The Northern District has become the jurisdiction of choice for 35 USC Section 292 false patent marking suits. Of the more than 80 false marking suits filed this year, more than half were filed in Northern District. Granted many of the suits, 38, have been filed by a single plaintiff and his counsel, but several other plaintiffs have chosen the Chicago federal courts to file complaints that arguably could have been filed in almost any district court. As I have watched the cases pile up, I have spent a fair amount of time trying to determine why the plaintiffs are choosing Chicago. While the numbers could be skewed by one plaintiff, Simonian, that has filed the majority of the cases, several other plaintiffs are availing themselves of the Chicago courts, so I do not think that answers the question. Rather, I think the Chicago filings are a by-product of the new Local Patent Rules, for two reasons: 1) assuming that the Local Patent Rules apply to these cases (and I believe they will) the Local Patent Rules will place most of the upfront responsibilities on the defendant-patentholder; and 2) the proposed case schedule that would have cases tried in two years gives plaintiffs a moderate case length moderating their potential fees and costs while maintaining a relatively high defense cost for the defendants, including the potential threat of the longer pre-Rules schedule for most Northern District of Illinois patent cases prior to enacting the Rules. Before I analyze the reasons further, some background will be valuable as false marking is a very new phenomena in patent law and remains unknown to many.
Modern False Marking Cases
The first of the modern false marking cases, excluding the occasional false marking claim in a broader patent dispute between competitors, was Pequignot v. Solo Cup Co., No 1:07cv897-LMB/TCB (E.D. Va. July 2, 2009). In that case, Solo was accused of falsely marking coffee cup lids sold to Starbucks. The Eastern District of Virginia’s Judge Brinkema granted Solo Cup summary judgment finding that there was no intent to deceive the public in Solo’s alleged false marking based upon the advice of Solo’s counsel that it would be reasonable to replace molds identifying expired patents with molds showing no marking gradually. Additionally, the Court held that a patent marking “offense,” punishable by a fine up to $500, was the decision to improperly mark, not each improperly marked product. That decision significantly reduced the damages potential for false marking cases, and is currently on appeal at the Federal Circuit.
Then in the last week of December 2009, the Federal Circuit decided Forest Group, Inc. v. Bon Tool Co. In that case, the district court followed reasoning similar to the Solo case fining defendant $500 for a single decision to false mark. But the Federal Circuit reversed, holding that the fine was to be assessed per falsely marked product. That drastically changed the damages calculus for false marking claims, and led to the deluge of patent false marking cases beginning this January.
In the first quarter of this year, at least to date, more than 80 false marking cases have been filed. The Federal Circuit will soon hear oral argument in Pequignot v. Solo Cup, to rule upon the bounds of the intent required by 35 USC Section 292. The only potential relief for patent holders is a section of the current patent reform bill in the U.S. Senate that would require that the false patent marking plaintiff have been harmed by the alleged false marking – check out a discussion of the provision at the Patent Docs.
With that background, the question remains – why are so many false patent marking cases being filed in the Northern District? As I proposed above, the reasons stem from the Northern District’s new Local Patent Rules. First, many people see false marking cases as commercial litigation in patent litigation’s clothing. That is not completely the case, however. In fact, the parties must determine whether the marked product reads upon the patent claims, unless the the only issue is an expired patent. That means that the court and the parties must conduct a full infringement analysis with all of the required claim charts, technical analysis, expert discovery, Markman hearings and perhaps even summary judgment motions. That means that the Local Patent Rules will likely govern these cases, bringing with them the required Initial Disclosures and production obligations, and claim charts.
That is significant because the false marking plaintiff does not have all of the obligations of either a typical patent plaintiff or defendant, while the false marking defendant has most of its obligations. The plaintiff will not have to produce his reduction to practice documents, prosecution histories, etc. along with Initial Disclosures, although the defendant likely will have to at least produce the prosecution histories. And the defendant will also have the obligations of a typical defendant – producing documents sufficient to show how each accused product or process works. So, the defendant has initial discovery burdens that are not shared by the plaintiff, and the plaintiff is guaranteed early document production. Additionally, the defendant will likely be obligated to produce initial infringement contentions, after which the plaintiff would have to respond with noninfringement contentions. So, the plaintiff not only escapes initial production requirements, but also gets to file its initial claim charts last. These are significant costs for the defendant which may benefit the plaintiff, at little up front cost. Additionally, knowing that these costs are coming early in the case may drive the defendant’s willingness to settle up. Of course, it could always backfire on the plaintiff and drive the defendant’s settlement down in line with the amounts spent upon early discovery.
Second, the Local Rules contemplate a two year time-to-trial, as opposed to the prior patent litigation average in Chicago that was likely in excess of three years. So, the plaintiff still has a moderately long time to trial, driving up the defendant’s likely litigation fees and expenses, but not so long that the plaintiff feels like it will never see its potential award.