Yesterday, the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments in FLFMC, LLC v. Wham-O, Inc. (No. 2011-1067) to decide whether the patent false marking statute (35 U.S.C. § 292) is constitutional under the “Appointments” and “Take Care” clauses of the United States Constitution (Article II, Sections 2 and 3). The panel is comprised of Judges Linn, Dyk, and Prost, and attorneys representing FLFMC, Wham-O, the US government, and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America argued before the Court. An audio recording of the argument can be heard here.
The district court below (from the Western District of Pennsylvania) dismissed FLFMC’s lawsuit, finding that it lacked standing to bring the action, and FLFMC appealed to the Federal Circuit.
It is difficult to predict how the Court will rule from the argument yesterday, but we can get an idea of some of the key issues that the Court is wrestling with. The argument chiefly focused on two key issues—(1) is there a sufficient government notice requirement in the statute and (2) does the government have sufficient control over the litigation to satisfy its constitutional obligations?
Does § 292 Require Notice to the Government?
As to the first issue, counsel for FLFMC noted that there is a provision for giving the USPTO notice of any lawsuit involving a patent (35 U.S.C. § 290) and many plaintiffs are giving the government notice as a matter of routine practice. Counsel for Wham-O countered that many plaintiffs are not giving notice under § 290 or otherwise and that § 290 only requires notice within 30 days of filing suit, by which time many cases have been settled and dismissed. In either case, the government is not getting adequate notice to fulfill its constitutional obligations. The government conceded that the notice under § 290 does not specifically indicate that the lawsuit involves allegations of false marking, so the government would have to specifically investigate every patent case filed to determine whether it involved false marking, as opposed to infringement, for example.
The Court clearly was concerned about the apparent lack of notice, and the panel questioned whether it could create a notice requirement to preserve the constitutionality.
Does the Government Have Sufficient Control of the Litigation?
The other key issue was the government’s ability to intervene and control the litigation. On its face, the statute is silent about government control and intervention. Counsel for FLFMC argued that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure give the government the right to intervene because it has a stake in the outcome of the lawsuit, and that the Court can look to these Rules in determining the constitutionality. The Court seemed to accept this argument. Counsel for Wham-O countered that while the government may be able to intervene, it has no ability to control the litigation. It cannot force a dismissal of the lawsuit or reject a settlement. It can only ask the Court for assistance, which puts the government in no better a position that any other amicus or intervenor. There was also some dispute over whether civil litigants should be precluded from bringing suit if the government has already filed a criminal action.
Given the tenor of the argument, it seems safe to say that the Court has some concerns about the constitutionality of the false marking statute. Whether those concerns rise to the level of invalidating the statute is another question. What will be interesting is how the decision in this case will affect the legislation pending in Congress that rewrites the false marking statute (HR 1249, § 16 and S 23, § 2(k)). Should the Court hold that the current false marking statute is unconstitutional, it may require Congress to revisit the amendments to that statute.