By David Hricik
In the three prior posts (hey, it’s a trend!) on Section 285, I pointed out the need for lawyers to advise principals of patentees that they may, personally, be on the hook for liability for fee shifting. For example, if the patentee is an asset-less shell corporation, the accused infringer may seek (perhaps should seek, promptly) to join principals of the patentee in the event that the case is found exceptional. Likewise, given the long-standing line of cases (going back to Ultramercial, decided when I was clerking for Chief Judge Rader (here)), the CAFC has indicated 101 can implicate factual issues and, so, likely the right to trial by jury.
It’s not a patent case, but nonetheless Marchan v. John Miller Farms, Inc. (3:16-0-357-WGY D. N.D. Dec. 11, 2018), here, has a discussion pertinent to both issues. The court addressed whether a jury must decide piercing the corporate veil under federal law, and held that there is a federal right to trial by jury on this issue. Honestly, that surprised me, but I hadn’t looked at the issue in 20 years.
The court did mention patent cases, and did mention a lot of things that should resonate with patent litigators about various issues in patent cases, including Section 101 and willfulness. The court wrote, after deciding the issue before it, in part as follows:
The analysis ought not end here. Some scholars have recently advocated making judges, not juries, decide whether to pierce the corporate veil:
[J]udges . . . are best suited to decide in each case whether the corporate veil should be pierced, for four reasons: (1) veil piercing is an inherently equitable remedy that judges are better equipped to decide; (2) veil-piercing inquiries require a weighing of legal fictions and concepts that lay jurors simply are not trained to perform; (3) decisions by judges are likely to produce more consistent results in similar cases; and finally (4) judges can likely make veil-piercing decisions more efficiently than juries can.
Brian D. Koosed, Anthony P. Badaracco, and Erica R. Iverson, Disregarding the Corporate Form: Why Judges, Not Juries, Should Decide the Quiddits and Quillets of Veil Piercing, 13 N.Y.U. J.L. & Bus. 95, 136 (2016); see also Mark A. Olthoff, Beyond the Form–Should the Corporate Veil Be Pierced?, 64 UMKC L. Rev. 311, 336 (1995) (“Because consideration of these factors involves a weighing test, a jury may be ill-suited to decide the question. Therefore, the trial judge should make the final determination of the piercing issue.”).
These contentions crop up from time to time in different contexts. See, e.g., Brandon M. Reed, Who Determines What Is Egregious? Judge or Jury?, 34 Ga. St. U.L. Rev. 389, 426 (2018) (arguing that judicial determinations of willful or egregious patent infringement “will reduce prejudice at trial, increase judicial efficiency, and foster predictable outcomes in litigation.”); but see David Nimmer, Juries and the Development of Fair Use Standards, 31 Harv. J. L. & Tech. 563, 589-93 (2018) (“Learning to Love the Seventh Amendment”). It is appropriate to point out that most of these unsupported conclusions are nothing but elitism, pure and simple. They are an unabashed retreat from the magnificent vision of the Founders. “The Seventh Amendment promised to ‘preserve’ the right of ‘trial by jury’ in virtually all civil suits ‘at common law’ and limit the power of federal judges to overturn any fact properly found by a civil jury.” Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution 435 (Basic Books 2012).
Let’s deal with the quoted contentions in reverse order:
Efficiency. Yes, there is something to this argument in the present case. The issue of veil piercing has been fully briefed and argued. There is nothing to suggest that further discovery will add to the store of information available to decide this issue. Unfortunately, the existence of a judicial vacancy makes it unlikely that this case will come before a local jury in North Dakota before well into 2019 and this is far too slow. This does not reflect on jurors, however. Rather, it is a result of the lack of judicial resources to preside over the requisite jury trial. More particularly, it reflects that I am unable, in view of my own caseload and the cases in other districts I visit, to go to Fargo, North Dakota to try this case. Efficiency is one component of justice, but it is not the sole goal of the justice system. Were that not the case, why have trials at all?
Consistency. Hardly. The great strength of our common law system is reasoned inconsistency, i.e., each court reaching out for the best possible justice in the case before it, where reasoned but varying decisions draw from the body of other such decisions with the idea that the law will grow and adapt based on such reasoning. Ours is not a civil code system where I can simply look up the rule and apply it to each case.
The working judge is not and never has been a philosopher. He has no coherent system, no problem solver for all seasons, to which he can straightaway refer the normative issues. Indeed, if he could envision such a system for himself, he would doubt that, as a judge, he was entitled to resort to it; he would think he must be less self-regarding.
Hon. Benjamin Kaplan, Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Encounters with O.W. Holmes, Jr., 96 Harv. L. Rev. 1828, 1849 (1983).
Judges are better equipped — jurors are not trained to weigh legal concepts.
This is simply not true. I have been a trial judge for over forty years. In the fact-finding line, anything a judge can do a jury can do better. The best sociological evidence confirms this truth. See James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (2004).
The fact–finding most analogous to that involved in the veil-piercing inquiry is the fact-finding undergirding a determination of successor liability — surely a jury issue. See, e.g., Jury Verdict, Thomas & Betts Corp. v. New Albertson’s, Inc., No. 10-11947-WGY (D. Mass. Dec. 12, 2015), ECF No. 801. Likewise, in the case at bar, the jury will need to decide whether the product was of merchantable quality, whether it was unreasonably dangerous, and perhaps the comparative negligence of the parties on certain counts. It may also have to assess both compensatory and punitive damages.
Four months ago, I watched a jury learn about the mechanics of 3-D printing and analyze a certain interface layer at the microscopic level to determine obviousness and infringement. Tr. Jury Trial, Desktop Metal, Inc. v. Markforged, Inc., No. 1:18-cv-10524-WGY (D. Mass. Sept. 24-27, 2018), ECF Nos. 559-64. More recently, I watched a jury determine probable cause to remove an obstreperous passenger from a campus shuttle bus. Electronic Clerk’s Notes, Strahan v. Parlon, No. 1:17-11678-WGY (D. Mass. Sept. 17-20, 2018), ECF Nos. 156-61. I asked another jury this question: “Did the anticompetitive effect of [a] settlement [between two pharmaceutical companies] outweigh any procompetitive justifications?” Jury Charge at 37:9-18, In re Nexium (Esomeprazole) Antitrust Litig., No. 12-md-02409-WGY (D. Mass. Dec. 3, 2014), ECF No. 1441, aff’d, 842 F.3d 34 (1st Cir. 2016).
Jurors have long been deciding all these issues and many more complex. It takes a special type of arrogance simply to conclude that American jurors cannot handle the veil-piercing issues presented here.
Quite simply, jurors are the life’s blood of our third branch of government.
It is not too much to say that a courthouse without jurors is a building without a purpose. See Judith Resnik & Dennis E. Curtis, Representing Justice: Invention, Controversy, and Rights in City-states and Democratic Courtrooms 293 (Yale University Press 2011); Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Foreword to John O. and Margaret T. Peters, Virginia’s Historic Courthouses xi (University Press of Virginia 1995) (“Public buildings often . . . reflect the beliefs, priorities, and aspirations of a people. . . . For much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local center of the law and government but as meeting ground, cultural hub, and social gathering place.”). It is a quiet government museum to what was once the most extensive and robust expression of direct democracy the world has ever seen.
Come in. Look around. It’s quiet. The real work goes on in judicial chambers, hidden from public view. See Brock Hornby, The Business of the U.S. District Courts, 10 Green Bag 2d 453 (2007). You can hear your footsteps along the broad corridor past the vacant courtrooms. Go into a courtroom. There will be an American flag, limp upon its staff. Along one wall is the jury box. There decent, common-sense Americans with an overarching sense of duty have sat for years. Again and again, the courtroom has heard the clerk intone the familiar cry, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and harken to your verdict as the Court records it.” No more.
In this courtroom, the chairs in the jury box are empty, mute testimony to the consistent derision of self-interested corporations, shallow stereotyping by lawyers and scholars who do not know their way around a courtroom, and the virtual abandonment of the civil jury by those judicial officers most charged with keeping our jury system vital and flourishing.
Americans themselves may yet rescue their right to a jury. Workers at Uber, Lyft, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have caused those corporations to abjure forced arbitration of claims of sexual harassment and assault. See Daisuke Wakabayashi & Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Facebook to Drop Forced Arbitration in Sexual Harassment Cases, N.Y. Times, November 9, 2018, at B1; Kate Conger & Daisuke Wakabayashi, Google Bows to Demands to Overhaul Abuse Policy, N.Y. Times, November 9, 2018, at B1; Daisuke Wakabayashi, Yielding to Critics, Uber Eliminates Forced Arbitration in Sexual Misconduct Cases, N.Y. Times, May 16, 2018, at B3. Large law firms are increasingly yielding to pressure to drop mandatory arbitration agreements for employment-related claims, such as those alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. See Chris Villani, After Kirkland, Sidney Arbitration Flip, Group Eyes DLA Piper, Law360, Nov. 28, 2018 (describing how pressure from Harvard Law School students led Kirkland & Ellis and Sidley Austin LLP to end. See Chris Villani, After Kirkland, Sidney Arbitration Flip, Group Eyes DLA Piper, Law360, Nov. 28, 2018 (describing how pressure from Harvard Law School students led Kirkland & Ellis and Sidley Austin LLP to end forced arbitration for employees, while DLA Piper, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Knobbe Martens, Paul Hastings LLP, Stoel Rives LLP, and Varnum LLP retain such clauses in their employment contracts). But see Michael Selby-Green, Morgan Stanley is fighting to stop a race-discrimination suit from going to trial by using a controversial tactic that keeps employee complaints secret, Bus. Insider, October 6, 2018; Anthony J. Oncidi, Consider the True Implications of Waiving Arbitration, Daily Journal, Nov. 14, 2018 (implicitly characterizing forced arbitration as a weapon and suggesting that dropping it is “a dangerous form of unilateral disarmament”).
Do you care about any of this?
Your rights depend on it.
4. While corporations primarily use forced arbitration to bar access to our justice system altogether, see Cynthia Estlund, The Black Hole of Mandatory Arbitration, 96 N.C. L. Rev. 679, 709 (2018); see also Jessica Silver-Greenberg & Michael Corkery,In Arbitration, a ‘Privatization of the Justice System,’ N.Y. Times, Nov. 1, 2015, data support their self-interested decision even in those few cases that are actually heard. As one would expect, in state courts, corporations win somewhat less than half the time. Alexander J. S. Colvin, An Empirical Study of Employment Arbitration: Case Outcomes and Processes, 8 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 1, 5 (Table 1) (2011). In the more rules-bound federal courts, they win 63% of the time. Id. In arbitration, where the corporation is a repeat player, i.e., is active in the market hiring arbitrators, it wins a whopping 83% of the time. Id. at 13 (Table 3).
5. In Arbitration, a ‘Privatization of the Justice System,’ N.Y. Times, Nov. 1, 2015, data support their self-interested decision even in those few cases that are actually heard. As one would expect, in state courts, corporations win somewhat less than half the time. Alexander J. S. Colvin, An Empirical Study of Employment Arbitration: Case Outcomes and Processes, 8 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 1, 5 (Table 1) (2011). In the more rules-bound federal courts, they win 63% of the time. Id. In arbitration, where the corporation is a repeat player, i.e., is active in the market hiring arbitrators, it wins a whopping 83% of the time. Id. at 13 (Table 3).
Remarkably, despite these workers’ disparate and unfocused protests, they are the direct descendants of the views of our Revolutionary-era patriots. As Professor Jamal Green points out so persuasively:
[T]he mode of representation that would best resist the Executive was less the legislature than the jury, which the Founding generation saw as an essential vehicle for articulating the rights of the community. “In these two powers consist wholly, the liberty and security of the people,” John Adams wrote of voting for the legislature and of trial by jury. “They have no other fortification against wanton, cruel power: no other indemnification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and cloathed like swine and hounds: No other defence against fines, imprisonments, whipping posts, gibbets, bastenadoes and racks.”
Adams was writing in 1766, against the Stamp Act, but the view of juries as bound up crucially with rights recognition and enforcement motivated the Bill of Rights. In criticizing the 1787 Constitution, the influential antifederalist Federal Farmer called the jury trial and legislative representation “the wisest and most fit means of protecting [the people] in the community.” Jurors were drawn from that very community and had vast powers of investigation, via the grand jury, and adjudication, via the petit jury. As Professor Akhil Reed Amar emphasizes, jury service was commonly viewed as analogous to service in the legislature itself.
2. Rights as Federalism. — Viewing the Bill of Rights through an eighteenth-century lens illuminates its focus on institutional form. A remarkable number of its amendments seek to preserve the role of the jury and other local representative institutions in federal administration.
Jamal Greene, Rights as Trumps?, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 28, 112-13 (2018) (footnotes omitted).