Maintaining Uncertainty in the Standard of Review for Exceptional Cases

By Jason Rantanen

Highmark, Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Systems, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2012) (Order Denying Rehearing En Banc) Download 11-1219 order
Concurring opinion by Judge Dyk, joined by Judge Newman
Dissenting opinion by Judge Moore, joined by Judges Rader, O'Malley, Reyna, and Wallach
Dissenting opinion by Judge Reyna, joined by Judge Moore, O'Malley, and Wallach, and Chief Judge Rader in part

Earlier this year, a divided panel of the Federal Circuit held that the element of objective baselessness in an exceptional case determination is subject to de novo review as opposed to a more deferential form of review in Highmark v. Allcare.  Yesterday, the Federal Circuit declined to grant en banc review of that holding, a decision that spawned two dissents signed by what now constitutes half the court.  (Judge Linn assumed senior status shortly after participating the decision).  As discussed below, in declining to grant en banc review the court preserved—and arguably  increased—the uncertainty about which standard of review applies.

David Hricik previously wrote an extensive discussion of the panel decision in Highmark; background details are available there.  Following that decision, Highmark filed a petition for rehearing en banc challenging the majority's application of a de novo standard when reviewing the issue of whether the litigation was objectively baseless in connection with an exceptional case determination under 35 U.S.C. § 285.  The full court declined to rehear the appeal en banc. 

The Dissenting Judges: Objective Baselessness is Reviewed for Clear Error.  In an act that speaks volumes about the strength of the views of the dissenting judges, two separate judges, Judge Moore and Judge Reyna, each wrote dissents and also signed on to each other's opinions.  Both dissents essentially contain the same themes: that the majority's holding regarding the standard of review in Highmark is (1) contrary to the court's own precedent; (2) inconsistent with the Supreme Court's prior rulings; (3) inconsistent with other court's approaches to similar issues in the Rule 11 and Equal Access to Justice Act context; and (4) fundamentally unsound. There are nuanced differences between the opinions; for example, Judge Reyna sharply criticizes the panel majority's over-reliance on developments in the willful infringement context, a part of the opinion that Judge Rader does not join, while Judge Moore offers a milder disagreement.  The overarching point of the dissenting judges, however, is that all elements of the exceptional case determination, including that of objective baselessness, are reviewed for clear error, with deference given to the district court judge on factual determinations.

The Concurring Judges: Objective Baselessness is Reviewed De Novo.  Writing in support of the decision not to grant rehearing en banc, Judge Dyk joined by Judge Newman argued that (1) the prior opinions did not involve a dispute between the litigants as to whether objective baselessness is a question of law to be reviewed de novo on appeal; (2) that Supreme Court precedent requires objective baselessness to be treated as a question of law; (3) that sections 284 (willful infringement) and section 285 (exceptional case) should be read as involving the same inquiry with the same standard of review; and (4) that policy supports de novo review of the issue of objective baselessness.  Judge Dyk further pointed out that the court is in agreement on most of the legal issues in exceptional case determinations — just not this one. 

Substantial Implications. The opinions of the dissenting judges raise two substantial implications.  The first is the enhanced uncertainty surrounding the standard of review for exceptional case determinations.  I read the dissenting judges as saying that not only do they it think the decision not to grant a rehearing en banc was wrong, but that they view the Highmark holding as invalid.  Both dissents stress the point that the Highmark holding is inconsistent with the court's prior precedent.  Judge Reyna also points out the well-established rule that to the extent a panel's decision on a point of law is inconsistent with an earlier panel's decision on that point, the earlier holding controls.  See Reyna Dissent at 4-5.  While the court acting en banc can overrule the first panel's holding, a decision not to grant en banc review of the second panel would seem not to be the same as the en banc court actually adopting the second panel's holding.  As a result, it may be that the dissenting judges, who now comprise half the voting judges for en banc purposes (and in a month will comprise a majority when Judge Bryson assumes senior status), may not believe themselves bound by the Highmark holding.  If this is the case, the split will continue until it is eventually resolved by the en banc Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court. 

A second implication is that both Judge Moore and Judge Reyna appear to be skeptical of the court's recent holding in Bard Peripheral Vascular v. W.L. Gore that objective recklessness in a wilfulness determination is subject to de novo review, and are joined by at least two other judges in their skepticism.  See, e.g., Moore dissent at 3, n. 1 ("For reasons simlar to those discussed below, this court should also revisit Bard en banc.).