New York Court of Appeals Upholds Local Ordinances Restricting Hydraulic Fracturing

sboxermanFeatured Expert Column – Environmental Law and Policy

by Samuel B. Boxerman, Sidley Austin LLP with Joel F. Visser, Sidley Austin LLP

*Editor’s note: Washington Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the Petitioners in the case discussed below.

Across the country, companies are using hydraulic fracturing techniques to develop shale oil and gas resources that create jobs and provide for economic growth. However, developers face a determined opposition that is using referenda, court challenges, and municipal ordinances in an effort to stymie development. In a long-awaited ruling issued today in In re: Mark S. Wallach, as Chapter 7 Trustee for Norse Energy Corp. USA v. Town of Dryden, Case No. 130, and Cooperstown Holstein Corp. v. Town of Middlefield, Case No. 131, the New York Court of Appeals gave this round to the opponents of development, finding the towns’ home rule authority gave it the power to ban development unless explicitly preempted by state statute.

The Court affirmed the appellate court decision that the towns’ prohibitions on oil and gas development were valid zoning ordinances and not preempted by New York’s Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law (“OGSML”). Two judges dissented from the opinion and would have held that the complete prohibitions on oil and gas activities essentially regulated how oil and gas development can occur and are preempted by the OGSML. The Court made clear, however, that its decision did not address the merits of hydraulic fracturing generally and asserted that such decisions involved policy questions that should be left to the coordinate branches of government.

The OGSML’s supersession clause at issue states: “The provisions of this article [i.e., the OGSML] shall supersede all local laws or ordinances relating to the regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries; but shall not supersede local government jurisdiction over local roads or the rights of local governments under the real property tax law.” ECL 23-0303(2)). Continue reading “New York Court of Appeals Upholds Local Ordinances Restricting Hydraulic Fracturing”

Common Sense Prevails as D.C. Circuit Overturns Trial Court’s Denial of Attorney-Client Privilege Protection

829-Brower_GregjohnsonGuest Commentary

by Greg Brower and Brett W. Johnson, Snell & Wilmer LLP*

Government contractors and other companies subject to internal investigation requirements won some relief from the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last week with a decision that firmly reiterated that Upjohn v. United States does indeed stand for the proposition that confidential employee communications made during a business’s internal investigation led by company lawyers are privileged.

In United States of America ex rel. Harry Barko v. Halliburton Company, et al, defendant Halliburton’s subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) filed a petition for writ of mandamus seeking to reverse a district court’s order that KBR produce in discovery, certain reports created as part of internal investigations conducted at the direction of in-house counsel.   Over KBR’s objection, the district court had ordered production of the documents, reasoning that because the KBR investigators who prepared the reports were not lawyers, and because the subject investigations were done pursuant to legal requirements and corporate policy, and not solely for the purpose of obtaining legal advice, the reports were not privileged. For more on the trial court’s opinion, see our March 24 Legal Pulse commentary here.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit disagreed and vacated the district court’s order.  In so doing, the panel found that the privilege claim by KBR was “materially indistinguishable” from the assertion of the privilege in the seminal Upjohn case.  Specifically, the court of appeals found that because, as in Upjohn, KBR initiated an internal investigation to gather facts and ensure compliance with the law after being informed of potential misconduct, and because the investigation was conducted under the auspices of KBR’s in-house legal department, the privilege applied.  Continue reading “Common Sense Prevails as D.C. Circuit Overturns Trial Court’s Denial of Attorney-Client Privilege Protection”

No Name Calling in My Court: Judge Bans Use of Term “Patent Troll” in Jury Trial

thumbnailTrollThis recent item from Law360 (subscribers only) caught our eye: “Judge Koh Bars Apple From Calling Rival ‘Patent Troll’ At Trial.”

In addition to being referenced regularly at this blog for her food labeling class action rulings, Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District California has been presiding over a number of high-profile skirmishes in the “Smartphone Patent Wars.”

The case before her is GPNE Corp. v. Apple, Inc. GPNE alleged in its complaint last June that Apple iPads and iPhones infringe patents GPNE holds on data transmission. GPNE’s business model is arguably similar to that of other entities commonly labeled “patent trolls.” It does not practice its patents; rather, it seeks revenue through licensing and litigation. GPNE views the term as prejudicial and urged Judge Koh to prohibit its use before the jury.

In her June 24 Pretrial Order Re: Motions In Limine, Judge Koh dictated:

Apple may not refer to GPNE as a ‘patent troll,’ ‘pirate,’ ‘bounty hunter,’ ‘privateer,’ ‘bandit,’ ‘paper patent,’ ‘stick up,’ ‘shakedown,’ ‘playing the lawsuit lottery,’ ‘corporate shell game,’ or ‘a corporate shell.’

She did, however, permit Apple to use other terms when referring to GPNE:

Apple may refer to GPNE as a ‘non-practicing entity,’ ‘licensing entity,’ ‘patent assertion entity,’ ‘a company that doesn’t make anything,’ or ‘a company that doesn’t sell anything.’ The Court finds that this conclusion strikes the balance between allowing Apple to argue that GPNE’s status as a non-practicing entity is relevant to the calculation of reasonable royalties and to secondary considerations of non-obviousness without unduly prejudicing GPNE or confusing the jury. See Fed. R. Evid. 403.

Judge Koh’s order reflects how this once “inside baseball” term has become part of the broader patent law and technology policy lexicon. “Patent troll” was coined, ironically, in 1999 by an Intel attorney, Peter Detkin.  Detkin left Intel and eventually co-founded Intellectual Ventures, a non-practicing entity which some have called “a patent troll on steroids.”

For years, only those who were narrowly involved with patent licensing and litigation uttered the term. Lately, however it is being utilized in everyday discussions on patents and technology. While President Obama did not specifically use the term is his February 2013 “Fireside Hangout” on Google Plus,  he did accuse entities “that don’t produce anything themselves” of “extort[ing] money” out of technology producers. A document issued by the White House Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues last June, however, did utilize the term “patent trolls” when discussing the need for reform.

One could argue that “patent troll” has become so widely used that it has lost its “punch” as a pejorative in characterizing those whose singular business is sticking up or shaking down technology-producing companies through opaque demand letters and playing the lawsuit lottery. Obviously, Judge Koh does not see it that way, and declared her courtroom a troll-free zone. Whether that helps GPNE prevail in its claim, however, is uncertain.

Also published at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page