By: Michael Risch, Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
After the certiorari grant in TC Heartland, Dennis solicited a blog post from anyone who thought the case was not a slam dunk. Always the contrarian, I took him up on the offer. In a prior blog post at my own blog, Written Description, I detail some of the history of the statute and highlight why I think that Fourco does not necessarily answer the question. Colleen Chien and I flesh out the history and interpretation a bit more in our article, which we’ve blogged about here in the past.
I should note that the outset that I favor TC Heartland’s position from a policy point of view. I’ve long said in a variety of venues (including comment threads on this very blog) that there are significant problems with any system in which so much rides on where the case is filed. And I think that’s true whether you think they are doing a great or terrible job in the Eastern District of Texas.
Now, on to the interpretive issues. In general, I favor the application of longstanding original norms of statutory interpretation unless there’s good reason to depart from them (see, e.g., my new paper on reasonable royalties). I think this is doubly true where no one ever challenged the original interpretation (see, e.g. the ridiculous claims that common law copyright grants a performance right to sound recordings, despite the fact that no one ever thought so in the history of common law copyright). But in this case, I don’t think one can simply rely on the fact that no one challenged VE Holdings for 25 years. After all, the Supreme Court just overturned our understanding of design patent damages despite a tacit understanding that was more than 100 years old. As I noted here, this bothered me a bit given my general views, but I also think it was the correct statutory interpretation.
But, as I noted in my prior blog post, I don’t think one can just say “Fourco controls.” As I noted there: “Stonite and Fourco were statutory interpretation problems…. [T]his is a statutory interpretation problem. But the statute in Fourco is different from the statute today and has been amended twice since. We cannot rely on a supposed ‘rule’ about a statute that no longer exists.”
Instead, we have to return to first principles. In Stonite, the court clearly held that the patent venue statute was a special statute, to be specially applied differently than the general venue statute. After Stonite, the general venue statute was amended. But let’s look at the statutes of the time. Right out of Fourco:
Section 1400 is titled “Patents and copyrights,” and subsection (b) reads:
“(b) Any civil action for patent infringement may be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides, or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business.”
Section 1391 is titled “Venue generally,” and subsection (c) reads:
“(c) A corporation may be sued in any judicial district in which it is incorporated or licensed to do business or is doing business, and such judicial district shall be regarded as the residence of such corporation for venue purposes.”
The court ruled that not enough changed since Stonite: we still had two separate venue tracks, and the patent statute was separate. The question now: is there a way for Congress to have changed this? could it have done so unintentionally? Let’s look at the 1988 change to 1391(c):
“For purposes of venue under this chapter, a defendant that is a corporation shall be deemed to reside in any judicial district in which it is subject to personal jurisdiction at the time the action is commenced.”
There is a key change here: 1391(c) no longer talks about a “separate” track where corporations can be sued “for venue purposes.” Instead, it says that “for purposes of venue under this chapter…” the definition of resides has now been set (emphasis added). The question is whether the Fourco precedent means that Congress had to do more than this to change the meaning of 1400(b) (which is in the same chapter). In VE Holdings, the Federal Circuit said no, it didn’t – that the plain language modified 1400, and, essentially, that Congress had said there were no more tracks here.
And that, I think, is the core question here. This is not a Supreme Court policy. This is the Court interpreting the statute. What did Congress do? In Stonite and Fourco, the Court said that Congress intended two separate tracks. The Federal Circuit says that in 1988, Congress merged those tracks by changing the definition of “venue” “under this chapter.”
The only other information we have is that in 2011, more than 20 years after VE Holdings, Congress expanded 1391 again. Section 1391(a) says the section applies to all civil actions “except as otherwise provided by law” (and as we detail in our article, the legislative history is clear that this referred to a list of statutes compiled by the ALI, and 1400 is not among them.) Further, 1391(c) expanded from “under this chapter” to “all venue purposes.” In other words, knowing that the Federal Circuit had interpreted 1391(c) and 1400 to be in a single track, Congress further expanded 1391 even more broadly and did nothing to clarify that no, really, “resides” in 1400(b) was really intended to continue to have the narrow definition. We know from many other contexts, in patent law and otherwise, that Congress is fully capable of correcting erroneous court interpretations, and the agglomeration of cases in Texas was known in 2011. Indeed, the AIA was passed in close proximity, and it included special provisions to deal with filings in Texas, but never once attempted to clarify that VE Holdings interpretation was wrong. For Congress to have expanded the venue statute and pass the AIA without addressing this point is particularly salient.
I, frankly, have no idea how this statutory interpretation issue will or even should come out. I don’t think this is a statutory slam dunk either way. TC Heartland is represented by outstanding lawyers who make outstanding arguments to the contrary. And the Court even granting cert. says something. You could dismiss all I’ve written with a wave of the hand: Fourco stands for the proposition that 1400(b) is separate and the current 1391(c) is no different in structure than the 1391(c) that faced the court then. I am troubled by this argument, but I can see how others might reasonably embrace it.