Editor’s Note: Avery Welker is a 1L at Mizzou and likely a future patent attorney. He is starting a new series linking law school canonical cases with intellectual property counterparts. You can email ideas for future posts to firstname.lastname@example.org. – Dennis Crouch
By Avery Welker
“That doesn’t look too bad,” I thought to myself while scanning through my Civil Procedure reading assignment over Rule 56, Summary Judgment. Fed R. Civ. P. 56 (2020). Then I had the pleasure of reading Celotex Corp. v. Catrett and discovered that if you don’t pay attention to which party bears the burden of proof, you could be in trouble. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). This is where Exigent Technology, Inc. (Exigent) found themselves in 2006 in the process of pursuing an infringement action against Atrana Solutions, Inc. (Atrana). Exigent Tech., Inc. v. Atrana Sols., Inc., 442 F.3d 1301 (Fed. Cir. 2006).
Exigent owned U.S. Patent No. 6,651,885, a “multi-function transaction processing system,” which includes a transaction processing system with the ability to attach a payment to a user account, among other functions, and alleged infringement literally or through the doctrine of equivalents. U.S. Patent No. 6,651,885 (filed Jun. 8, 2000; issued Nov. 25, 2003); Exigent Tech., Inc., 442 F.3d at 1303-04. The general idea was to expand the traditional debit/credit card transactions by issuing “authorization codes” to purchasers on a card, which could have other purchases attributed and stored on it. U.S. Patent No. 6,651,885. The system was designed to rid merchants of the cost of selling multiple cards that only contained singular access codes, like a pre-paid minutes card for calling long-distance, and put them all on one larger card assembly (shown below). Id. The above illustration shows a familiar looking terminal (20) but includes a large card printer (where the purchased information is stored) (37). Id. at fig.1.
The below figure is where the magic happens: The entire “card assembly,” (50) is a large sheet that contains a detachable physical card (e.g., for pre-paid phone minutes) (52), any merchant promotions, or other purchases (e.g., (55), (56)). Id. at fig.2. All in the name of efficiency.
In the lawsuit, the defendant Atrana moved for summary judgment, arguing that the patentee Exigent would not be able to prove infringement. Exigent Tech., Inc., 442 F.3d at 1303. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment stating that there was no evidence on the record that Atrana infringed the patent. Id. at 1305. Upon a motion from Atrana, the trial court amended the summary judgment order to clarify that Exigent had the burden of proving infringement on every element of the claims. Id. at 1305. Exigent appealed, claiming that Atrana’s summary judgment motion of non-infringement was not sufficiently supported by the evidence. Id. at 1305-06.
Enter Celotex. If summary judgment is the treasure you seek, Celotex is your treasure map. It is the Supreme Court’s definitive guide to supporting a summary judgment motion when the non-moving party holds the burden of proving its case at trial. Celotex arose out of a wrongful-death complaint brought by the respondent, Catrett, who alleged that her husband’s exposure to asbestos-containing products (including those manufactured by Celotex) caused his death. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. 317 at 319.
Celotex moved for summary judgment asserting that Catrett produced no evidence that any Celotex product was the proximate cause of her husband’s death, and that Catrett could not identify any witnesses that could testify to her husband’s exposure to Celotex’s asbestos-containing products, thus there was no genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 319-320. The trial court granted the motion, but the D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that since Celotex did not try to produce evidence in support of their motion (i.e., prove that Catrett’s husband was not exposed to Celotex’s products), they were not entitled to summary judgment. Id. at 321-22. The Supreme Court then reversed again, holding that summary judgment was proper in that instance. Id. at 328. The Court reasoned that where the nonmoving party has the burden of proof of a dispositive issue at trial, the moving party need only point out to the trial court that there is no evidence supporting the nonmoving party’s case, which discharges the moving party’s usual burden to show an absence of genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 325.
The Court noted the spirit of Rule 56 in the holding of Celotex:
Rule 56 must be construed with due regard not only for the rights of persons asserting claims and defenses that are adequately based in fact to have those claims and defenses tried to a jury, but also for the rights of persons opposing such claims and defenses to demonstrate in the manner provided by the Rule, prior to trial, that the claims and defenses have no factual basis.
Id. at 327.
Celotex turned out to be bad news for Exigent, who argued in the Federal Circuit that Atrana did not properly support their summary judgment motion with admissible evidence showing non-infringement. Exigent Tech., Inc., 442 F.3d at 1308. This was in reference to an arguably inadmissible declaration from Atrana’s CEO. Id. The Federal Circuit noted that it ultimately did not matter whether the declaration was admissible as evidence because Atrana, the moving party, successfully discharged their burden of proof on the dispositive issue of non-infringement, by pointing out that Exigent had no evidence of infringement. Id. at 1309. The Federal Circuit held that Exigent did not advance any argument or bring any evidence of infringement, and therefore summary judgment was proper. Id.
Summary judgment is a remedy that arguably helps the courts “secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 1 (2020). The irony is not lost on me that a remedy that can speed up an action resulted in further litigation, stringing out the action for both parties.