What Deference Looks Like Attorney Fee Cases.

by Dennis Crouch

Honeywell v. Fujifilm (Fed. Cir. 2018)

Honeywell sued Fujifilm and others for infringing its U.S. Patent No. 5,280,371 (LCD Display patent). However, the district court dismissed the case on summary judgment after finding the claims barred under 35 U.S.C. § 102.  Although siding with the defendants on the merits, Judge Stark (D.Del.) refused to award attorney fees to the defendants as allowed by 35 U.S.C. § 285.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the fee-denial — holding that the district court acted within its reasonable discretion in finding no exceptional case.  This result is driven by the Supreme Court’s 2014 Highmark holding that district court judges are “better positioned to decide whether a case is exceptional” and that those judgments should be given significant deference on appeal.

The Short opinion explains that Fujifilm raises “plausible arguments supporting an award of fees” but that those arguments are not sufficient to show clear error by the lower court. In particular, the appellate panel confirmed that losing on summary judgment should not automatically result in a fee award.

An additional note regarding deference: In my view, an important factor in the affirmance here was the fact that the district court decision expressly considered Fujifilm’s arguments but concluded that they were insufficient to make the case exceptional.  If the lower court had simply ignored those arguments or passed by them without analysis then I expect the result here would also be different.