Federal Circuit: Firm Cannot Switch Sides in Patent Case

By Dennis Crouch

In re ATopTech (Fed. Cir. 2014)

Professor Hricik already wrote some on this case [link], but I wanted to discuss it in a bit more depth as well.

In 2013, Synopsys sued ATopTech for infringing its U.S. Patent No. 6,507,941. The ‘941 patent covers a sub-grid connectivity method used in chip layout automation software known as electronic design automation (EDA). ATopTech hired the 800-lawyer behemoth firm of O’Melveny & Myers to handle the defense. However, N.D. California Judge Chesney disqualified the O’Melveny firm based upon a conflict of interest.

O’Melveny has some history with the parties. The ‘941 patent was previously owned by Magma Design and O’Melveny represented Magma Design for almost a decade, including in its 2012 merger with Synopsys. O’Melveny had also represented Magma Design in several EDA-patent lawsuits against Synopsys and had apparently considered asserting the ‘941 patent against Synopsys. Further, two of the attorneys on the O’Melveny trial team had been part of the Magma Design team, including Luann Simmons (Managing Partner of OMM San Francisco).

Based upon these facts, the district court found that the relationship between the current and former representation substantial enough to create an irrefutable presumption that confidential material information was transmitted to the attorneys regarding the current dispute. The result of that conclusion is that O’Melvany cannot now switch sides to represent the opposing party. The district court did not, however, go so far as to particularly find that the O’Melveny attorneys had actually breached any ethical duties.

In a Mandamus action, ATopTech asked the Federal Circuit to overrule the lower court decision. However, the appellate panel denied the Mandamus petition – finding instead that the lower court “had a sound basis for disqualifying OMM.”