Supreme Court to Hear Willful Infringement Cases: Will the Justices Clear the Way for Enhanced Damages for Patentees?

Na An, MJLST Staffer

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear two patent cases challenging the current Federal Circuit standard for proving willful infringement on October 19, 2015. The finding of willfulness allows judges to award triple damages, providing more leverage for patentees in licensing and settlement negotiations. The patent litigation world watches with great anticipation as the Court’s Octane Fitness decision rejected a similar rule for awarding attorney’s fees in patent cases last year.

The Federal Circuit established the current willfulness test in its landmark Seagate decision in 2007, which required the patentee to prove that there was an objectively high likelihood that the infringer’s actions constituted infringement and that the likelihood was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer. The Seagate two-prong test overruled decades of precedents that had imposed an affirmative duty on accused infringers to obtain opinion of counsel and posed a substantially heightened burden for a patentee seeking to establish willfulness. Later on, the Federal Circuit recognized the complexity of post-Seagate inquiry and held in Bard Peripheral Vascular that the threshold objective prong of the test is a question of law, reallocating the roles of the judge and jury in determining willfulness of the infringement. Consequently, as opposed to the traditional consideration of willfulness as a question of fact, a district court must now determine whether a reasonable person would have found there to be a high likelihood of infringement (first prong), while the jury determines the patent infringer’s subjective intent (second prong).

Upon a finding of willfulness, the court has discretion to increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed, as authorized in 35 U.S.C. § 284. This statutory provision is very similar to § 285, which grants the court power to award reasonable attorney fees in exceptional cases. Before the Supreme Court’s Octane Fitness decision last year, the Federal Circuit restricted its application of § 285 to cases, in which the losing party’s position was “objectively baseless” and brought in “subjective bad faith.” Octane Fitness rejected such a rigid rule and held that judges can decide to award fees when a case “stands out from others.” Seagate’s two-prong test bears a striking resemblance to pre-Octane fee inquiry, sparking much anticipation among practitioners and scholars that the high court would similarly strike down the restrictive willfulness test. The Court found its opportunity in Halo and Stryker.

Halo involves infringement of three US patents, which disclose “surface mount electronic packages containing transformers for mounting on a printed circuit board inside electronic devices.” The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of increased damages because the patentee failed to satisfy the objective prong of the Seagate test. Similar issues arose in Stryker. The patents in Stryker were directed to devices that deliver pressurized irrigation for different medical therapies, and the Federal Circuit again denied increased damages due to district court’s failure to undertake an objective assessment of the infringer’s defense. Interestingly, Judge Kathleen O’Malley, concurring in Halo, called for a complete reevaluation of the two-prong test for finding willful infringement, and she reasoned that increased damages and attorney fees should be grouped, given their analogous frameworks and statutory provisions. Therefore, in light of the Octane Fitness decision, the Seagate two-prong test merits reconsideration.

The Federal Circuit voted 8-2 in March not to reconsider the willfulness standard en banc in Halo; nevertheless, the Court granted certiorari without a sharp divide in the lower court. It signals that the Court is unlikely to retain the Seagate standard. But the question remains how much more flexible the new test will be. Will the Court use the same “stands out from others” language in Octane Fitness? Are the justices taking the second prong of the Seagate test away from juries? Or are we going back to the pre-Seagate rule that a mere notice of patent infringement triggers an affirmative duty on the defendant to obtain opinion of counsel? Additionally, the statutory language in § 284 says nothing about willfulness. Will the court give judges even broader discretion to award increased damages in absence of willfulness? If so, is there a danger of more forum shopping? We eagerly await the high court’s decision.

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