October 15, 2020
A recent Law 360 story by Britain Eakin, “Fed. Circ. Asked To Nix Alsup’s Fee Award to Apple, Cisco,” reports that saying its infringement suit against Apple and Cisco was reasonable, a tech company told the Federal Circuit that U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrongly determined the case was exceptional and abused his discretion by awarding them $4.2 million in fees. In a brief, Straight Path IP Group LLC said the district court departed from an agreed-upon claim construction in granting summary judgment of non-infringement to Apple and Cisco. It argued that as a result, Federal Circuit precedent requires it to reverse Judge Alsup's finding of exceptionality, which is required for a prevailing party in a patent dispute to get fees.
"Where a plaintiff asserts infringement under a claim construction and the district court subsequently clarifies or modifies that construction in granting summary judgment of non-infringement, this court holds that the case is not exceptional, and that a district court abuses its discretion by granting a motion for attorney's fees," Straight Path said. In determining whether a case is exceptional, a district court considers things like whether a suit was frivolous or if a party's case was unreasonable.
Straight Path contended that it provided plenty of evidence that its case was reasonable, including a declaration from former U.S. Chief Circuit Judge Paul Michel. The former judge testified at the district court that Straight Path had "asserted an objectively reasonable view of infringement" under the agreed-upon claim construction, which he said was supported by evidence. While Judge Alsup called Straight Path's litigation position "a slick maneuver," the company argued in its brief that "Chief Judge Michel's view far more accurately characterized this case."
"Whether ultimately correct or not, Straight Path respectfully submits that if Chief Judge Michel concluded that the litigating position was reasonable, that is strong evidence that the litigating position was reasonable," the brief said. Straight Path said the appeals court need not probe why Judge Alsup deemed the case an exceptional one "in such brash tones." "It is enough to recognize that the district court's determination of exceptionality runs afoul of the limits this court has placed on the district court's discretion, and must therefore be reversed," Straight Path said.
The fee dispute between the parties has been a lively one, sparking fireworks in the courtroom during a May 7 hearing when Judge Alsup scolded Apple and Cisco for initially requesting $10 million in fees after beating the suit nearly three years ago. The judge said the tech giants "played games," used "abusive" tactics and were motivated by "greed, G-R-E-E-D."
He required them to resubmit their fee bids and appointed a special master to determine a reasonable amount of fees and costs. On May 19, the court awarded Cisco $1.9 million — half of its initial request — while Apple netted $2.3 million of its initial $3.9 million ask. In its brief, Straight Path — now known as SPIP Litigation Group LLC — noted that the claim construction the parties had agreed to was signed off on by the Federal Circuit when Straight Path successfully appealed Patent Trial and Appeal Board decisions invalidating various claims in the patents, which Cisco and others challenged after Straight Path initially sued in 2014.