While Congress continues to consider various bills that would make it easier for prevailing parties in patent cases to collect their attorneys’ fees from non-prevailing parties, the Federal Circuit is not sitting by quietly. In Kilopass Technology, Inc. v. Sidense Corp. (Case No. 2013-1193), the Court vacated and remanded a District Court’s decision not to award attorneys’ fees to a prevailing defendant. In an opinion written by Judge O’Malley, the Federal Circuit reviewed the Court’s jurisprudence on fee shifting and clarified the elements that must be met for a defendant that prevails.
This case was a more typical competitor-on-competitor patent infringement lawsuit, rather than the “troll” variety that has been in the news of late. Kilopass and Sidense are competitors in the embedded non-volatile memory market. Kilopass became concerned that Sidense may infringe some of Kilopass’s patents after reviewing a Sidense patent application, so Kilopass hired a law firm to conduct an infringement analysis. Based on an initial review, counsel believed that there was a sufficient basis to send a friendly letter to Sidense, asking if it wanted a license and for an explanation of why it did not infringe. Sidense responded by pointing out differences between its design and the claims of the patent and declined a license.
After receiving Sidense’s response, counsel noted that his infringement analysis assumed that Sidense was making a product according to the design in its patent application, which is not always the case. He noted that if Sidense was making the product in a different way, it did not infringe (at least literally). He recommended that Kilopass try to find out how Sidense’s memory cells were made in order to better assess its potential infringement.
A Kilopass employee obtained further information that showed that Sidense was not making its memory cells the same way that it described in its patent application. With this information, counsel determined that Sidense was likely not infringing and that Kilopass would have a tough case.
Kilopass hired another law firm to conduct another analysis. The second firm preliminarily determined that Kilopass appeared to have a valid claim of infringement via equivalence, but that it needed to conduct a more detailed analysis to be sure. Counsel started this analysis, but was instructed by Kilopass to stop all work.
A team of engineers from Kilopass then concluded that Sidense infringed under the doctrine of equivalence after reviewing the patent and Sidense’s products. Kilopass filed suit approximately two years later.
During the litigation, the District Court found out that Kilopass was making inconsistent arguments regarding the proper claim construction before the Court and before the USPTO BPAI during a concurrent inter partes re-examination. The Court then chastised Kilopass for its gamesmanship. The Court ultimately granted summary judgment of non-infringement to Sidense, which the Federal Circuit summarily affirmed.
Sidense sought its fees, which the District Court ultimately denied because Kilopass performed substantial pre-filing investigations and obtained opinions from two different law firms and its own engineers that it had a non-baseless claim of infringement.
Federal Circuit’s Holding
The Federal Circuit ultimately vacated the District Court’s determination that an award of attorneys’ fees was not warranted and remanded for a further determination. In doing so, the Court clarified the current state of the law with respect to whether a court should award attorneys’ fees to a prevailing defendant in a patent infringement lawsuit.
The determination of whether to award fees is a two-step process, which must be shown by clear and convincing evidence. First, the prevailing defendant must show that the patentee’s claims of infringement were objectively baseless. Second, the defendant must show that the patentee brought the claims in subjective bad faith.
In assessing the subjective prong, a defendant does not have to show that the patentee knew its claims were baseless. A showing that it should have known based on the totality of the circumstances, which can include how objectively baseless the claims were, is sufficient. The Court noted that direct proof of subjective bad faith is often very difficult to come by, so indirect proof can be sufficient.
The Court reiterated that a showing of bad faith is required for an award of fees, although, had the panel been working on a clean slate and not bound by prior precedent, it may have found otherwise. Bad faith must be considered by viewing the totality of the circumstances. The Court also noted that in most cases the objective prong will likely be determinative of this issue, and the subjective bad faith requirement “may prove to have little effect.”
Interestingly, the Court considered whether clear and convincing evidence should be required to prove these elements. It ultimately concluded that it must, but did so based on the fact that it had to follow the precedent set by earlier panels.
Finally, the Court rejected Sidense’s proposal that fee shifting should be appropriate whether a patentee files a lawsuit having little likelihood of success. Unlike Sidense’s other arguments, the Federal Circuit did not seem inclined to expand liability in this fashion.
The Federal Circuit set forth a clearer statement of the law regarding awards of attorneys’ fees to prevailing defendants in patent infringement lawsuits. This was not a patent troll case, so the overtones and political issues associated with that topic were not present. The decision seemed to signal that the panel would have considered significant changes to the law but for the prior precedent that bound it. This may signal that this case is ripe for an en banc review. We shall have to wait and see.
The other take away is that the Federal Circuit is not going to tolerate patentees bringing weak cases, especially when counsel expresses in writing that infringement is unlikely. Patentees need to be cautious about bringing such suits, especially where it appears that literal infringement is not present.