Lockwood v. Sheppard Mullin (Fed. Cir. 2010)
This is an interesting case that is pending before the Federal Circuit. The focus of the appeal is whether a patentee has any cause of action for a third-party's baseless filing of a reexamination request. The patent laws themselves offer no remedy so Lockwood turned to California State Court – alleging that the Sheppard Mullin law firm should be held liable for Malicious Prosecution, Interference, and Fraud by filing their reexamination request. Lockwood argues that "[Sheppard Mullin lawyers] chose to violate the strict duty of candor required before the USPTO by making deceptive misrepresentations about the nature of purported 'prior art' in two Requests for Reexamination. Respondents filed the Requests to gain a tactical advantage during infringement litigation, in furtherance of their stated aim of putting Lockwood 'out of business,' and without any reasonable basis in patent law."
The District Court granted a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss – holding that the Federal Patent Laws and administrative structure of the USPTO preempted any cause of action in court against a sham reexamination request filed by a third party. Several law professors are involved with the litigation. Professor Jay Thomas (Georgetown) testified on behalf of Lockwood (stating that the PTO is "an agency in crisis" whose examiners are "overworked, overextended, undertrained, and underpaid"), and Professor David Hricik (Mercer) led a group of law professors who filed an amicus brief supporting Lockwood's position.
The leading Supreme Court case on the merits is Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs' Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001). In that case, the Court held that Buckman's state-law claim for fraud on the FDA was preempted by the Food Drug & Cosmetics Act because the "federal statutory scheme amply empowers the FDA to punish and deter fraud against the Agency, and that this authority is used by the Agency to achieve a somewhat delicate balance of statutory objectives." The FDA holds and actually asserts relatively greater power than the USPTO with respect to fraud on the office. As Professor Hricik writes, "since 1992, the Patent Office has not investigated inequitable conduct, and … cannot award civil damages or recover damages caused to the Office by frivolous filings."
Off the Cuff: One aspect of the law that is unclear to me is how this case differs from the ordinary prosecution malpractice situation. If the USPTO administrative and disciplinary structure preempts a civil action for patent attorney bad-behavior in reexamination filings, it seems that it would also preempt a civil against by a former client against an attorney broke USPTO ethical rules and injured his client. What is the difference?
Update: Raymond Mercodo forwarded a copy of his academic article: The Use and Abuse of Patent Reexamination: Sham Petitioning Before the USPTO.