Enovsys v. Nextel (Fed. Cir. 2010)
Mundi Fomukong is a co-inventor of the patents-in-suit. At the time of the invention, Fomukong was married to Fonda Whitfield. Sometime after the first patents issued, Fomukong and Witfield divorced. Later, the second patent issued; Fomukong formed Enovsys; and he (along with his co-inventor) assigned their rights to the new company. Later, when Enovsys sued Sprint-Nextel, the defendant challenged the case on standing. Sprint's argument is based on the rule that any patent infringement actions must be brought jointly by all co-owners of the patent. Specifically, Sprint argued that Ms. Whitfield retained an interest in the patent rights even after the divorce and, without Ms. Whitfield's support, Enovsys lacked standing. (Ms. Whitfield assigned her rights to Sprint.)
In the US, patent ownership rights are primarily controlled by state laws. At times, patent attorneys are called to understand their local laws of contracts, employment, inheritance, and (here) divorce. Thus, in deciding this case, the court looked first to the law of California — the site of the marriage, invention, and divorce.
California is a "community property" state and “all assets acquired during a marriage are presumptively community property.” In their divorce filings, however, Fomukong and Whitfield checked the box next to the statement that “We have no community assets or liabilities.” Without citing specific California law, the Federal Circuit held that that the final divorce decree coupled with this box-checking stripped Whitfield of her community property rights in the patent. "[A]lthough the final divorce decree was silent as to particular property, it nevertheless adjudicated the parties’ rights with respect to that property because it was based on an uncontested complaint which alleged that there was no community property."
With the issue of ownership settled, the court then affirmed the lower court's claim construction and infringement verdict.