroring the language of the Equal Access to Justice Act), or where “special circumstances make an award unjust.”

The ability to recover attorney fees as a “default” stands in sharp contrast to typical patent infringement suits, where plaintiffs — even small businesses or nonprofits — recover fees only “in exceptional cases.”   As Congress observed, however, suits against the government “authorize the government to take a license in any patent,” making such suits more analogous to takings of real property than to private infringement suits.

The Fee Award in Hitkansut v. United States

Yet in the near quarter-century since Section 1498 was amended, the Court of Federal Claims has handed down only three decisions on awards of attorney fees.  The previous cases, decided well over a decade ago, both resulted in the Court of Federal Claims denying fees.  But on March 15, 2019, the court for the first time awarded a successful plaintiff attorney fees under Section 1498.

In Hitkansut LLC et al. v. United States, the court had previously found that the government used Hitkansut’s patented invention, and awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages.  While Hitkansut had sought nearly $6 million in compensatory damages, the court found that much of these requested damages were not appropriate under the law.  The court’s prior infringement and damages findings were affirmed on appeal, and Hitkansut subsequently sought to recover its attorney fees and litigation expenses: $4.51 million.  In a thorough and detailed opinion, the court granted Hitkansut the vast majority of its fee request.

The court first addressed the fact that Hitkansut had engaged in a contingency fee arrangement with its attorneys.  The government argued that this meant that Hitkansut had not “actually incurred” any fees, disqualifying it from any award.  But the court observed that the fee arrangement was irrelevant, noting that “[a]ccepting the government’s argument would ... dissuade litigation by the very class of people the fee-shifting provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1498(a) exists to help.”  Because “[t]he patent owners most likely to use contingent arrangements are those ... specifically identified by the statute,” the court found that the fact of a contingent arrangement should not impact an award of costs.

The court then considered whether the government’s position in the suit was “substantially justified.”  Adopting the standard from the Equal Access to Justice Act, the court explained that a position is “substantially justified” when it is “justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person, which is no different from the ‘reasonable basis both in law and fact’ formulation.”  In the court’s view, an award depends on whether the government can demonstrate that the positions it took “were such that a reasonable person could conclude that its position was supportable,” taking into account both pre- and post-litigation conduct.

Applying this standard, the court found that the government’s positions on both non-infringement and invalidity lacked substantial justification.  Regarding potential infringement, the court observed that the government had (1) altered its research activity in line with disclosures Hitkansut had made to the government under a confidentiality agreement; (2) represented the opposite of claims their employees had made in invention disclosures and in depositions; and (3) advanced arguments inconsistent with the court’s claim construction.

As for validity, the court found the government’s arguments to be “unsupported by the facts”: the government failed to demonstrate either part of the Alice test, and its own witnesses’ testimony undermined its obviousness and enablement arguments.  Finally, the court found that the government’s success in arguing matters secondary to the “primary issue” of infringement did not alter whether its overall position was supportable.  It concluded that, “the government’s position may not be substantially justified even though it may have taken certain reasonable stances during the dispute.”

Having decided that fees should be awarded, the court then turned to what constitutes “reasonable” fees under Section 1498(a).  The court first denied the portion of fees expended in pursuing other similar suits as “not reasonably related” to the case, and reduced fees where they exceeded prevailing local rates.  The court then considered whether to increase or decrease the total fee, where “the most critical factor is the degree of success obtained.”

The government argued that (1) because damages were reduced to 5% of those sought, fees should be reduced proportionately; and (2) the requested fees should be capped at the amount of damages.  But the court rejected both of these arguments, finding the reduction in damages was unrelated to the primary issue of infringement, and that the remaining award — even where Hitkansut proved infringement of only some of the claims — indicated a sufficient degree of success.

Notably, the court found that the purpose of the fee-shifting portion of the statute is “to accommodate suits where the cost to bring the suit could not be recovered from the damages awarded.”  As a result, there was no reason that fees could not greatly exceed actual damages — even where, as here, the fees exceeded compensatory damages by a factor of 20.

Possible Implications

While the court’s decision in Hitkansut is likely to be appealed, it may lead to increased consideration from patent owners in bringing Section 1498 patent actions against the government (currently, only a handful of such suits are filed each year).  A common refrain among patent owners in recent years has been that it is too expensive to enforce patents.  Indeed, the high cost of litigation leads many patentees, especially those with a relative lack of resources, to outsource enforcement to patent assertion entities, or rely on contingency arrangements and/or litigation funders to assist with litigation.

For those patent owners who believe that their patents may be used by the U.S. government and/or government contractors, the court may be an avenue to seek compensation for infringement, with the knowledge that they may have a substantial chance at recovering their attorney fees and other expenses — in sharp contrast to suits against private entities.

Additionally, the prospect of a substantial fee award may lead to the government entering into settlements in these cases at higher levels than it may have previously.  And the increased attention for Section 1498 actions may come from more than just independent inventors or nonprofit organizations — given that many nonpracticing entities, even publicly traded ones, likely fall below the 500-employee threshold, they may also increase their activity at the Court of Federal Claims.

Finally, the Hitkansut court’s decision to award fees in the face of the plaintiff’s contingency arrangement may also attract firms who work on alternative fee and contingency arrangements, as well as litigation funding entities, to explore becoming involved in Section 1498(a) actions.

Matthew J. Rizzolo is a partner and Steve Meil is an associate at Ropes & Gray LLP.  For the full text of this article, including footnotes, visit https://www.law360.com/articles/1149324/fee-award-highlights-patent-litigation-in-claims-court.