By Andrew Dhuey
When patent litigators hear the term “rocket docket”, they usually think of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, long-known for its dedication to accelerated justice. The term doesn’t usually call to mind the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, though its docketing-to-disposition time has averaged a reasonable 9-10 months. The recent case of Beer v. United States, however, shows that it is possible to have the Federal Circuit decide your appeal on the merits and rule on your en banc hearing petition in a mere 85 days, docketing to disposition.
Beer concerns a newsworthy issue dear to the hearts of federal judges: their pay. Eight current and former federal judges seek to recover cost-of-living adjustments Congress promised federal judges in 1989, but failed to deliver in 1995-97, 1999 and 2007. While the Beer parties disagreed on whether this deprivation of COLAs was an unconstitutional diminishing of judicial pay, they all agreed that the Federal Circuit rejected this exact position in Williams v. United States (Fed. Cir. 2001). In 2002, the Supreme Court denied cert. in Williams over the dissent of Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy.
With the issue resolved in Williams, why did these federal judges raise the same pay issue again in a 2009 U.S. Court of Federal Claims case? The answer rests not with any changes in the law, but instead with changes in the makeup of the Supreme Court. All four justices who joined the court since 2002 (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan) replaced justices who voted to deny cert. in Williams. Assuming the Beer judges still have the three Williams dissenters on their side, they can win on the merits with two of the four newest justices.
Of course, before they could even file their cert. petition, the Beer judges needed to work their way through the Claims and Federal Circuit courts. To expedite that process, the judges conceded that both the Claims court and the Federal Circuit panel were bound to follow Williams. Their purpose was to overturn Williams, which could only be done by the Federal Circuit sitting en banc, or by the Supreme Court.
On Nov. 3, 2009, thirteen days after filing their notice of appeal at the Federal Circuit, the Beer appellants filed a Petition for Initial Hearing En Banc or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Affirmance. Alas, the clerk’s office rejected this filing since the appellants included a copy of their trial court complaint, and that apparently is not okay. [Side note to Judge Beer, et al: none of your court clerks can hold a candle to Federal Circuit clerks when it comes to finding a way to reject a filing]. Appellants’ counsel, Christopher Landau of Kirkland & Ellis resolved this problem the following day, and the case was then before all 12 active Federal Circuit Judges.
On Jan. 15, 2010, the court denied the petition for initial hearing en banc over the dissent of then-Chief Judge Michel, joined by Judges Lourie and Moore, and the separate dissent of Judge Newman. With that denial of the en banc petition, a three-judge panel granted the Beer appellants’ motion for summary affirmance, with a concurrence by Judge Mayer, who reiterated his previous view that Williams was wrongly decided, but that “neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has done anything in the interim that would warrant this court taking the matter up again.” The Federal Circuit had thus resolved Beer on the merits, en banc, only 85 days after docketing.
So what, you ask? How could this possibly be of interest to you, a patent litigator? Well, you have a point – you probably won’t have occasion to stipulate at the district court or the BPIA, and on appeal, that your client is toast due to applicable, binding Federal Circuit case law. But some patent litigants are out to make a big, precedential splash (e.g. ,the ACLU in its challenges to the BRCA gene patents). Perhaps in some of these “big picture” cases, a litigant has no realistic hope on the merits, absent the overruling of a Federal Circuit panel decision. [This was not the case for the ACLU, which actually won at the district court]. Or perhaps obliterating a binding precedent would be so valuable to a litigant (e.g., a “frequent defendant”) that it would be willing to concede away weak but non-frivolous arguments on the merits in order to directly attack the harmful precedent, post haste.
Maybe you’ll never have a Beer, but in the right, highly-exceptional patent case, you might want to use the Beer strategy.
Andrew Dhuey is an appellate lawyer last seen being chased by a flower-carrying guy in a dress.