One Major Positive, But Still Many Negatives, for Asbestos Defendants in 2014

NewportWhen assessing liability risk, businesses, insurers, and others impacted by America’s free-wheeling civil justice system often ask, “What’s the next asbestos?” Regrettably for defendants still wrapped up in what the Supreme Court once called “the elephantine mass” of asbestos litigation, asbestos is still the next asbestos. In 2014, asbestos defendants continued to struggle against the tide of unfavorable judicial rulings, though one positive development this year did offer a great deal of hope to besieged businesses.

A January 9 ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge George Hodges found a “startling pattern of misrepresentation” and withholding of exposure evidence in a ten-case sampling from asbestos actions consolidated in his court as In re Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC, et al. Judge Hodges ordered full discovery in those cases to determine whether allegedly injured plaintiffs had exaggerated the value of their claims and failed to disclose claims they had made to asbestos bankruptcy trusts. A Fall 2014 WLF Conversations With paper, featuring former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Delaware state court judge Peggy Abelman, addressed the larger concerns with such withholding of bankruptcy claims information. A January 21 Featured Expert Column on the WLF Legal Pulse also discussed In re Garlock in detail. Continue reading

FTC Commissioner Looks Back, and Ahead, on Patent Litigation Reform Efforts

FTC_Man_Controlling_TradeCommissioner Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offered some interesting year-end thoughts on abusive litigation by patent-assertion entities (“PAE”, or to some, “patent trolls”) in a speech last week. Most notable in Commissioner Brill’s comments was her call for legislative change even as FTC and the federal courts are addressing some of the legal and economic incentives for abusive patent litigation.

Brill discussed the Commission’s ongoing study of patent-assertion entities (the so-called 6(b) study), for which a final report is anticipated by the end of 2015. She emphasized that one of the issues FTC is assessing is the practice of “privateering,” where an operating company sells or licenses a patent to an assertion entity, which in turn enforces the patent against the operating entity’s market rivals. A May 2014 Washington Legal Foundation Web Seminar, Patent Assertion and “Privateering”: When Do Antitrust Law Concerns Arise When the Patent Is the Product?, focused on this practice.

The speech also referenced the Commission’s first enforcement action against a patent-assertion entity, which resulted in a November 13 consent decree. The action involved notorious “scanner troll” MPHJ, which sent thousands of licensing demand letters that threatened litigation unless the target business paid MPHJ upwards of $1,000 per employee. FTC charged that MPHJ had fraudulently asserted that it had entered into licenses with some of its targets, and falsely claimed that litigation was imminent.

thumbnailTrollCommissioner Brill went on to stress the impact several 2014 Supreme Court decisions had on the larger patent-assertion problem. She focused on the indefinite nature of many PAE-held patents, an issue that the Court addressed in Nautilus Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc.; the tendency of PAEs to “pass off old abstract ideas as inventions merely by implementing them using a computer,” which arose in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l; and the difficulty patent defendants had in seeking attorneys’ fees when they prevailed in court against PAEs, which the justices addressed in Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. and Highmark v. Allcare Health Mngt. Systems, Inc.

She then stated that “despite these recent cases, there are still important issues for Congress to address.” We were pleased to see that among the areas Commissioner Brill highlighted as meriting continued congressional attention was that patent “complaints [must] provide specific allegations of what infringes a patent’s claim and how the defendant infringes them.” The current pleading standard, governed by the antiquated form (Form 18) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 84 dictates for patent suits, encourages frivolous litigation, as we’ve argued previously.

It is unclear what lies ahead for patent litigation reform in the 114th Congress. But one can trust that with so much at stake, Senators and Representatives will heed Commissioner Brill’s admonition that Congress not “wait for completion of our 6(b) study” to move the debate forward.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page

Seventh Circuit Continues Scrutiny of Class Action Settlements and Cy Pres

US-CourtOfAppeals-7thCircuit-SealThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has, for better and worse, been at the forefront of federal class action jurisprudence recently. On the “better” side of the ledger, the appeals court has closely scrutinized and rejected a number of class action settlements in 2014. Its most recent rejection, Pearson v. NBTY, also dealt a serious blow to the  use of the controversial cy pres device in such settlements.

Judge Richard Posner regularly lands on Seventh Circuit panels involving class actions, where has been highly skeptical of class action settlements. In a June 2 opinion, Eubank v. Pella, he labeled the class action settlement “inequitable” and “even scandalous.” In another Posner-authored opinion, Redmand v. RadioShack, the Seventh Circuit on September 19 reversed a lower court’s approval of a coupon settlement. The court was especially troubled that the settling parties attempted to consider sums not available to the class members, such as “administrative costs,” when calculating the attorneys’ fees. As Reed Smith Counsel James Back and Rebecca Weil argued last month in a WLF Working Paper, such reasoning could be applied similarly to cy pres awards, the value of which settling parties seek to include when calculating fees.

The settling parties in Pearson v. NBTY, a consumer class action involving marketing claims for glucosamine pills, attempted to include a $1.13 million cy pres donation to the Orthopedic Research and Education Foundation when calculating attorneys’ fees. The trial judge refused to consider that amount as a “benefit” to the class when totaling the value of the settlement to be $20.2 million. The judge awarded the plaintiffs’ lawyers $1.93 million in fees.

The Center for Class Action Fairness objected to the settlement and on November 19, the Seventh Circuit, led by none other than Judge Posner, reversed the lower court. Judge Posner agreed with little of what the lower court determined, but he found the trial judge’s refusal to consider the cy pres amount in calculating the class benefit correct “for the obvious reason that the recipient of that award was not a member of the class.”

Separately, the court found that the cy pres award was itself improper. Judge Posner stated that while the recipient “seems perfectly reputable,” beneficiaries of cy pres are “entitled to receive money intended to compensate victims of consumer fraud only if it’s infeasible to provide that compensation to the victims—which has not been demonstrated” (our emphasis). Prior to reaching that conclusion, the opinion criticized the parties for seemingly “structur[ing] the claims process with an eye towards discouraging the filings of claims.” Less than one-quarter of one percent of the 4.72 million consumers notified sought the menial refund offered in NBTY. Judge Posner remarked that the claims process could have been simplified or “Rexall could have mailed $3 checks to all 4.72 million postcard recipients.”

The opinion contains several other positive statements and conclusions that district court judges and other circuit courts should find compelling, such as Judge Posner’s suggestion that “It might make sense for the district judge in a large class action suit like this to appoint an independent auditor, on the authority of Fed. R. Evid. 706, to estimate the reasonableness of class counsel’s billing rate.” But the double-blow to the cy pres device—that courts cannot consider it when calculating the settlement’s class benefit, and that the parties must prove that it is infeasible to provide the funds earmarked for the charity to the class members themselves—will likely be ruling’s most lasting achievement.

In the aforementioned WLF Working Paper, the authors asked, “Is the end near for a legal remedy with no basis in law?” With Judge Posner’s NBTY opinion exposing several more chinks in the doctrine’s already weakened armor, perhaps it is.

But we think it’s also important to take Judge Posner’s reasoning that cy pres is inappropriate in cases where money can’t feasibly be rewarded to plaintiffs to its logical endpoint: If plaintiffs cannot feasibly be located, why should a case be certified as a class action in the first place?

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Concurrence in Federal Circuit’s “Ultramercial” Ruling Sends Pointed Message to Patent Litigants

Kaminski_Jeffri_LRFeatured Expert Contributor – Intellectual Property (Patents)

Jeffri A. Kaminski, Venable LLP

The recent Federal Circuit decision in Ultramercial v. Wild Tangent continues the trend of courts invalidating software and business method patents made vulnerable by the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. The Ultramercial decision also continues the wave of “patent reform” in the courts, at the Patent Office, and in Congress. Software and business method patent owners and applicants should be concerned by these recent developments, and alleged infringers should be encouraged. The concurring opinion by Judge Mayer describes how an early determination of patent eligibility during litigation may help stem “[t]he scourge of meritless infringement claims [that] has continued unabated for decades.”

The Federal Circuit invalidated Ultramercial’s patent as being directed to an abstract idea, which is not patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The asserted patent, U.S. Patent No. 7,346,545 (“the ’545 Patent”), is optimistically titled, “Method and system for payment of intellectual property royalties by interposed sponsor on behalf of consumer over a telecommunications network.” The main patent claim includes eleven specific steps for displaying an advertisement in exchange for access to copyrighted media. However, the appellate court determined that the patent “describes only the abstract idea of showing an advertisement before delivering free content” and is therefore invalid.

In spite of the eleven steps enumerated in the method claim, the court held that merely adding additional routine steps to an abstract idea “does not transform an otherwise abstract idea into patent-eligible subject matter.” Furthermore, although the claims of the ’545 Patent were tied to a general purpose computer, “adding a computer to otherwise conventional steps does not make an invention patent-eligible” either. Continue reading

Copyright and Patent Holders Advance Separate Market-Based, Self-Help Initiatives

copyrightIntellectual property (IP) rights and innovation are inextricably intertwined. It’s not surprising, then, that in the spirit of innovation, some IP owners have taken proactive steps to advance and defend their own property rights. They understand that reliance on current or future government action is no panacea. In separate developments this past week, some of the world’s most successful copyright holders adopted a creative approach to bolster those rights, while leaders of three different patent “self-help” entities explained their unique strategies at a Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) briefing.

Copyrights and WhereToWatch. Pirated online file peddlers and their apologists routinely argue that they are meeting consumers’ unfulfilled demand for affordable access to digital music, movies, and TV shows. As we noted in a WLF Legal Pulse post last month, however, “Huge music libraries can be accessed for free or low cost at outlets such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, and iTunes. Online options for TV and movie content continue to multiply. Copyright-infringing consumers can no longer claim that they seek pirated content because it isn’t digitally available for a reasonable price.” A September 23, 2014 report by KPMG provides empirical supports that argument. It found, for instance, that 96% of the top 20 movies for the years 2000 to 2010 were available through legal online distributors. Also, 96% of television’s top 100 shows in 2012 were available. Continue reading

After “Smelly Washer” Trial Win, Challenges Await Whirlpool in Related Cases

WhirlpoolWhirlpool Corp. had major reason to celebrate last week; a federal jury rejected class-action claims that “Duet” front-load washing machines sold in Ohio between 2001 and 2009 were defective because of their alleged tendency to develop a moldy smell. This “smelly washer” case has drawn significant media attention in recent years after it twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether the case should be certified as a class action. The High Court in 2013 vacated a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision certifying a class of more than 100,000 Ohio consumers; but after the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed its decision on remand, the Supreme Court denied review this past February—thus setting the stage for the three-week trial that just ended last Thursday. But if history is any guide, plaintiffs’ lawyers will not willingly accept that the verdict binds all the absent class members (only two class members actually participated in the trial).

Indeed, the ongoing challenge Whirlpool faces underscores why plaintiff classes should rarely, if ever, be certified in consumer product defect cases. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 states that suits seeking monetary damages are not appropriate for class action treatment unless common issues of fact and law “predominate” over individual issues of fact and law. As the Washington Legal Foundation explained in the brief it filed when this case was before the Supreme Court, individual issues (e.g., whether an individual plaintiff’s product was defective and whether that defect caused injury) will almost always overwhelm common issues of fact in the typical consumer product suit. Moreover, Rule 23 requires that the named plaintiffs demonstrate that they can adequately represent the interests of absent class members; if representation is inadequate (e.g., if their interests diverge from those of absent class members), due process case law dictates that absent class members are not bound by any judgment adverse to the class. Thus, the defendant in a certified consumer-product class action often faces a heads-you-win-tails-I lose dilemma: if a company goes to trial and loses to the class, it faces a massive liability award, but if it prevails at trial, absent class members are likely to resist any res judicata claim. Continue reading

Delaware Federal Court Sanction Rulings Offer Lessons for Patent Plaintiffs and Defendants

Kaminski_Jeffri_LRFeatured Expert Contributor – Intellectual Property (Patents)

Jeffri A. Kaminski, Venable LLP, with Briana Rizzo,* Venable LLP

*Editor’s Note: With this post we welcome the participation in The WLF Legal Pulse of Featured Expert Contributor on patent litigation and policy issues, Jeffri Kaminski.

The Delaware District Court, historically known as a venue friendly to patent holders, appears ready to fight back against the litigation strategies of Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), or “patent trolls.” While the court has traditionally disfavored imposing fees and sanctions on unsuccessful Plaintiffs [1], several recent cases signal a major shift in the judicial perspective on what District Court Judge Richard G. Andrews calls “misleading and prejudicial” tactics. [2] Most notably, Parallel Iron LLC v. NetApp Inc. and Summit Data Systems, LLC v. EMC Corporation et al solidify a growing trend in the Delaware Circuit of both judicial discontent with PAE litigation tactics and a willingness to sanction such behavior.

A trend on the rise

The U.S. Supreme Court released its groundbreaking Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. decision on April 29, 2014, lowering the standard of 35 U.S.C. § 285 “exceptional” behavior and enabling prevailing parties to obtain attorneys’ fees for behavior that merely “stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position […] or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.” While several cases immediately following Octane Fitness retained a traditional refusal to award fees, on September 12, 2014, Judge Andrews released three pro-defendant opinions on the matter, the most significant being Parallel Iron LLC v. NetApp Inc. Continue reading