A recent NLJ story by Scott Graham, “Federal Circuit Faces Facts: District Judges Call Shots on Fee Awards,” reports that a District Court in Texas is on the verge of overruling the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on exceptional case attorney fees. Two Federal Circuit judges voiced serious displeasure that U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap, of the Eastern District of Texas ignored their strong hint two years ago to award fees in a patent dispute between online retailer Newegg and Acacia Research Corp. subsidiary Adjustacam Inc.
But the judges recognized that sending the case back to the Eastern District of Texas a second time may not make any difference. That's because even though appellate courts nominally have authority over trial courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively reversed the balance of power on patent fee awards. "It really seems what [Gilstrap] did here was pay lip service to our mandate, and it's very frustrating," Judge Todd Hughes said during arguments in Adjustacam v. Newegg. "But if we send it back, he's probably going to deny fees again, and it's all going to be a big waste of time."
"It could be that we never find an exceptional case" unless the district judge does too, Judge Jimmie Reyna said. "I'm looking at this case to see if there's any point where this court could say there's been an abuse of discretion."
Adjustacam is the latest round in a long-running battle between Acacia and Newegg over exceptional-case attorney fees. Newegg's outspoken general counsel, Lee Cheng, left the company last year, but outside counsel Mark Lemley of Durie Tangri continued the fight, with Collins, Edmonds, Schlather & Tower partner John Edmonds representing Adjustacam.
Adjustacam sued 58 defendants in the Eastern District of Texas in 2010 over a patent on a rotatable camera mount. Newegg insisted there was no basis for infringement, especially after U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis construed the claims in 2012. Adjustacam dismissed its claims three months later because summary judgment briefs were imminent, according to Lemley; and because Adjustacam had settled with Newegg's suppliers, according to Edmonds.
Davis declined to award fees in 2013. But the following year the U.S. Supreme Court eased the standard for awarding fees in its Octane Fitness decision, while giving district judges more discretion over whether to award them. The Federal Circuit instructed Davis to reconsider Newegg's fee motion under the new standard. Hughes' opinion for the court advised that Newegg's arguments "appear to have significant merit."
By then Davis had retired. His successor Gilstrap adopted almost all of Davis' findings and conclusions. In a footnote addressing the Federal Circuit opinion, Gilstrap wrote that he had tried "not to circumvent by hindsight the judgments and in-person evaluations that the trial judge who dealt with this case in the courtroom arena was best positioned to have made."
Lemley argued that Gilstrap willfully refused to follow the Federal Circuit's instructions. "Judge Gilstrap didn't conduct his own evaluation of the facts, he block quoted and cited Judge Davis' previous determinations," Lemley said. "He afforded no weight to this court's opinion remanding the case, even though this court went out of its way to say it saw significant merit in the frivolousness claim." Hughes seemed to agree. Gilstrap's decision "seems to ignore our mandate from our prior decision," he said.
But "even if we all agree" that Adjustacam's litigation position was baseless, Hughes said, "that alone doesn't entitle you to an award of the fees. After Octane Fitness, the district courts get large discretion to look at the case and say, 'Does this stand out from all the others?'" Lemley urged Hughes and his colleagues to simply declare the case exceptional, but Reyna also sounded hesitant. "We have a situation here that let's say that I would find exceptional," he said. "But yet I'm faced with this very rigorous standard of review" on appeal.
Edmonds argued that Adjustcam had solid grounds for its claims, having recovered as much as $3.7 million from one defendant. There were "legitimate strategic reasons unrelated to the merits of the case of why Newegg was dropped," Edmonds said. But that argument presumes that Adjustacam had a reasonable infringement theory, Hughes said. "And post-claim construction, how can you possibly show any reasonable claim of infringement?" he said. The Federal Circuit pointed that out in its previous opinion, and Gilstrap dismissed it "with that one-line throwaway sentence" about hindsight, Hughes said.
He was just getting started. "We ordered the court to look at it all again, under the new standards, under Octane," Hughes said. "And the court didn't do that. It said I'm just wholesale adopting these factual findings and I'm not going to change the outcome." Edmonds disagreed with that characterization. But even if Gilstrap had found Adjustacam acted unreasonably, "within his discretion he could still find it not to be an exceptional case."