Fed. Cir. Reversal of Judge Robinson Opinion "undoubtedly marks a shift from past declaratory judgment cases."
Last week, the Federal Circuit reversed Judge Robinson's opinion in Hewlett Packard Co. v. Acceleron, LLC, C.A. No. 07-650-SLR, Memo. Op. (D. Del. Mar. 10, 2009), which we posted about earlier this year. The Fed. Circuit's opinion on this case is particularly interesting because, in their words, it "undoubtedly marks a shift from past declaratory judgment cases." Hewlett-Packard Company v. Acceleron LLC, No. 2009-1283 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 4, 2009).
Judge Robinson had dismissed this declaratory judgment action because "[l]itigation was . . . still too speculative a prospect to support declaratory judgment jurisdiction" when the case was filed. Hewlett Packard, C.A. No. 07-650-SLR at 13. At that time Acceleron had sent a letter to HP asking for "an opportunity to discuss" Acceleron's patent that "relates to Blade Servers." Id. at 1-2.
Acceleron's initial letter suggested that declaratory judgment jurisdiction might be an issue by stating that "we ask that you agree that all information exchanged . . . will not be used for any litigation purposes whatsoever, including but not limited to any claim that Acceleron has asserted any rights against any of your ongoing or planned activities, or otherwise created any actual case or controversy regarding the . . . patent." Id. The Court noted, however, that the letter did not include "a statement of infringement, identification of specific claims, claim charts, prior pleadings or litigation history, or the identification of other licensees," or "directly imply impending litigation." Id.
In reversing, the Fed. Cir. held that "The facts of this case, when viewed objectively and in totality, show that Acceleron took the affirmative step of twice contacting HP directly, making an implied assertion of its rights under the ’021 patent against HP’s Blade Server products, and HP disagreed. Therefore, we hold that there is declaratory judgment jurisdiction arising from a 'definite and concrete' dispute between HP and Acceleron, parties having adverse legal interests." Id. at 8-9.
The difference between the Fed. Cir. holding and the District of Delaware holding seems to turn on the degree to which a patent troll must "imply" that litigation was pending - Judge Robinson noted that Acceleron did not "direcly imply impending litigation," but the the Fed. Cir. held that Acceleron's "implied assertion of its rights," along with HP's disagreement, was enough.
The Fed. Cir. recognized that "it is implausible (especially after MedImmune and several post-MedImmune decisions from this court) to expect that a competent lawyer drafting such correspondence for a patent owner would identify specific claims, present claim charts, and explicitly allege infringement." Id. at 6. The Court also recognized that legitimate business interactions (such as a patent owner attempting to sell a patent) should not invoke declaratory judgment jurisdiction, id. at 6, but that Acceleron's letter here was no such communication. The letter asserted that its patents were "relevant" to one of HP's product lines and imposed a short deadline to respond. Further, the Fed. Cir. emphasized Acceleron's status as a non-practicing entity: Acceleron's implication of litigation was stronger because it was "a non-competitor patent holding company," and "solely a licensing entity, and without enforcement it receives no benefits from its patents." Id. at 3, 8.
In its conclusion, the Fed. Cir. praised Judge Robinson's opinion, and noted that their reversal represents an actual change in the law:
As the district court recognized in its careful opinion analyzing declaratory judgment jurisdiction, there is no bright-line rule for distinguishing those cases that satisfy the actual case-or-controversy requirement from those that do not. See MedImmune, 549 U.S. at 127. Our decision in this case undoubtedly marks a shift from past declaratory judgment cases. However, MedImmune has altered the way in which the Declaratory Judgment Act applies to patent law cases, requiring that legal interests be evaluated in patent cases under the general criteria of the Act. Our jurisprudence must consequently also evolve, and in this case the facts demonstrate adverse legal interests that warrant judicial resolution.
Id. at 9.