Revision to IPR Duty of Candor: Broadening Duty?

The USPTO today announced it was amending 37 CFR 42.11 to include a Rule 11 type certification.  I see a lot of issues but one relates to a post earlier last month I made here.

As the final rule now provides, with the key new language underlined:

(a) Duty of candor. Parties and individuals involved in the proceeding have a duty of candor and good faith to the Office during the course of a proceeding.

(b) Signature. Every petition, response, written motion, and other paper filed in a proceeding must comply with the signature requirements set forth in § 11.18(a) of this chapter. The Board may expunge any unsigned submission unless the omission is promptly corrected after being called to the counsel’s or party’s attention.

(c) Representations to the Board. By presenting to the Board a petition, response, written motion, or other paper—whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating it—an attorney, registered practitioner, or unrepresented party attests to compliance with the certification requirements under § 11.18(b)(2) of this chapter.

In turn, Section 11.18(b)(2) provides:

 To the best of the party’s knowledge, information and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,
(i) The paper is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass someone or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of any proceeding before the Office;
(ii) The other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law;
(iii) The allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and
(iv) The denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence, or if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.

When you combine this with some other statements made by the USPTO (and PTAB cases quoted in the comment) in the announcement of the final rule, it is also clear that a patentee seeking to substitute an amended claim is representing that the proposed claim is patentable over all art known to it (query whether “prior art” includes sales?).  For example, the USPTO wrote:

[A] patent owner must argue for the patentability of the proposed substitute claims over the prior art of record, which include: (a.) Any material art in the prosecution history of the patent; (b.) any material art of record in the current proceeding, including art asserted in grounds on which the Board did not institute review; and (c.) any material art of record in any other proceeding before the Office involving the patent. Id. at 2. The Patent Owner must also distinguish over any art provided in light of a patent owner’s duty of candor, and any other prior art or arguments supplied by the petitioner, in conjunction with the requirement that the proposed substitute claims be narrower than the claims that are being replaced.

Where I end up is that this rule on its face is clearly broader than Rule 56:  the lawyer must certify that, based upon a reasonable investigation, that a substitute claim is patentable over all prior art known to a party or “persons involved” in an IPR.  Again, what about a substitute claim known to be unpatentable over non-art information?

Baker Botts Dodges $42 million Verdict in Patent Conflict Case

This is a fascinating case on several levels, Axcess International, Inc. v. Baker Botts LLP (Tex. App. Dallas March 2016).  Baker Botts was representing one client, Axcess International, Inc. (“Axcess”) in prosecuting patent applications involving certain radio frequency identification technology. After it had filed those applications, it began to represent another client, Savi Technologies, Inc. (“Savi”) in prosecuting applications on similar technology. There is a lot going on in the case, but essentially Axcess sued Baker Botts and alleged two breaches of duty.

First, that, but for a conflict of interest between Savi and Axcess, Baker Botts would have broadened claims the firm had been pursuing for Axcess. The opinion is hard to follow but there seem to be two, related, claims made by Axcess.

First, Axcess argued that had it broadened its claims, the USPTO would have declared an interference with a then-pending Savi application, and Axcess would have prevailed. Put the other way, Baker Botts “pulled its punches” – had a material limitation in terms of 37 C.F.R. 11.107, I presume — on its ability to represent Axcess – because of its representation of Savi. Had it prevailed in the interference, Axcess would have claims to subject matter that turned out to be the lucrative technology. That leads to the second basis, which is that the broadened claims would have issued to Axcess and would have covered the lucrative terrain.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded $42 million dollars to Axcess. However, Baker Botts moved that judgment be entered in its favor, and raised four grounds. The trial court granted the motion without saying why.

The appellate court affirmed on one of the alternate grounds to affirm raised by Baker Botts – that there was no causation: specifically, that expert testimony was required and the testimony presented fell short of reliable expert testimony but was instead speculative.

In holding there was no evidence of causation, the Texas state appellate court placed the standard quite high, in my opinion and based solely on what is repeated in the opinion. The appellate court held that Axcess should have had an expert who was competent to testify that an interference would have been declared, specifically someone who could testify an Interference Practice Specialist would have reacted to the suggestion of an interference.

The second point seems to be that conflict-free counsel would have obtained broader claims that covered Savi’s commercial products. Here, the appellate court said there was no evidence the USPTO would have issued the claims. It is not clear what was done by Axcess: did the expert compare the hypothetical claims to the prior art of record? If so, that would seem to be enough, but the appellate court stated that there had to be evidence of how the USPTO would have responded to hypothetical patent applications and “evidence from similar cases.” In a vacuum and without the full trial record, this seems odd. Again, the opinion is hard to follow.

So, Baker Botts for now has dodged a $42 million verdict that arose out of relating competitors in closely related patent applications. Who knows how much the firm spent in doing so, and whether it will be reviewed by the Texas supreme court (that court has a discretionary review procedure sort of like the U.S. Supreme Court. Those risks need to be assessed in examining so-called “subject matter” conflicts. (Buy my book on prosecution ethics and read more!)

One other thing: along the way, the court stated that Baker Botts had been subpoenaed in a related case where an accused infringer argued that Baker Botts had failed to disclose in applications for Savi information the firm had obtained from Axcess. That case settled and there is no indication Savi sued Baker Botts for that failure; the existence of the subpoena and that case shows the risks of representing competitors and being careful about doing so!

Finally, the case is a warning about being careful: state courts are going to decide patent prosecution malpractice claims. Think about that.  I honestly sometimes don’t know if arbitration is any better, however, and I am beginning to think that there really are some issues in even a routine malpractice case where a state’s interpretation of law could radically affect a federal objective and interfere with patent prosecution. Stay tuned for that.

Cravath’s Been Hacked: Are IP Firms a Major Target?

Cravath reported that hackers had breached the firm’s website, according to the NYT in a story here.  I’d assume it was someone who wanted to get access to key financial information in order to use it for illicit purposes.  An IP firm can, of course, possess some significant proprietary information — trade secrets, product designs, and other business information that could be of use to competitors, stock manipulators, and others.

Most firms, of course, are aware of their ethical obligations to take reasonable precautions to secure client confidences, no doubt in part because the standard of care requires it, hacks are public knowledge, and in fact the FBI issued a warning several years ago on this point.  But a Citigroup report dated almost exactly one-year ago said that lawyers still were behind the curve, and articles specific to IP firms (such as this one, calling IP firms the low-hanging fruit compared to the USPTO’s data) are out there also signaling warnings.

The Cravath incident hopefully will bring more attention to this topic and to the need some IP firms may have to act.


The Breadth of the Duty of Candor in IPR

This column is about shows that because of the wording of regulations imposing the duty of candor in IPR, parties — parties — in an IPR owe an extremely broad duty of candor.  This ain’t your grandpa’s Rule 56.

Here’s the regulation, 37 C.F.R. 42.11:  “Parties and individuals involved in the proceeding have a duty of candor and good faith to the [USPTO] during the course of a proceeding.”

There’s a lot of unpacking to do when that rule is applied, but one key different between 42.11 and 1.56 is who is covered by the obligation.  Under 1.56 it is, of course, those persons substantively involved in prosecution.  Now look at 42.11:  parties.  And persons “involved.”  Obviously, “persons involved” is broader than persons substantively involved, but parties means, one would think, the party and everyone in it.  That is an extraordinarily broad scope.

By the way if you compare 42.11 to the narrower “inconsistent information must be disclosed” obligation in IPR in 42.51, it applies to a different set of people and does not include parties, so one would think these words were deliberately chosen and have different meaning.

Finally, there are proposed amendments in the works which, I heard when I was at the USPTO a couple weeks ago, are coming “soon.”  There’s more about that here, and I don’t know if it will narrow the scope of who is covered, if anything, the proposed amendment to 42.10 adding a certification by the lawyer may make it clear that a lawyer has a duty to investigate everything known to a “party” to an IPR.

A PTO official said to me after my talk that trying to think about IPR with an overlay of prosecution will do nothing but harm. He’s right.


Iqbal, Twombly, the Demise of Form 18, and Rule 12 Hell

A few months ago, I was at the Eastern District of Texas Bench and Bar Conference, and I started talking to a federal district judge about her views of the then-imminent demise of Form 18, the form that essentially made it sufficient for a complaint alleging direct infringement to include only barebones allegations of the facts.  Her response was, “it’s going to be Rule 12 hell.”

And she was right.

Where the law now is is this, it seems:  to state a claim of direct infringement, a patentee must state factual content — which excludes legal conclusions and conclusory statements — which, if taken as true, plausibly shows infringement.  What she saw happening is what is happening, and a good example of this just happened in an order, Atlas IP LLC v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., from Judge LaPorte of the Northern District of California.

Where we are, it seems, is that we’re going to have to apply rules from Iqbal and Twombly about how legal conclusions don’t count to patent claims, where what matters is, of course, the legal conclusion about what the claim means.  Once that clutter is removed and it becomes clear that legal conclusions can sometimes ‘count’ for purposes of stating a claim, we are still going to have to face defendants filing motions asserting that the alleged interpretation is an “implausible” interpretation of the claims.  And we’re going to do that element by element.

So, “Markman Plausibility” hearings to decide Rule 12(b)(6) motions are coming your way?

Rule 12 hell?  Rule 12 hell no!

The Maling Decision from Massachusetts on Subject Matter Conflicts

In late December, the high court of Massachusetts issued a decision in Maling v. Finnegan, Henderson.  The decision is accessible, if you search for “Maling,” here.

Boiled down, the court affirmed the grant of the firm’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint that in broad terms alleged that the Finnegan firm had a conflict because it represented the plaintiff and another client in obtaining patents claiming screwless eyeglass hinge inventions.  There are two broad issues:  when is prosecution of patents for one client adverse to another, and when are two patent applications so close that prosecuting them creates a material limitation on the lawyer’s ability to represent either client.

With respect to adversity, this form of conflict is sometimes viewed as a “finite pie” conflict, where two clients are fighting for a resource that cannot meet both their demands.  In Maling, the court relied on a case that I’ve cited for two decades now that involved a firm representing two companies each pursuing a license to a radio channel.  The court reasoned there that so long as they were not fighting over the same channel, and there was no electrical interference between the two channels, there was no direct adversity and so no conflict.  By analogy, the court’s essential holding was that unless patent claims interfere or are to obvious variations of each other, there is no direct adversity.  (The court also noted that giving an infringement opinion to one client about another client’s patent would be adverse, but that was not alleged, apparently, here.)

With respect to material limitations, this form of conflict arises when a lawyer’s obligations to anyone (including himself) precludes him from competently representing a client.  The basic test is:  imagine what a lawyer without the “obligation” would do; and then ask whether the obligation the allegedly conflicted lawyer had would result in a material limitation.  Simple example:  if a lawyer represents a car wreck plaintiff, the lawyer generally cannot cross-examine that plaintiff even in an unrelated matter if it doing so would involve, say, exposing eyesight problems that could be used against the plaintiff in the car wreck. The court in Maling contrasted the allegations in the complaint to situations where firms have shaved claims for one client to avoid another client’s patent.  There was nothing like that here, and nothing like what the court suggested might otherwise be a material limitation.

The court ended with admonitions to lawyers to be sure to monitor for conflicts carefully.  I’ll end by noting that this is not the first, or last, word on this topic.

“Be careful out there,” as they said in Hill Street Blues.


PTAB Allows Filing of Motion for Sanctions for Alleged Protective Order Violation

Lately I’ve had a lot of calls about ethical issues in IPR proceedings. The rules are not clear in a number of instance and the case law is sparse and not always easily harmonized with the plain text of the rules.  This case caught my eye, though, for a different reason.

The order is paper 23 in RPX Corp. v. Applications on the Internet Time, LLC, IPR 2015 (Dec. 4, 2015).  The actual order itself grants the petitioner authority to file a motion for sanctions for alleged violations of the Standing Default Protective Order.  Obviously, parties need to police against such violations.

What the case reminds us is that the Standing Default Protective Order is not… a standing default protective order.  Instead, it is entered only by motion of the parties, and that motion must include the proposed protective order.

Here, the parties had previously agreed to be bound by the protective order, and so the fact that they had not requested entry of any protective order did not matter. However, remember that there really is no default standing protective order… a misnomer that can hurt you.

S.D. Florida shifts fees from date of claim construction onward

Advanced Ground Info. Sys., Inc. v. Life360, Inc. (S.D. Fla. Civ. A. No. 14-cv-80651), is an interesting case .  The patent-in-suit covered some sort of smart phone app (it’s not clear what).  The key dispute over infringement centered on whether the end user, alone, performed each step of the patented method.  Of course, a method claim cannot be infringed without preponderant evidence of direct infringement by someone.

Here, the asserted method claims survived the accused infringer’s motion for summary judgment of non-infringement, but were found by the jury to be not infringed.  Even though the case got to a jury, the district court awarded fees to the prevailing accused infringer, rejecting the argument that simply because the case got to trial meant it was not subject to shifting.

Instead, the court emphasized that after Akamai and the district court’s claim construction, it had been clear that there could be no infringement.  To oppose fees, the accused infringer pointed out that the court had denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment after both Akamai and claim construction.

Why then, did the district judge deny the motion for summary judgment?

In granting fees in its November 30, 2015 order, the judge explained that he had “considered granting” the motion but had not done so because of the patentee’s explanation of how the app worked. Specifically, the judge stated that he denied summary judgment of non-infringement of the method claims based on the patentee’s argument that when the end user used the app was used, the app “automatically,” performed the remaining steps and so directly infringed the method claims.  That turned out to be untrue, and so the denial of summary judgment, alone, was insufficient to avoid an exceptional case finding.

In addition, the judge in granting fees also mentioned that the patentee had never sold any products, sued a start-up that had never made a profit, and yet the patentee argued that it had suffered irreparable harm.  Given the facts, the judge awarded fees from claim construction onward.

The lessons are several, but not unusual or new.  One is obviously to have a viable infringement claim and evidence of it; lawyer argument is not evidence.  The other is to keep in mind that, post-Octane it is important to evaluate infringement and other arguments carefully after claim construction (and any other similar event) and advise the client on, not just whether the case is meritorious, but whether it is marginally so and thus continued litigation puts the client at risk of fee shifting.

Judge Real Enters Default Against Infringement Defendant for Discovery and Other Abuses

On December 1 in United Construction Products, Inc. v. Tile Tech, Inc. Judge Real of the Central District entered terminating sanctions — default judgment admitting patent infringement, inducement, and more — and found a case exceptional.  Among other things, the judge found that defendant’s counsel, among other things, missed pretty much every deadline, made misrepresentations to the court about meeting deadlines, and more.

No, this sort of conduct isn’t common in federal litigation (to this degree), but terminating sanctions are rare.

Federal Circuit Asked on Mandamus to Recognize Patent Agent Privilege

In In re Queen’s University at Kingston (App. No. 2015-0145), the court yesterday heard oral argument on whether to recognize the patent agent privilege.  The oral argument is here.

Judges Lourie and O’Malley (if I’m recognizing their voices by memory correctly) seemed to believe that the court should recognize the privilege, but judge Reyna was skeptical of using mandamus to reach the issue.

This issue does need resolution by the court.  The amount of money cost fighting over whether this privilege exists is money spent not addressing the merits, and whether this privilege exists comes up fairly frequently (and will more so in future cases, since patenting has become more of an international endeavor since the mid-1990s).  I’ve written about this issue (and other patent agent ethics issues) here.  The petitioner pretty much echoed my argument in the paper!  Hopefully Judge O’Malley will quote me in her decision.

The USPTO also held some roundtables on the privilege (see here).

New Discovery Rules: Act Now?

I’m headed to speak at the Eastern District of Texas Bench & Bar Conference and then at the AIPLA meeting in DC. One result of this (and of teaching civil procedure this year) is becoming very concerned about the new discovery rules, coming into effect in December. If you haven’t read them, do so. If you file a case after December 1, they will control; they also will control, to the extent practicable and just, to cases filed before then.

Apart from doing away with all forms except the one relating to waiver of service of process, the key change is with respect to the scope of discovery.  Here is the old rule:

Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense—including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any documents or other tangible things and the identity and location of persons who know of any discoverable matter. For good cause, the court may order discovery of any matter relevant to the subject matter involved in the action. Relevant information need not be admissible at the trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. All discovery is subject to the limitations imposed by Rule 26(b)(2)(C).

Here is the new:

Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

There are a lot of changes.

First, discovery has to be — not just relevant to an existing claim or defense — but also proportional to several factors or considerations.  The answer to whether an issue is important is quite subjective, and, no doubt, turns on viewpoint.  Does it bring in a subjective element?  How do we determine whether the cost will exceed the likely benefit without knowing what the discovery would reveal?

But the key concern I have is the elimination of any ability to allow discovery beyond relevancy to a claim or defense.  Given that there must be a rule 11 basis to plead something, how can certain affirmative defenses (especially inventorship and inequitable conduct) ever be pled?  Because of this change, if it can’t be pled, there won’t be discovery.  Local rules, of course, can’t be inconsistent with the FRCP.

The amendments are here.

Georgia Annual Corporate IP Institute October 27-28 in Atlanta

By David Hricik

On October 27-28, 2015, the Ninth Annual Corporate IP Institute® is being held in Atlanta.  I’ll be speaking along with a lot of other folks.  As usual, the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) has organized a panel for the event for corporate IP management best practices.  Registration for the Institute (and a bonus charity golf game, the CIP CUP® — these folks obviously have trademark and marketing lawyers around) is available here.


California Bar Reportedly Drops Reines Inquiry

The only reports I can find about this are behind paywalls, but the reports are that the California bar association dropped its investigation into whether there was any wrong-doing involving Mr. Ed Reines and his interactions with former Chief Judge Rader.  As you’ll recall, the Federal Circuit wrote an opinion (which I thought had an awful lot of holes in it, available here).

What is that expression about where do I go to get my reputation back?

Professionalism in Communications with the USPTO

I gave a talk last night in New York City, and I talked about various prosecution and litigation issues.  In attendance was a primary examiner.  We got to discussing nasty communications from practitioners.

She told me some things that should be obvious, but apparently my sense of what is obvious differs from a lot of practitioners.

First, being snarky doesn’t work.  Telling someone they are stupid is not going to advance prosecution.

Second, when a particularly nasty communication comes in, it becomes the topic of conversation.  “You won’t believe this one…”  It’s a small world so if you’re practicing in one area, being nasty to one examiner may affect your reputation among several examiners in that art group.

Despite those two fairly common-sense things, nasty-grams continue.  The OED occasionally gets involved.

Patent prosecution is, of course, an adversary process, with the practitioner attempting to overcome an examiner’s arguments as to why certain claims are unpatentable (among other things). Examiners are under time pressures, as are practitioners whose clients need efficiently delivered legal services. Sometimes that leads one “side” or the other to lose its cool.

That is understandable, and perhaps forgivable.

What seems to happen too often is that practitioners unload vituperative communications on examiners. This is probably counter-productive – telling someone they are stupid and wrong in my experience is likely not to change that person’s mind. Yet, practitioners persist in this nasty conduct.

Primary examiners have told me that when these sorts of nasty communications come in, they are passed around and ridiculed at the office. I doubt that is testimony to their effectiveness.

Beyond that, these are passed along to the OED. The OED has made it clear that it will not tolerate unprofessional behavior. In one recent disciplinary case, In re Schroeder, D2014-08 (May 5, 2015), the OED entered a default judgment against a practitioner who clearly went beyond the boundaries of decency. The practitioner wrote:

            Are you drunk? No, seriously … are you drinking scotch and whiskey with a side of crack cocaine while you “examine” patent applications? (Heavy emphasis on the quotes). Do you just mail merge rejection letters from your home? Is that what taxpayers are getting in exchange for your services? Have you even read the patent application? I’m curious. Because you either haven’t read the patent application or you are … (I don’t want to say the “R” word) “Special.”

The practitioner also stated:

Since when did the USPTO become a post World War II jobs program? What’s the point in hiring 2,000 additional examiners when 2,000 rubber stamps would suffice just fine? So, tell me something Corky, what would it take for a patent application to be approved? Do we have to write patent applications in crayon? Does a patent application have to come with some sort of pop-up book? Do you have to be a family member or some big law firm who incentivizes you with some other special deal? What does it take Corky? Perhaps you might want to take your job seriously and actually give a sh.t! What’s the point in having to deal with you Special Olympics rejects when we should go straight to Appeals? While you idiots sit around in bathtubs farting and picking your noses, you should know that there are people out here who actually give a sh. t about their careers, their work, and their dreams.

Perhaps indicating that he was having a bad day, on the same day that practitioner filed a response in another application. That examiner had also rejected the claims based on the prior art. Rather than overcoming the substance of the rejection, the practitioner wrote:

Apparently, the current Examiner to which this application has been assigned, does not speak the native language here in the United States of America. Perhaps in Farsi, really ancient Latin, or even the post-Nimoy Vulcan dialect, the word “stud” just so happens to be synonymous with the term “ridge”. But here in this country, the same country to which [sic] Examiner receives his stipend, the word “stud”, and the word “ridge” have two separate and distinct meanings.

He also wrote examiners were like “athletes who participate in the Special Olympics [who] might initially make the same mistake after a wild night of cocaine and strippers in Las Vegas.” Finally, he said he had consulted an online dictionary “called,” where, sure enough, a picture and name of the current examiner was found. Not surprisingly, enumerated synonyms include the following: ‘Down’s Syndrome, idiot, lazy, incompetent, blind, stupid, worthless.’”

Don’t do this.

In Scotland a Juror who Misuses Technology Can Face Two Years in Prison!

I’ve written an article or two on ethics and technology, and am in the middle of writing a chapter for an ABA book.  It is remarkable to me the number of jurors who do not listen to the judge’s admonitions not to do research about the case but, instead, to listen to the evidence.  Also, jurors sometimes text to friends, family, and each other about the case.  I know that a juror in one trial I was involved in a couple years ago was tweeting during a patent trial (mostly about how boring it was and, I have to say, I agreed!).  There’s even a blog about jurors misbehaving called!

Over in the UK they’ve decided to take this fight one step further and criminalize some aspects of this.  Up to 2 years in prison! The article is here.

Not sure I’d lock someone up for two years for doing this, but I do know that, especially in the criminal arena, misconduct has caused mistrials, motion practice, and more.  Perhaps it would serve as a strong deterrent?

Anyone have any stories to share?

Illinois: In-house counsel who limit practice to that before the USPTO do not need to register

Some states permit in-house counsel to practice in the state so long as they only represent their corporate employer and register with the state.  Registration is not free or hassle-free.  However, in Opinion No. 15-01 (May 2015), the Illinois State Bar concluded that in-house counsel who limited his practice to patent practice did not need to register.

This issue comes up in many forms.  For example, what can a patent agent do?  The USPTO has defined what is, and is not, practice before the office and those definitions should be carefully consulted.  But this Illinois opinion is a bit of good news to in-house counsel in my law school’s state.

Is it Appropriate Prosecute Patents for Direct Competitors on Inventions on Similar Technology without Disclosure and Waivers?

by Dennis Crouch

[Prof  Hricik may have more to say on this conflict-of-interest case, but I believe it is an interesting one and important for discussion.]

Maling v. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP, SJC-11800.

A patent law malpractice case is pending before the Massachusetts Supreme Court that has major implications for patent prosecution practice.  Many patent patent attorneys and law firms develop technology-specific specialties as a marketing strategy.  The professional responsibility problem arises when the strategy is successful enough to attract multiple clients with substantial technological crossover.  Of course, this likelihood is intensified in larger law firms where more lawyers means more clients and more (potentially overlapping) invention disclosures.

Back in 2003, Maling hired Finnegan Henderson to prosecute a set of patent applications relating to screwless eyeglass hinges.  According to the allegations, it turns out that Finnegan was also representing a competitor (Masunaga) with a similar invention in the same screwless eyeglass hinge field.  Finnegan says that these were “attorneys in different offices.”  Neither client was informed or gave consent to this alleged conflict of interest and Maling argues that Finnegan’s “independent professional judgement” was impaired by the conflicting representation in violation of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct.  Among the various harms Maling alleges a delay in filing his application and wasted efforts on technology not sufficiently protected by patent.


The state trial court dismissed on failure-to-state-a-claim for the civil action with the court finding no direct adversity of interests and no nexus between the conflicting representation and the claimed harm.  The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (MA’s highest court), is now focused on the question of whether an actionable conflict arises when a single law firm files and prosecutes patent applications for similar inventions on behalf of two existing clients.

Massachusetts law:

  1. 1.7(a): “A lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation of that client will be directly adverse to another client.”
  2. 1.7(b) “[A] lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation of that client may be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client or to a third person, or by the lawyer’s own interests.”


Finnegan here argues that the allegations of filing and prosecuting a competitor’s “similar” invention is “insufficient” to even suggest a conflict of interest.   Rather, Finnegan argues an ethical conflict only arises if one of the client’s inventions are blocked by patent disclosures made by another client.

The distinction between “similar” and “novel and non-obvious” is well-illustrated by the Maling and Masunaga inventions described in the patents at issue in this case. Both inventions attempt to solve the problem of how to construct an eyeglass frame without utilizing screws. As the PTO concluded, however, each patent claims a novel solution to this problem. . . .
Here, there is no allegation that Maling and Masunaga ever were “directly adverse” to one another, in patent proceedings or otherwise. Maling cites to no case law, nor is Finnegan aware of any, in which a court has held that parties are directly adverse to one another simply because each seeks to patent technology in the same field. Such a standard, moreover, would be inconsistent with the statutory-framework discussed above, which recognizes that multiple patents may be granted in the same field so long as each claims a “new and useful” invention, or a “new and useful improvement thereof.”

Finnegan also explains that conflicting-out large law firms would make it difficult for inventors to find representation — quoting Hricik as saying that “a rule that limits a firm to representing only one client in a particular technical field ‘imposes unnecessary costs on lawyers, clients, and the system.'” Hricik & Meyer, Patent Ethics: Prosecution (2015).

In his brief, the plaintiff-appellant argues that its allegations of violation and harm are sufficient to overcome a motion to dismiss. Their brief does not detail an explanation of how similarity should be treated.

In an amicus filing, a group of major law firms, including Knobbe Martins; Honigman Miller; Nixon Vanderhye, and others arguing that direct conflict issues only arise if the inventions are so close as to lead to an interference (pre-AIA).

The amicus brief suggests that the rules may be different post-AIA because the new law sets up more of a race to the PTO (first-to-file vs first-to-invent).  This, of course, is disingenuous as the pre-AIA system included a large number of adverse impacts caused by delays in filing.

One interesting issue that arises here is that Maling had Finnegan conduct a pre-filing prior art search in 2003.  At that point, the Masunaga patent was on file, but not yet published and so did not turn-up in the search results – even though Finnegan attorneys knew of the reference and knew that it was prior art.

Michael McCabe has more of a discussion of the case on his IP Ethics and Insights Blog.

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Most civil-action malpractice claims fail because of the difficulties of proving harm. At the USPTO and State Bars, mere violation – even without client harm – is actionable as a violation of the rules of professional responsibility. It will be interesting to see how the USPTO treats this case.

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Read the Briefs:


Dickstein Shapiro Dodges Malpractice Suit by Showing Long-Ago Issued Claims Were to Ineligible Subject Matter

By David Hricik

This one will make your head spin, especially the statutory construction part.  The case is Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc. v. Dickstein Shapiro LLP (D. D.C. Aug. 26, 2015).

The Dickstein Shapiro firm was retained by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. (EB) in 1993 to file a patent application. The patent issued, and in 2006 EB sued several companies for infringing it. The patent was held invalid due to “an unnoticed defect” in the 1993 application.  The basis for invalidity was not 101, however.

EB then sued the law firm for malpractice in prosecuting the 1993 application.  EB contended that, but for the firm’s negligence, it would have made a lot of money in the infringement suit.

After the malpractice suit was filed, Alice was decided.  The firm then argued that, as a result, the claims were ineligible and so any malpractice by it in 1993 could not have been the but-for cause of harm.  The claims would have been “invalid” under 101 even had it not botched the 1993 application, and so there was no harm caused by any error it made.

To put this in context:  Because of a 2014 Supreme Court decision, the 2006 case would have been lost anyway because, in 1993, the claims were not eligible for patenting.

And the argument worked.  The district court granted a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, finding the subject matter ineligible on the face of the patent.

I’ll leave the merits of that to others.

What is interesting is the court’s approach to retroactive application of Alice.  The issue was whether in the 2006 case, even had the firm’s alleged malpractice not caused the invalidity judgment, the claims were “invalid” under 101 then.  The district court held that Alice did not change the law, but merely stated what it had always been.    Specifically, the district court stated:

When the Supreme Court construes a federal statute… that construction is an authoritative statement of what the statute has always meant that applies retroactively.  Alice represents the Supreme Court’s definitive statement on what 101 means — and always meant.  Because the underlying case is governed by 101, it is appropriate for this Court to apply the Supreme Court’s construction of 101 as set forth in Alice.

(Citations omitted).

For this and other reasons, the court reasoned that “the only rule that makes sense in this context is to apply the objectively correct legal standard as enunciated by the Supreme Court in Alice, rather than an incorrect legal standard that the [district court in the 2006 infringement case] may have applied prior to July 2015 [when the court was deciding the motion.]”  The court then applied Alice and found the claims “invalid” under 101.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, the retroactivity of Alice bodes ill for lawyers who obtained patents now being held “invalid” under 101.  If the law “always” was this way, why did you advise your clients to spend so much money on a patent so clearly invalid that a judge could decide it by looking at it? But keep reading, because you and I know Alice and the rest changed the law.  (Indeed, the USPTO changed its examination procedures to adjust to it!)

Second, there could be enormous consequences if Alice changed the Court’s prior interpretations of 101.

While as a matter of statutory construction the retroactivity principle relied upon by the district court is correct, retroactivity does not ordinarily apply when an interpretation is changed.  (This perhaps explains why the Supreme Court is careful to avoid saying it is changing an interpretation, because changes to interpretations of a statute are prospective, only, as a general rule.  In that regard, think about Therasense for a moment.) So, if Alice changed the law, then the district court was likely wrong to apply it retroactively.

More broadly, however, if Alice (and the rest) changed the meaning of 101, then it means many patents now being held “invalid” should not be judged under Alice.

I’ve been waiting for someone to make the retroactivity argument (as with Therasense, which clearly changed the CAFC’s interpretation of “unenforceability”).  It would be fun to try to see someone use Alice and apply it to the Supreme Court line of cases and make them all fall in a line.