Supreme Court Affirms Causal Requirement for Sanctions under Inherent Power

In patent litigation, as in all civil litigation, district courts have various means to impose sanctions for litigation misconduct.  Rule 11, Rule 37, Section 1927, and, of course, Section 285 are rule- or statutorily-based means to impose costs on those who litigate improperly.

Federal courts also have the “inherent power” to impose sanctions even if one of those rules or statutes is not violated.  But, because it is judicial in nature and cannot be used to swallow the rule, inherent power has long been somewhat cabined. Among other things, the Court has always held that any sanctions imposed must be causally related to the misconduct.

The Court affirmed that requirement in a non-patent case, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger (Apr. 18, 2017).  In that case, Goodyear engaged in a years-long effort to hide key documents from the plaintiffs, who, not knowing of them, settled the case.  When they sought sanctions, the district court awarded all of the litigation fees the plaintiff had incurred from the time when the scheme had begun:  $2.7 million.  It also held, conditionally, that $2 million was caused directly by the shenanigans.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, but the Court reversed, unanimously.  It reiterated that in some cases — such as when the entire defense or entire claim are brought in bad faith — a shifting of all fees is proper, but found that was not the case here.  Instead, unable to discern if the $2 million conditional award was appropriate, it remanded for the courts below to decide what amount had actually been caused by Goodyear’s misconduct.

Section 285 is often the myopic focus of patent litigators.  While the Goodyear opinion confirms the causation requirement of inherent power, it also should remind litigators to think of all available means to seek compensation for improper litigation conduct.