On March 25, 2018, the District Court in Nichia Corporation v. VIZIO, Inc., Case No. 8-16-cv-00545 (CACD 2019-03-25, Order), granted defendant’s motion to preclude plaintiff’s damages expert from testifying that plaintiff should recover, as compensatory damages, its costs incurred in a related Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceedings.  The Court found such testimony would constitute an improper circumvention of 35 U.S.C. § 285’s requirements for an attorney fee award.

35 U.S.C. § 285 authorizes a court to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in “exceptional cases.”  In Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1749 (2014), the Supreme Court defined an “exceptional case” as one that “stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position . . . or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.”  Under Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Mgmt. Sys., Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1744 (2014), district courts are to apply a “totality of the circumstances” test to determine whether a case is exceptional.

Moreover, the Federal Circuit recently issued a decision in Stone Basket Innovations, LLC v. Cook Medical LLC that clarified the requirements for litigants seeking attorneys’ fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285.  There, the Federal Circuit found dispositive Cook Medical’s failure to provide “early, focused, and supported notice [to Stone Basket] of its belief that it was being subjected to exceptional litigation behavior.”  According to the Federal Circuit, a “party cannot simply hide under a rock, quietly documenting all the ways it’s been wronged, so that it can march out its ‘parade of horribles’ after all is said and done.”  Indeed, where there is no indication of willful ignorance or failure to assess the soundness of pending claims, post-judgment notice of its assertion that the claims were always baseless cannot mandate an award of fees under a “totality of the circumstances” analysis.

Here, Plaintiff Nichia initiated the instant action on March 23, 2016, alleging that certain televisions of Defendant VIZIO infringe four of its patents directed to light emitting diode (“LED”) semiconductor chips and phosphor materials that are combined to produce white light.  The asserted patents (1) list the same four inventors; (2) share a common specification; and (3) claim priority to the same Japanese patent application, P 09-081010, and the same U.S. Patent Application No. 08/902,725, which issued as U.S. Patent No. 5,998,925 on July 29, 1997.

Before trial VIZIO moved to preclude Nichia’s damages expert from testifying that Nichia should recover, as compensatory damages, its costs and fees “for defending the validity challenge to the patents-in-suit at the patent office.”  VIZIO argued Nichia’s attempts to do so were “an end run around the strict requirements for attorney’s fees under Section 285 of the Patent Act” and is directly contrary to law.  In his expert report, Plaintiff Nichia’s expert states:

I have been informed by Counsel that as a result of VIZIO’s infringement of Nichia’s patents-in-suit by the accused TVs, Nichia initiated this lawsuit. VIZIO then decided to initiate a separate proceeding at the patent office in which it challenged the validity of the patents-in-suit… I understand that the cost to Nichia for defending the validity challenge to the patents-in-suit at the patent office was approximately $800,000…[T]he total damages amount should be adjusted upward by approximately $800,000 to account for this additional damage….

Nichia contended that these costs and fees are proper damages under § 284, arguing that this section simply provides that a court should “award the claimant damages adequate to compensate for the infringement . . . in no event less than a reasonable royalty for the use made of the invention by the infringer, together with interest and costs as fixed by the court.”  However, the Court found that the expert’s inclusion of attorneys’ fees in his calculated reasonable royalty rate is improper.

The Court reasoned that the Federal Circuit’s opinion in Mahurkar v. C.R. Bard, Inc., 79 F.3d 1572, 1581 (Fed. Cir. 1996), addressed a similar question and was instructive.  In that case, the district court awarded litigation expenses to a prevailing plaintiff as part of its royalty rate.  But, the Federal Circuit reversed, explaining that in sections 284 and 285, the Patent Act sets forth statutory requirements for awards of enhanced damages and attorney fees. The statute bases these awards on clear and convincing proof of willfulness and exceptionality.  At no point does it suggest allowing enhancement of a compensatory damage award as a substitute for the strict requirements of these statutory provisions.

The Court here reached a similar conclusion, reasoning “the American Rule is a ‘bedrock principle’ of this country’s jurisprudence. It provides that, in the United States, ‘[e]ach litigant pays his own attorney’s fees, win or lose. The American Rule may only be displaced by an express grant from Congress.” (citations removed). The statute at question here, 35 U.S.C. § 284, contains no such express grant from Congress. Instead, Congress has provided for attorneys’ fees only in “exceptional cases.”

Thus, the court found that to the extent that Plaintiff believes it is entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees, it cannot do so simply by lumping it into its compensatory damages, but must instead meet the more stringent requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 285.  Therefore, the court granted VIZIO’s motion to exclude Plaintiff Nichia’s expert from testifying about the costs and attorney’s fees incurred in the related IPR.