By Dennis Crouch
1st Media v. Electronic Arts (Fed. Cir. 2012)
In a strong opinion, the Federal Circuit has rejected a district court holding of inequitable conduct in a failure-to-submit case. The appellate court held that the defendant had failed to prove that the failure to submit was a deliberate fraud on the PTO under the standard outlined in the court's 2011 en banc Therasense decision.
Individuals sufficiently involved with the prosecution of a patent application bears a "duty of candor and good faith dealing with the [USPTO], which includes a duty to disclose to the Office all information known to that individual to be material to patentability." 37 C.F.R. § 1.56 (Rule 56). This duty is particularly applied to each inventor named in the application and "each attorney or agent who prepares or prosecutes the application." A patent attorney's failure to comply with the duty of candor can lead to disciplinary hearings by the USPTO's office of enrollment and discipline (OED) and, as a rule, the USPTO refuses to grant patents "on an application in connection with which fraud on the Office was practiced or attempted or the duty of disclosure was violated through bad faith or intentional misconduct."
The fiercely adversarial litigation system in the US is comparably quite good at rooting out (and thus discouraging) fraud. Whenever a patent is being enforced, accused infringers scour the records and available evidence to look for any way failures to comply with Rule 56. When those failures rise to intentional and material misconduct, a court has the equitable power to hold the patent (and its patent family) unenforceable due to inequitable conduct in the prosecution of the application. Of course, attorney fraud is a serious charge, and even false claims create difficulties for the accused wrongdoer. As such, the courts have taken some steps toward limiting those types of claims. The two key recent cases on this point are Excergen and Therasense.
Excergen: The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) as interpreted by the Excergen decision, inequitable conduct may only be alleged as a defense if it can be pled with particularity (as opposed to other types of claims that may be pled much more generally).
Therasense: Under Therasense, inequitable conduct requires proof that the alleged wrongdoing was deliberately and knowingly wrong and that the result of the wrongdoing during patent prosecution impacted the issuance of the eventual patent and that each element be proven with clear and convincing evidence. In the failure-to-disclose situation, the court writes that a defendant must prove "that the applicant knew of the reference, knew that it was material, and made a deliberate decision to withhold it."
In 1st Media, the asserted patent was part of a family of applications that had been filed in various countries around the world. Three references used to reject the foreign applications were never submitted for consideration by the US examiners. Nevada district court Judge Mahan considered this issue and found that both the patent attorney and the listed inventor were at fault for failing to submit the references and held the patent unenforceable.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed – making clear (again) that in a failure-to-disclose situation, the defendant must prove that individuals with a Rule 56 duty "made a deliberate decision to withhold" the references. Further, that deliberate decision element must be proven with clear and convincing evidence and that proof cannot be inferred from the fact that the individuals had knowledge of the references and their materiality.
A court can no longer infer intent to deceive from non-disclosure of a reference solely because that reference was known and material. Moreover, a patentee need not offer any good faith explanation for his conduct unless and until an accused infringer has met his burden to prove an intent to deceive by clear and convincing evidence.
In the bench trial, Judge Mahan found the explanations given by the inventor and his patent attorney to lacking. On appeal, the Federal Circuit made clear that the burden is on the defendant to provide clear and convincing evidence.
The court provided a nice quite for patent attorneys:
Moreover, it is not enough to argue carelessness, lack of attention, poor docketing or cross-referencing, or anything else that might be considered negligent or even grossly negligent. To sustain a charge of inequitable conduct, clear and convincing evidence must show that the applicant made a deliberate decision to withhold a known material reference. Whatever one might conclude about Lewis's and Sawyer's conduct and interactions relating to the Bush reference, and the nature of Sawyer's practice at the relevant time, the record does not support the inference that Lewis and Sawyer deliberately chose to withhold Bush.
Because one element of the inequitable conduct charge is missing, the court concluded that it cannot be proven. Of course, "carelessness, lack of attention, [or] poor docketing" will still lead to malpractice claims.
- In its opinion, the Federal Circuit foreclosed any possibility for the defendants to re-open their inequitable conduct charges for a rehearing. However, the judge has not yet determined validity. Thus, if the withheld references are truly material then we'll see the jury hold the asserted claims obvious.
- Beginning September 16, 2012, patentees will also be able to request a supplemental examination at the USPTO to ensure that any references that had been previously withheld do not impact patentability. However, if the USPTO finds that the previously withheld references create a major patentability question then the Office will institute a reexamination.
- We now have a situation where inequitable conduct is quite difficult to prove – meaning that patent owners will rarely be harmed by a violation of the duty of candor and good faith dealing. Consequently, patent attorneys will faced increased pressure to push the boundaries.