A recent Law 360 article by Thomas Makin, David Cooperberg, and Adi Williams, “Why Fed. Circ. Affirmed Attorney Fee Award in PeronalWeb”, reports on the recent patent attorney fee award in PersonalWeb Technologies case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This article was posted with permission. The article reads:
In the recent majority opinion In re: PersonalWeb Technologies, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California entry for a $5.2 million award of attorney fees pursuant to Title 35 of the U.S. Code, Section 285. Federal Circuit Judges Jimmie V. Reyna, Timothy B. Dyk and Judge Alan D. Lourie reviewed the district court's exceptional case determination and fee award calculation and found no abuse of discretion.
This article explores the ramifications of the Federal Circuit's Nov. 3 decision and underscores district courts' discretion to sanction unreasonable arguments and litigation tactics.
Section 285, provides that, "[t]he court in exceptional cases may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party." Attorney fees, however, are not awarded merely for "failure to win a patent infringement suit," as per the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Octane Fitness LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness Inc. decision.
According to the Federal Circuit's 2017 Checkpoint Systems Inc. v. All-Tag Securities SA decision, "The legislative purpose behind § 285 is to prevent a party from suffering a 'gross injustice,'" such as having to defend itself against baseless claims, and not to punish a party for losing. But according to Octane, "The Patent Act does not define 'exceptional.' [However, the Supreme Court has construed it] in accordance with [its] ordinary meaning."
The Supreme Court has further explained in Octane 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 [and] District courts may determine whether a case is "exceptional" in the case-by-case exercise of their discretion, considering the totality of the circumstances.
When reviewing an exceptional case, the Federal Circuit is "mindful that the district court has lived with the case and the lawyers for an extended period ... and [it is] not in a position to second guess the trial court's judgment," as per the Federal Circuit's 2011 Eon-Net LP v. Flagstar Bancorp decision.
PersonalWeb is the owner of U.S. Patent Nos. 5,978,791; 6,928,442; 7,802,310; 7,945,544 and 8,099,420 — collectively, the true name patents. These patents are generally directed to what the inventors termed the "true name" for identifying data items. True names are unique identifiers that depend on the content of the data item.
The activities that led to the Nov. 3 exceptional case determination started in 2011, when PersonalWeb sued Amazon.com Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, alleging that Amazon's Simple Storage Service, or S3, cloud technology infringed PersonalWeb's true name patents. After the district court construed the claim terms, PersonalWeb stipulated to a dismissal, resulting in the district court dismissing with prejudice the infringement claims against Amazon and entering final judgment against PersonalWeb.
Seven years later, in 2018, PersonalWeb asserted the same true name patents against 85 Amazon customers across the country for their use of Amazon's S3 technology. Amazon intervened and filed a declaratory judgment action against PersonalWeb. The declaratory judgment action sought an order, barring PersonalWeb's infringement actions against Amazon and its customers based on the Texas action.
The declaratory judgment action and customer cases were then consolidated into a multidistrict litigation and assigned to the Northern District of California. Upon consolidation, PersonalWeb represented that if it lost its case against Twitch, a customer case, it would not be able to prevail in the other customer cases. The California district court then stayed the other customer cases and proceeded with Amazon's declaratory judgment action and the Twitch customer case.
In the declaratory judgment action, PersonalWeb counterclaimed against Amazon, alleging that Amazon's S3 technology infringed its true name patents and later added claims against another Amazon product, CloudFront. The district court granted summary judgment of noninfringement as to the S3 product in favor of Amazon, based on both the Kessler doctrine and claim preclusion.
The Kessler doctrine generally precludes a patentee from pursuing follow-on infringement suits against the customers of a manufacturer that previously prevailed against the patentee on the same allegedly infringing products. The district court later granted summary judgment of noninfringement as to the CloudFront product based on PersonalWeb's concession that it could not meet its burden of proving infringement under the district court's claim construction.
The Federal Circuit affirmed both decisions. The district court then granted Amazon and Twitch's motion for attorney fees and costs, pursuant to Title 35 of the U.S. Code, Section 285.
In determining that the case was exceptional, the district court found that:
- PersonalWeb's infringement claims related to Amazon S3 technology were objectively baseless and not reasonable when brought, because they were barred due to a final judgment entered in the Texas action;
- PersonalWeb frequently changed its infringement positions to overcome the hurdle of the day;
- PersonalWeb unnecessarily prolonged the litigation after claim construction foreclosed its infringement theories;
- PersonalWeb's conduct and positions regarding the customer cases were unreasonable; and
- PersonalWeb submitted declarations that it should have known were inaccurate.
PersonalWeb appealed to the Federal Circuit, contending that the district court erred as to each of its exceptional case findings. The Federal Circuit addressed each argument, starting with PersonalWeb's alleged objectively baseless infringement claims.
Objective baselessness relates to "[t]he substantive strength of a party's litigating position" and can "independently support an exceptional-case determination," according to Octane — with these factors also cited in the Federal Circuit's 2017 Nova Chemicals Corp. (Canada) v. Dow Chemical Co. decision. Thus, according to Octane, "a case presenting ... exceptionally meritless claims may sufficiently set itself apart from mine-run cases to warrant a fee award."
In this regard, the Federal Circuit said, quoting Octane, in the 2015 SFA Systems LLC v. Newegg Inc decision: "It is the 'substantive strength of the party's litigating position' that is relevant to an exceptional case determination, not the correctness or eventual success of that position."
At the Federal Circuit, PersonalWeb argued that, with respect to objective baselessnes, the reach of Kessler had not been a well-settled issue and that the Federal Circuit's affirmance of the district court's summary judgment decision extended Kessler to cover cases against manufacturers that had been dismissed with prejudice pursuant to stipulation without adjudication of noninfringement.
The majority rejected PersonalWeb's arguments, and reiterated that the Kessler doctrine precludes a patentee who is first unsuccessful against the manufacturer from then suing the manufacturer's customers for those acts of infringement that post-dated the judgment in the first action.
The majority opined that a straightforward application of Kessler barred PersonalWeb's claims because the order in the Texas action dismissing with prejudice all claims against Amazon and its S3 product operated as an adverse adjudication on the merits of PersonalWeb's infringement claims.
The Federal Circuit likewise found that claim preclusion rendered claims of customer infringement prior to the final judgment in the Texas action objectively baseless. The Federal Circuit's remaining exceptional case analysis relates to litigation conduct. And under the Supreme Court 's Octane Fitness standard, "a district court may award fees in the rare case in which a party's unreasonable conduct — while not necessarily independently sanctionable — is nonetheless so 'exceptional' as to justify an award of fees."
On appeal, with respect to the district court's finding regarding PersonalWeb's "frequently changing infringement positions," PersonalWeb argued that its conduct constituted zealous advocacy.
The Federal Circuit disagreed because the record showed that PersonalWeb's alternative infringement theories were constantly changing throughout the case, ranging from emphasizing one, or the other, or both. The Federal Circuit found that PersonalWeb's pattern of flip-flopping infringement theories made the case "stand out from others with respect to the substantive strength" and "the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated."
PersonalWeb challenged the district court's finding that PersonalWeb unnecessarily prolonged litigation on the basis that the district court had expressly credited PersonalWeb's efforts to streamline the case post-claim construction.
The Federal Circuit disagreed, holding that the district court's finding was not an abuse of discretion because:
- PersonalWeb refused to immediately stipulate to noninfringement despite an adverse claim construction and an obligation to continually assess the soundness of its claims; and
- PersonalWeb's offering of expert opinion relying on alleged ambiguity in the district court's claim construction amounted to an impermissible attempt to relitigate claim construction. The Federal Circuit further noted that, while PersonalWeb may have taken other actions that did not prolong the case, the above misconduct sufficiently supported the district court's finding.
PersonalWeb challenged the district court's finding that PersonalWeb's conduct and positions regarding the issue of customer case representatives were unreasonable on the basis that it was only during discovery, in July 2019, that PersonalWeb discovered that Twitch was not representative of certain categories of the customer cases.
The Federal Circuit rejected this argument. The court said PersonalWeb could not change horses in February 2020, after PersonalWeb had represented that it could not prevail against other customers if it could not prevail against Twitch, and after the district court granted summary judgment of noninfringement in favor of Amazon and Twitch.
The Federal Circuit also concluded that PersonalWeb's seven-month delay in raising its allegedly newly discovered nonrepresentativeness issue was unreasonable. PersonalWeb also challenged the district court's finding that two inaccurate declarations submitted on behalf of PersonalWeb in support of its opposition to summary judgment were relevant to the exceptionality analysis.
The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the testimony was contradicted by the record and supported a finding of unreasonable litigation conduct. The Federal Circuit dismissed PersonalWeb's argument that the testimony was not inaccurate as frivolous.
The appellate court concluded its analysis of the district court's exceptional case determination with an admonition that counsel, as officers of the court, "are expected to assist the court in the administration of justice, particularly in difficult cases involving complex issues of law and technology."
The Federal Circuit found no clear error in the district court's finding that PersonalWeb's counsel fell short of this expectation by litigating with "obfuscation, deflection and mischaracterization" to make the case exceptional under Section 285.
With respect to the calculation of $5.2 million in attorney fees, which PersonalWeb also challenged on appeal, the Federal Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the district court's calculation. The Federal Circuit found that the district court thoroughly analyzed the extensive record, considered conduct that both supported and detracted from its award of attorney fees, and explained the award's relation to the misconduct.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Dyk contended that PersonalWeb's position on Kessler could not be objectively baseless because — in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court — the solicitor general agreed with PersonalWeb that the dismissal with prejudice of the Texas action should not trigger the Kessler doctrine.
As Judge Dyk put it, "[T]he solicitor general is not in the habit of making objectively baseless arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court." Judge Dyk asserted that the majority effectively punished PersonalWeb for making an argument on which it did not succeed rather than one that was unsupported.
Despite the dissent, this case underscores district courts' discretion to sanction unreasonable arguments and litigation tactics under Section 285. Attorneys should be mindful when zealously representing their clients not to present to the court cases that may be deemed "exceptional" under Section 285.
When deciding to prosecute a patent infringement lawsuit, attorneys should conduct adequate pre-suit investigation, ensuring that each and every element of the claim is likely present in the accused product or process, either literally or as an equivalent, and that a prospective plaintiff is not barred from bringing suit.
The pre-suit investigation should also include researching and staying current on the controlling authority for the suit's specific fact pattern. It naturally follows that attorneys should not ignore or mischaracterize evidence or controlling authority that undermines their clients' claims.
After filing suit, attorneys have a responsibility to dismiss the suit if subsequent developments foreclose the possibility of victory. Importantly, attorneys should always remember that, while advocates for their clients they are also officers of the court, and owe the court a duty of candor and must abide by court rules and assist the court in the expeditious administration of justice. Losing sight of these obligations risks exposing clients to an award of fees and costs under Section 285.
Pursuant to Section 285, a court may look to the totality of the circumstances, using, as per Octane, a "'nonexclusive' list of 'factors,' including 'frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and legal components of the case) and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence.'"
Parties should be aware that while an individual argument or litigation tactic might be characterized as mere zealous advocacy, an award of attorney fees may be supported when that conduct is viewed under the governing totality of circumstances standard.
Thomas R. Makin is a partner, David Cooperberg is a special attorney and Adi Williams is an associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP.