Nina Elder, MJLST Staffer
According to the 2023 Patent Litigation Report Lex Machina released last month, Judge Alan Albright, of the Western District of Texas, heard more patent cases than any other judge in the nation. This is largely because historically Judge Albright has heard nearly all patent cases filed in his district—a district which has maintained its position as the most popular patent venue for several years. Last July, to address concerns about Judge Albright’s monopoly over patent cases the Western District of Texas implemented a new rule requiring that judges be randomly assigned to patent cases. Some expected that patent filings in the district would “fall off a cliff” after this change, but the Lex Machine report showed that so far there hasn’t been a major decrease in the number of patent cases filed in the district. However, the question remains: will randomization have a significant effect on the distribution of patent cases in the long term?
Until relatively recently, the Western District of Texas was not a particularly popular patent venue. Judge Albright’s appointment in 2018 changed that. Before becoming a judge, Albright practiced as a patent litigator for decades. He enjoys patent cases and on multiple occasions encouraged parties to file them in his court. And his efforts succeeded—the Western District of Texas had a meteoric rise in popularity after Albright was appointed, and only two years after he took the bench it went from receiving only 2.5% of patent cases filed nationwide to around 22%.
Plaintiffs have flocked to the Western District of Texas to take advantage of Judge Albright’s plaintiff friendly practices. Plaintiffs prefer his fast-moving schedules because they drive settlement negotiations and limit the time defendants have to develop their case. His patent-specific standing orders provide predictability and his years of patent experience allow for efficient resolution of issues. Albright’s procedures also make it harder for defendants to initiate inter partes review to invalidate plaintiff patents with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, which has been called a patent death squad.
Because of the way cases are distributed in the Western District of Texas, plaintiffs can almost guarantee they will be assigned to Judge Albright if they file in the Waco division, where he is the sole judge. The district is organized into nine divisions, most with one or two judges. Federal district courts are not required to randomly assign cases and, barring unique circumstances, a case filed in a Western Texas division with only one judge will be assigned to that judge. This ability to choose provides plaintiffs with certainty as to the judge that will preside over their case – something not available in most districts. As a result, nearly all patent cases in the Western District of Texas have been handled by Judge Albright. Albright also transfers cases infrequently, meaning it is unlikely a given case will be transferred to a more defendant-friendly forum.
New Rule Requires Random Assignment
Concerns have been expressed about the monopoly Albright has on patent cases. General concerns revolve around judge shopping as it may undermine fairness and public trust in the judicial system and there is a worry that cases may be won based on procedural advantage rather than the merits. In Judge Albrights case there is unease about non-practicing entities (NPEs). NPEs, or patent trolls as they are often called, generate revenue by suing for infringement, often using abusive litigation tactics. There have been concerns that Judge Albright’s practices benefit patent trolls as after he took the bench more than 70% of new patent cases in the Western District of Texas were brought by NPEs.
In response to this issue, in November 2021 several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s intellectual property subcommittee wrote a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Court’s Judicial Conference. While they did not name Albright, they alluded to him by noting “unseemly and inappropriate conduct in one district.” They also sent a letter to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office expressing concern that Judge Albright repeatedly ignored binding case law and abused his direction by denying transfer motions. The Judicial Conference director, Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, said the office would conduct a study and noted that random case assignment safeguards judicial autonomy and prevents judge shopping. Justice Roberts addressed the issue in his annual report and said that patent venue was one of the top issues facing the judiciary.
As a result, last July the Chief Judge of the Western District of Texas, Orlando Garcia, instituted a random assignment of patent cases filed in Waco. Under the new rule, patent cases filed in Waco are no longer automatically assigned to Judge Albright, but instead are randomly distributed to one of the 13 judges in the district.
Impacts of the New Rule
Initial reports suggested there was a decrease in patent case filings in the Western District of Texas after the new rule, but more recent Lex Machina data show that there was limited change. Though the number of patent cases on Judge Albright’s docket did decrease, it was not as great a decrease as some expected, and he still received around 50% of all patent cases filed in the district. However, this is largely because Albright is still being assigned any newly filed cases that relate to those currently on his docket. Though randomization hasn’t significantly decreased the patent cases on Albright list yet, the number of cases assigned to him over time should decrease. What remains to be seen however is whether there will be an overall decrease in patent cases filed in the Eastern District of Texas.
What Will Happen in the Future?
It is unclear how this new way of assigning cases in the Western District of Texas will impact the distribution of patent cases. Uncertainty about the behaviors of other judges in the district likely will cause a decrease in filings. There are 12 “new” judges which can preside over patent cases in the district and only five have significant intellectual property experience. Until it is clearer how the other judges in the district handle patent cases, litigants may go elsewhere. However, it is possible that the other judges will follow Albright’s lead. Two judges in the district, Kathleen Cardone and David Counts, have already adopted Albrights’ patent procedures. It is also possible litigants will simply begin targeting judges with patent experience in the district. The new rule does not require random assignment for all patent cases—only those filed in Waco. Plaintiffs can still select their desired judge, as long as it is not Albright.
Even if the Western District loses its spot at the top, Texas will likely remain a popular patent venue. Before the Western District began its rise, the Eastern District of Texas was a patent litigation epicenter. At least for the near future it seems like the Western District of Texas will remain among one of the most popular patent forums; only time will tell the larger effects of the new rule.