Federal Circuit Sanctions Non-Practicing Entity for Baseless Lawsuit — Eon-Net LP v. Flagstar Bancorp

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

Non-practicing entities (NPEs) are often criticized for bringing meritless lawsuits against companies with the sole intention of forcing settlements by offering amounts far less than the cost of litigation. Even though the claims may be baseless or tenuous at best, the cost of fighting often far outweighs the settlement demands. Faced with paying a relatively small amount to assure the case goes away versus paying substantially more to defeat the claim through litigation, companies will often acquiesce to the settlement demands even if they feel that they have not infringed a valid patent.

On Friday, the Federal Circuit issued a decision in Eon-Net LP v. Flagstar Bancorp, (No. 09-1308) reminding defendants that there are other options for defendants facing frivolous lawsuits. The Court in a unanimous decision affirmed a district court’s decision to award over $600,000 in attorney fees and sanctions under 35 U.S.C. § 285 and Rule 11 against an NPE for filing a frivolous patent infringement lawsuit. The Federal Circuit panel consisted of Judges Lourie, Mayer, and O’Malley.

Eon-Net LP—Non-Practicing Entity

Eon-Net LP (and its related companies) are NPEs that have filed over a hundred lawsuits against a variety of different defendants. They typically offer to settle cases for $25,000–$75,000, based on the amount of the defendant’s sales, which are amounts far lower than the potential damages or the litigation costs. This is the typical non-practicing entity

35 U.S.C. § 285 and Attorney Fees in Exceptional Cases

A district court has the discretion under § 285 to award attorney fees to the prevailing party in a patent infringement lawsuit if it determines the case is “exceptional.” The Federal Circuit, while indicating that it will review these determinations, also indicated that it will not lightly disturb a court’s finding because of the court’s lengthy and personal experience with the case, the parties, and the attorneys.

The Federal Circuit mentioned a variety of actions by a losing party that can make a case exceptional—(1) litigation misconduct, (2) unprofessional behavior, (3) misconduct in getting the patent at issue, and (4) bringing an objectively baseless litigation in bad faith. The Court found that Eon-Net’s litigation misconduct and filing of a baseless infringement action in bad faith made the case exceptional.

The Eon-Net case is pretty much a checklist for what not to do in filing a lawsuit. First, Eon-Net intentionally destroyed potentially relevant documents prior to filing suit. Next, it failed to participate in the litigation process in good faith by not offering constructions for any of the disputed claim terms, lodging incomplete and misleading evidence with the court, and submitting contradictory declarations. In short, “[t]he district court also found that [Eon-Net’s principal] displayed a ‘lack of regard for the judicial system’ and that Eon-Net and [its principal] had a ‘cavalier attitude’ towards the ‘patent litigation process as a whole.’” Taken together, the Federal Circuit found this behavior unprofessional.

The Federal Circuit also affirmed the finding that Eon-Net filed a baseless lawsuit in bad faith. The written description in the patent clearly refuted Eon-Net’s need construction to find infringement, which it should have known before filing suit.

In finding that Eon-Net filed suit for an improper purpose, the Federal Circuit looked beyond the litigation before it and to Eon-Net’s history of filing what it considered to be “extortionate” lawsuits with settlement demands far lower that the litigation costs. “The record supports the district court’s finding that Eon-Net acted in bad faith by exploiting the high cost to defend complex litigation to extract a nuisance value settlement from Flagstar.” On its face, the Court’s analysis brings into question the entire business model for many NPEs.

In addition, the Court was troubled by the disproportionate and asymmetric discovery costs often present in cases like these. NPEs will often have little, if any, relevant documents or personnel to depose. In contrast, defendants may have enormous amounts of potentially relevant documents and witnesses. Because discovery costs are generally borne by the producing party, an NPE can force a defendant to expend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars during discovery—costs that it will never have to bear because of the dearth of information it has.

Finally, the Court was troubled by the fact that NPEs are rarely put at risk in these kinds of lawsuits. They do not typically sell any products, so there is no chance of a patent infringement, unfair competition, or antitrust counterclaim. The only risk is the loss of the patent itself, which is typically only one of a number of licensing revenue sources. There is no chance that they will face increased competition from a competitor if they lose.

Taken together, the Federal Circuit had no problem with the finding that Eon-Net filed a baseless lawsuit in bad faith for an improper purpose sufficient to warrant a finding that this was an exceptional case.

Rule 11 Sanctions

In addition to awarding attorney fees, the Federal Circuit also affirmed the district court’s imposition of Rule 11 sanctions because Eon-Net and its attorneys failed to perform a reasonable pre-suit investigation. While Eon-Net’s counsel did examine Flagstar’s website before filing suit, they did not perform an objective evaluation of the claim terms when assessing infringement.

What Can We Learn From This Decision?

This decision is really a slap in the face to NPEs and indicates that the Federal Circuit does not take kindly to litigants filing baseless claims to extort settlements from defendants. While this decision serves as a warning to NPEs and their attorneys, it also serves as a cautionary tale for other litigants.

First, the decision emphasizes the need to conduct a proper pre-filing investigation, which should include a claim-by-claim analysis of infringement and the potential construction of any key claim terms. Depending on the nature of the allegedly infringing product, this analysis may be difficult. For example, if claim limitations are not observable from inspecting the product (such as limitations contained in source code), the attorneys will need to make educated assumptions about how the allegedly infringing product works and be ready to defend the legitimacy of those assumptions, if necessary.

Second, plaintiffs need to be aware that the obligation to preserve potentially relevant evidence begins before they file the lawsuit. Intentionally destroying documents before filing a lawsuit can have serious consequences, and if a company had a standard document destruction policy, it must determine if that policy needs to be suspended before (not after) filing suit.

Third, litigants need to take the litigation seriously and respect the process, even if it feels cumbersome or annoying at times. Flippant comments, like those made by Eon-Net’s principal, can come back to haunt a losing party. Ignoring the process or filing half-hearted papers can cause serious problems.

Finally, this case is a real indictment of the standard NPE business model of making extremely low settlement offers to entice defendants to not fight the lawsuit. Many NPEs use this business model with lawsuits of questionable merit knowing that defendants will be reluctant to fight the lawsuit given the prospective costs. This decision may serve as a wake-up call for NPEs and their attorneys to be more careful in what suits they file.  Given that Eon-Net only makes between $25,000–$75,000 per settlement, a $600,000 fee award against it likely is a substantial hit to its business. In addition, this decision will haunt Eon-Net in all future proceedings and likely lead to more awards against it if it continues to bring these kinds of meritless lawsuits.

This decision shows that fighting the fight can sometimes be worth the battle and help to deter other NPEs from coming after a company. Unfortunately, it is still likely a losing proposition for the defendants. Even in this best-case scenario, they are generally only compensated for their litigation costs, not all of the other costs of being a defendant (such as lost employee time, opportunity losses, and the damage to their image by being involved in a lawsuit). There is no windfall for defendants in these circumstances.

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