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

“Direct Marketing” Supreme Court Case Points Out Federal Courts’ Obligation to Exercise Jurisdiction

supreme courtYesterday’s oral argument in Direct Marketing Assoc. v. Brohl indicated that the Supreme Court does not think very highly of the Tenth Circuit’s expansive interpretation of the Tax Injunction Act (TIA). The appeals court concluded that the TIA deprived federal courts of jurisdiction to hear a challenge to a Colorado statute that imposes notice and reporting requirements on out-of-state retailers. Questions at yesterday’s argument suggested that most justices interpret the TIA’s limitations on jurisdiction as inapplicable when, as here, the plaintiff is not seeking to enjoin the collection of a state tax. However, Direct Marketing’s greater significance may lie in its illustration of lower federal courts’ continued resistance to hearing matters involving States and their laws. That resistance, largely the byproduct of overcrowded dockets and a sense that state issues are often of insufficient importance to warrant the attention of federal judges, is inconsistent with federal courts’ obligation to hear each case in which jurisdiction has been properly invoked.

The Petitioner in Direct Marketing is a trade group that represents online and mail-order retailers. They object to a statute adopted by the Colorado legislature to assist the State in collecting sales and use taxes from its own citizens who purchase products from out-of-state retailers. The Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill decision held that a State may not require out-of-state retailers to collect sales/use taxes on such purchases, even if the retailer ships its product into the State. Colorado’s response: it adopted a statute imposing onerous notice and reporting requirements on any out-of-state retailer that does not voluntarily collect sales/use taxes on such sales, including requiring submission to tax officials of an annual Customer Information Report that details all purchases made by Colorado residents. The Petitioner asserts that the statute violates numerous provisions of federal and state law. Continue reading

WLF Web Seminar to Assess Whether Third Time is the Charm at SCOTUS on “Injury-in-Law” Standing

PodiumPic1Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. EDT, Washington Legal Foundation is hosting its final Web Seminar program of 2014. The program will address a critically important case currently awaiting cert consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the larger issues the case implicates.

No-Injury Class Actions: The Rise of Statutorily-Created Harm and the Need for High Court Intervention will be an hour-long live event featuring two appellate experts as our panelists: Andy Pincus of Mayer Brown LLP and Meir Feder of Jones Day. If you are interested in viewing the program live online, you can register for free HERE. If you cannot view it live but would like to watch the video from our online archive, please email WLF Legal Studies Division Chief Counsel Glenn Lammi at glammi@wlf.org.

The petition pending before the Supreme Court that offers the context for our discussion arises from a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling, Spokeo v. Robins. The case squarely presents the issue of whether private plaintiffs suing under a federal statute that defines certain action or inaction as an “injury” (injury-at-law) must also demonstrate that they have “case or controversy” standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution (injury-in-fact). The question has been decided differently in a number of federal circuits, and the Supreme Court has twice passed on opportunities to resolve the split. In 2012, after hearing oral arguments, the Court dismissed as improvidently granted another case from the Ninth Circuit, First American Financial v. Edwards. Earlier this year during its October 2013 term, the Court denied review to an Eighth Circuit decision, First National Bank of Wahoo v. Charvat.

The Court has requested that the Solicitor General of the U.S. provide the justices with the federal government’s view of the case and issues. The Solicitor General’s brief has not yet been filed.

“Perez v. MBA”: Clashing Perspective on Administrative Law Meet at the Supreme Court

supreme courtThe contrasting perspectives of the stakes in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, an administrative law case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear on Monday, December 1, could not be starker. Law professors are allegedly unanimous that the Court should reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit doctrine at issue, a doctrine that, in their view, severely hampers the ability of federal administrative agencies to respond to changing conditions. On the other hand, lawyers representing regulated entities have rallied to the defense of the D.C. Circuit’s doctrine; they view it as an essential check on arbitrary agency rulemaking. What explains these contrasting visions? The explanation could lie in the ongoing battle over how much deference courts should accord to agencies’ interpretations of their own rules. At time when courts are increasingly deferential to agencies, regulated entities will forcefully act to preserve other tools—such as the D.C. Circuit doctrine at issue in Perez—to keep federal agencies in check.

Perez concerns the scope of notice-and-comment rulemaking. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) requires federal agencies, before they adopt a “substantive” or “legislative” rule, to provide notice of the proposed rule and a meaningful opportunity for members of the public to comment on the proposal. Exempted from the APA’s notice-and-comment requirement are “interpretive” rules. Agencies seek to avoid notice-and-comment requirements where possible; it is a burdensome process that can delay rulemaking for months and even years. Yet, despite nearly 70 years of APA litigation, the meaning of exempt “interpretive” rules has never been fully pinned down. Continue reading

Local “Fracking” Bans Face Constitutional Takings Challenges

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP with Ben Tannen, Sidley Austin LLP

Recently, the citizens of Denton, Texas voted to ban hydraulic fracturing within the city limits, becoming the first municipality in the state to do so. One day later, the Texas Oil and Gas Association filed suit, arguing the ordinance was unconstitutional and preempted by state law. N1 In enacting a ban, Denton joined the list of municipalities that have adopted limits on hydraulic fracturing, N2 including a number of outright bans. N3 The bans reflect the ongoing battle between state and local interests over the value and risks of oil and gas development. The legality of local bans is being hotly disputed in the courts, with two common challenges being that the bans are preempted by state law or constitute an unconstitutional taking.

Preemption

Plaintiffs have challenged local bans as expressly preempted by or in direct conflict with a comprehensive state oil and gas statute—quite simply, the argument goes, municipalities and other local governments cannot prohibit what has already been expressly authorized by the state. Moreover, as a policy matter, allowing local governments to restrict or otherwise regulate oil and gas development would create a patchwork of regulation within a state—or even within a single county. To date, several courts have found preemption, but others have deferred to local land use authority. N4

Takings

Plaintiffs have also challenged local bans on constitutional grounds, N5 asserting a range of claims, including a Takings claim under the Fifth Amendment (and state analogs). N6 Although as of yet no courts have ruled on the issue, here are a few of the basics:

Of course a traditional “taking” occurs when the government actually causes a “permanent physical occupation” of an individual’s property. N7 A regulation, however, can be a taking when it affects or limits the use of private property to a sufficient degree. N8 According to the Supreme Court, a “regulatory” taking occurs if the regulation deprives the property holder of all economically beneficial use of their property, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992), or satisfies a three-part balancing test set out by the Court in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978). Continue reading

Why “King v. Burwell” Obamacare Case Is Not “NFIB v. Sebelius” Redux

supreme courtThe Supreme Court’s decision to hear King v. Burwell means that the Court, for the second time in three years, will be deciding an issue that will have a major impact on the Obama Administration’s ability to implement the Affordable Care Act. The ACA’s requirement that individuals purchase health insurance or else pay a penalty barely survived a constitutional challenge in June 2012 when the Court voted 5-4 in NFIB v. Sebelius to uphold the mandate as a proper exercise of Congress’s power under the Taxing Clause. The claim raised in King—that individuals who purchase insurance on the federal government’s healthcare exchange are not entitled to the tax subsidies available to those purchasing on state exchanges—would, if accepted by the Court, have an impact on the ACA every bit as great as a decision striking down the individual mandate. That fact has caused some commentators to draw spurious parallels between the two cases. Many Obamacare partisans who dismissed the NFIB constitutional challenge as a “shameful” and hypocritical “solicitation of right-wing judicial activism,” are making the same accusation against the King challenge.

The accusations were inaccurate in NFIB; they are hopelessly wrong when applied to King. Before such unfounded criticism of King takes hold, it is important to emphasize major distinctions between the two cases. The petitioners in NFIB were asking the Court to take a decisive step: to strike down legislation adopted by Congress and signed by the President. Those petitioners, in my opinion, raised highly plausible (and indeed, partially successful) arguments in support of their constitutional claims. However, a majority of the justices—mindful of separation-of-powers concerns that arise whenever they are asked to override the will of Congress and the President—followed the Court’s long-held preference that, in the words of Chief Justice Roberts, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” Continue reading

SCOTUS Fishing for a Way to Overturn Conviction in “Yates” without Tossing Law Overboard

supreme courtIt is notoriously difficult—if not foolish—to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case from the questions the justices pose at oral argument. The case of Yates v. U.S., concerning a commercial fisherman who was convicted and sentenced under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, is no exception.

And yet, after today’s argument (transcript here), it appears that some members of the Court are grappling for a way to overturn Yates’s conviction without completely rewriting the statute.

Three years after Mr. Yates received an administrative fine for harvesting undersized fish, the U.S. Attorney indicted him for destroying a “record, document, or tangible thing” under the “anti-shredding” provision of Sarbanes-Oxley. The “tangible things” at issue, the government insisted, were undersized red grouper Yates evidently ordered crew members to throw overboard.

Although the government seemingly got the better of the statutory interpretation argument today, a number of justices appeared uncomfortable with the breadth of the government’s application of the statute. While conceding that the government made some good arguments, Justice Alito nevertheless told the government’s attorney, “[Y]ou are really asking the Court to swallow something that is pretty hard to swallow.” Many justices were concerned that the statute contains a 20-year maximum sentence and applies to any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.

red grouper

red grouper

Even more troubling, the government attorney informed the Court that once a decision is made to prosecute, the U.S. Attorney’s Manual recommends that the “prosecutor should charge the offense that’s the most severe under the law.” That assertion drew concern from many justices, including Justice Scalia, who responded that if that is the DOJ’s position, then the Court would need to be much more careful about how extensively and broadly it construes severe statutes in the future. Justice Kennedy even went so far as to question whether the Court should even mention the concept of prosecutorial discretion ever again.

For his part, Justice Breyer exhibited keen interest in void-for-vagueness objections to the statute, expressing his concern that the language of the anti-shredding provision is so broad that it encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Although counsel for Yates did not devote very much space to that issue in his merits briefs, that was precisely the issue that WLF focused on as amicus curiae.

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