By Dennis Crouch
Earlier this week, I commented on the two attorney-fees cases pending before the US Supreme Court:
- Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., Docket No. 12-1184; and
- Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Sys., Docket No. 121163.
Both cases stem from the same perspective that the "exceptional case" requirement for attorney fees is too narrowly construed by the courts and especially by the Federal Circuit. See 35 U.S.C. § 285.
I noted in the prior post that the predecessor of Section 285 was first enacted in a 1946 Patent bill. The 1946 law was substantially similar to the current law (enacted in 1952) with the major difference that the 1946 act expressly gave the court "discretion" to award attorney fees to the prevailing party while the 1952 act removed that "discretion" term and instead indicated that the fee may be awarded "in exceptional cases."
The Senate Report associated with the 1946 statute indicates that the statute is not intended to make fee awards an "ordinary thing in patent suits" but instead to reserve such awards for "gross injustice."
It is not contemplated that the recovery of attorney's fees will become an ordinary thing in patent suits, but the discretion given the court in this respect, in addition to the present discretion to award triple damages, will discourage infringement of a patent by anyone thinking that all he would be required to pay if he loses the suit would be a royalty. The provision is also made general so as to enable the court to prevent a gross injustice to an alleged infringer.
S. Rep. No. 1503, 79th Cong., 2d Sess. (1946), reprinted in 1946 U.S. Code Cong. Serv. 1386, 1387.
When the 1952 act was passed, the House Committee Report briefly mentioned the "exceptional case" amendment to the statute – indicating that the phrase "'in exceptional cases' has been added as expressing the intention of the present statute as shown by its legislative history and as interpreted by the courts."
In several cases, the Federal Circuit has considered the standard and, after some debate, decided in Eltech Systems Corp. v. PPG Industries, Inc., 903 F.2d 805 (Fed. Cir. 1990), that the exceptional case standard should be the same for both prevailing plaintiffs and for prevailing defendants – writing: "we now reach the question and determine that there is and should be no difference in the standards applicable to patentees and infringers who engage in bad faith litigation." The Eltech Systems case was then cited positively by the Supreme Court in Fogerty v. Fantasy, 510 U.S. 517 (1994) as justification for a party-neutral approach to fee shifting in copyright cases.
We note that the federal fee-shifting statutes in the patent and trademark fields, which are more closely related to that of copyright, support a party-neutral approach. Those statutes contain language similar to that of [17 U.S.C.] § 505, with the added proviso that fees are only to be awarded in "exceptional cases." 35 U.S.C. § 285 (patent) ("The court in exceptional cases may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party"); 15 U.S.C. § 1117 (trademark) (same). Consistent with the party-neutral language, courts have generally awarded attorney's fees in an evenhanded manner based on the same criteria. For patent, see, e.g., Eltech Systems Corp. v. PPG Industries, Inc., 903 F.2d 805, 811 (Fed. Cir. 1990) ("[T]here is and should be no difference in the standards applicable to patentees and infringers who engage in bad faith litigation"). For trademark, see, e.g., Motown Productions, Inc. v. Cacomm, Inc., 849 F.2d 781, 786 (2nd Cir. 1988) (exceptional circumstances include cases in which losing party prosecuted or defended action in bad faith); but see Scotch Whisky Assn. v. Majestic Distilling Co., 958 F.2d 594 (4th Cir.) (finding in the legislative history that prevailing defendants are to be treated more favorably than prevailing plaintiffs), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 862 (1992).
Fogerty at note 12.
Of course, the problem with a party-neutral approach is that it can only be applied at a certain high level of granularity or abstractness. Since patentees and accused infringers make systematically different argument and have systematically different strategies, the particular causes of exceptional case findings tends to be different. Thus, losing infringers most often pay fees based upon ongoing willful and reckless infringement while losing patentees most often pay fees for suing on patent obtained through inequitable conduct or for bringing baseless lawsuits. At that low level of granularity, the differences are such that it is difficult to compare whether a party-neutral approach is being applied.
Thanks to John Pinkerton at Thompson & Knight for providing me with this legislative history from the 1946 Act.