By Jason Rantanen
Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. v. Octane Fitness, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2014) (nonprecedential) Octane Fitness Remand
Panel: Newman, Mayer, and Lourie
In Octane Fitness v. Icon the Supreme Court rejected the “objectively baseless” legal standard that the Federal Circuit had been applying in exceptional case determinations. Procedurally, the appeal was of the district court’s ruling that this case was not exceptional under 35 U.S.C. § 285, which the Federal Circuit had affirmed under its then-authoritative standard. Following remand by the Supreme Court, the Federal Circuit has itself now remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with the new legal standard.
Most of the nonprecedential opinion involves a straightforward recitation of portions of the Court’s holding:
The Supreme Court abrogated both the clear and convincing evidence standard and the two-part test for objective baselessness and subjective bad faith of Brooks Furniture. Octane, 134 S. Ct. at 1757–58. The Court held that within the context of § 285 “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.” Id. at 1756. The Court further concluded that “[d]istrict courts may determine whether a case is ‘exceptional’ in the case-by-case exercise of their discretion, considering the totality of the circumstances.” Id. The Court explained that there is no precise rule or formula for making those determinations and noted that district courts should exercise “equitable discretion” in considering a nonexclusive list of factors that could include “‘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.’” Id. at 1756 n.6 (quoting Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 534 n.19 (1994)). The Supreme Court also observed that “a case presenting either subjective bad faith or exceptionally meritless claims may sufficiently set itself apart from mine-run cases to warrant a fee award.” Id. at 1757.
Slip Op. at 5-6. However, the Federal Circuit also took the opportunity to remind district court judges that the inquiry does not end with the exceptional case determination. Specifically, under earlier Federal Circuit precedent, the court held that district courts can continue to apply their discretion even after a case is determined to be exceptional:
The Supreme Court’s decision in Octane did not, however, revoke the discretion of a district court to deny fee awards even in exceptional cases. Long before Brooks Furniture, we held that “an exceptional case does not require in all circumstances the award of attorney fees.” S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. v. Carter-Wallace, Inc., 781 F.2d 198, 201 (Fed. Cir. 1986); see also Gardco Mfg., Inc. v.
Herst Lighting Co., 820 F.2d 1209, 1215 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (“After the district court determines that a case is exceptional, there remains in every case its freedom to exercise its discretion informed by the court’s familiarity with the matter in the litigation and the interest of justice.” (internal quotations omitted)). Indeed, in the companion case Highmark, the Court held that “[b]ecause § 285 commits
the determination whether a case is ‘exceptional’ to the discretion of the district court, that decision is to be reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion” and that
district courts should have discretion in “all aspects of [the] § 285 determination.” Highmark, 134 S. Ct. at 1748–49.
Slip Op. at 6. The court goes on to remand the whole mess back to the district court to apply its discretion under the new standard (and presumably, to also apply its discretion to the award of fees).
What I find particularly fascinating about this whole area of law is that there is a substantial line of intertwined Section 284 and 285 cases that deal with the district court’s discretion on fee awards after a finding of willful infringement or that a case is exceptional. These cases (which often involve an analysis under the factors set out in Read Corp. v. Portec, Inc., 970 F.2d 816, 826–27 (Fed.Cir.1992) are essentially a totality of the circumstances analysis. This produces two interesting results. First, although I haven’t fully thought through whether two issues are sufficiently parallel, it seems that there’s a relevant body of law on totality of the circumstances analyses in this context that already exists that courts will be able to draw upon when applying the Court’s new standard for exceptional case determinations. Second, how should the analysis play out if both the exceptional case determination and the decision to award fees (and how much those fees should be) involve essentially the same totality of the circumstances inquiry? Does it make sense to retain a formal distinction between the exceptional case determination and the amount of the fee award? My sense is that the answer is yes, particularly since there will inevitably be factors in the amount-of-fee determination that are not relevant in the is-the-case-exceptional determination (for example, I have seen a district judge apportion fees based on what happened with which patents, with fees being granted for attorney activity in connection with one patent but not when the activity was solely related to other patents involved in the litigation).