By Dennis Crouch
I have written before that patent plaintiffs may welcome more fee-shifting so long as they are balanced in the way that they apply both to plaintiffs and defendants. In Octane Fitness, the Supreme Court followed this pathway – giving trial court judges discretionary authority to determine which cases are sufficiently “exceptional” to warrant an attorney fee award.
Because of the expense, unpredictability, and potential delays of patent litigation, patent assertion entities spend a considerable amount of time managing and hedging against downside risks. They do this by finding contingency fee attorneys and partners willing provide substantial up-front monies in order to fund an enforcement campaign. Still, in the wake of Octane Fitness, some assertion entities have at least informed their investors of potential risk. Spherix Inc, for instance, recently filed a quarterly report remarking on the topic:
Recent rulings also create an increased risk that if the Company is unsuccessful in litigation it could be responsible to pay the attorney’s fees and other costs of defendants by lowering the standard for legal fee shifting sought by defendants in patent cases.
Of course, for masters-of-risk-management, the increased risk of owing attorney fees upon losing a case is just another risk to be managed.
Athena Fee Shifting Protection (FSP): A new product being offered by Athena FSP is designed to help in this regard. In return for a percentage share of any eventual award or settlement, Athena FSP will promise to pay any attorney fee award lodged against their partner. For patent assertion entities, this model eliminates the downside risk of losing a fee shifting award by reducing the potential upside by a few points. (Note: the standard policy limit is $3m).
Although Athena FSP’s product looks like insurance, the company wants to ensure that its product is not regulated as insurance. One difficulty with insurance is that state regulators typically enforce a rule against providing insurance for intentional torts — and losing on an exceptional-case finding has many parallels to intentional torts. Because of the upside-only payout, a better analogy may be to think of Athena FSP as an investor who, instead of paying cash for shares, takes a percentage of revenue in return for co-signing the loan.
I asked Athena’s Director Ashley Keller whether there is some fear that judges will be more likely to award fees in their cases since the partnership with Athena FSP seems designed as a plan toward malfeasance. The well-considered retort is twofold: Athena’s approach is to conduct an extensive deep dive into the potential lawsuit as a way to vet the case and only partner in situations where an exceptional case award is quite unlikely. That vetting process can then serve as evidence that an outside entity was willing to put significant money at risk based upon its thorough analysis that the case was not exceptional. In other words, if this was an insurable risk then it shouldn’t be seen as exceptional.