The Federal Circuit provides an important review of the expected legal and professional standards for non-practicing patent plaintiffs in the pursuit of their infringement claims. The new case is Eon-Net v. Flagstar Bancorp. The opinion describes the plaintiff, Eon-Net, as being in the lawsuit business. It, or its related entities, filed over 100 lawsuits and, in almost all cases, sought to settle quickly at a small fraction of the defendant’s anticipated litigation costs. In this instance, Flagstar Bancorp refused to settle and fought hard.
Eon-Net’s patent relates to a system of extracting information originating from a hard copy document and placed into computer memory. After extensive and expensive discovery, Flagstar filed its motion for summary judgment, confirming that it did not extract customer information from a hard copy document but rather from its website. The district court granted the motion and determined that the case was exceptional and merited an award of fees. The district court further allowed defendant’s Rule 11 motion for sanctions. Significant attorneys’ fees and sanctions were awarded against Eon-Net and its counsel.
The Federal Circuit reviewed the patent and confirmed that the claims and written description “repeatedly and consistently” defined the invention as a process that derives information from hard copy documents. “[T]he term ‘hard copy document’ appears over 100 times in the common disclosure of the [three] patents.” Flagstar’s customer information came from its website and not from hard copy documents. The case was not “a close call.” “[T]he specification unequivocally compels the construction adopted by the district court.”
The Federal Circuit confirmed that an exceptional case finding to support an award of awarding attorney fees must be based on clear and convincing evidence. The Federal Circuit will not overturn a district court’s determination except upon a finding of clear error. The Federal Circuit determined that the district court’s exceptional finding was not clear error because:
Plaintiff engaged in litigation misconduct:
- It destroyed relevant documents prior to litigation.
- It intentionally did not implement a document retention plan. Indeed, plaintiff’s principal testified that “I don’t save anything so I don’t have to look.”
- It engaged in abusive litigation tactics in that it failed to engage the claim construction process in good faith, it failed to offer a construction for any disputed claim terms, it lodged incomplete and misleading extrinsic evidence and it submitted declarations that contradicted earlier deposition testimony.
- It showed lack of regard for the judicial system by testimonial statements from its principal (“I am so sick of this stuff, especially this haggling over stupidities and trivialities which is the name of the game in litigation.”
- The plaintiff’s patent “clearly refutes Eon-Net’s claim construction.”
- The infringement claim had an “indicia of extortion” because “it was part of Eon-Net’s history of filing nearly identical patent infringement complaints against a plethora of diverse defendants, where Eon-Net followed each filing with a demand for a quick settlement at a price far lower than the cost to defend the litigation.” “[T]hose low settlement offers – less than ten percent of the cost that Flagstar expended to defend suit – effectively ensured that Eon-Net’s baseless infringement allegations remains unexposed, allowing Eon-Net to continue to collect additional nuisance value settlements.”
- As a non-practicing patent plaintiff, Eon-Net had little to lose in the litigation. “In addition to its ability to impose high costs to defend against its meritless claims, Eon-Net placed little at risk when filing suit. As a non-practicing entity, * * * Eon-Net did not face any business risk resulting from the loss of patent protection over a product or process. Its patents protected only settlement receipts, not its own products.”
The Federal Circuit took particular point to explain the obligation of plaintiff’s attorney. While plaintiff’s attorney stated at oral argument that his client was “difficult to control,” the opinion points out the obvious; “an attorney, in addition to his obligations to his client, has an obligation to the court and should not blindly follow the client’s interests if not supported by law and facts.”
On the issue of Rule 11 sanctions, the Federal Circuit upheld the district court’s determination and observed that plaintiff’s attorney “failed to perform a reasonable pre-suit investigation.” The court confirmed that “A reasonable pre-suit investigation, however, also requires counsel to perform an objective evaluation of the claim terms when reading those terms on the accused device.”
An award of attorneys’ fees and costs of $489,150.48 was upheld, as was the Rule 11 sanction of $141,984.70. Grand total: $631,135.18.