Judge Noel L. Hillman of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, sitting by designation, recently granted a motion to drop two parties from the litigation pursuant to Rule 21. Evonik Degussa GmbH v. Materia Inc., et al., C.A. Nos. 09-636 (NLH/JS), 10-200 (NLH/JS) (D. Del. Sept. 30, 2013). The two parties previously were owners of the asserted patent, but during the course of the litigation assigned their rights, title, and interest in the patent to Materia Inc. They subsequently moved pursuant to Rule 21 to be dropped as parties, and the plaintiff opposed the motion.
Although the case did not present misjoinder or nonjoinder in the traditional sense, the Court explained that federal courts “agree that [Rule 21] may apply even in the absence of misjoinder or nonjoinder.” Id. at 4 (quoting Joseph v. Baxter Int’l Inc., 614 F. Supp. 2d 868, 874 (N.D. Oh. 2009) (quoting 4A Matthew Bender, Moore’s Federal Practice § 21.05 (2d ed.))). The Court added that “[a]t least one federal court has held that a party’s assignment of its interest in the patent-in-suit to another party nullifies its status as an indispensable party, and the assigning party is therefore dismissable from suit pursuant to Rule 21.” Id. at 5 (citing Biovail Labs., Inc. v. TorPharm, Inc., 2002 WL 31687610, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 26, 2002)). Here, the Court found that the two moving defendants, UNOF and UNORTF, had completely assigned their rights and responsibilities in the asserted patent to another party already in the litigation—Materia Inc. “[I]t is clear that UNOF and UNORTF no longer have a stake in the underlying infringement suit between Evonik and Materia. . . . As such, UNOF and UNORTF no longer maintain a sufficient interest in this case to justify their continuing presence. Therefore, since they are no longer indispensable or necessary parties to this dispute, their dismissal from suit is appropriate under these circumstances.” Id. at 6-7.
The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that it would be prejudiced in two ways if the parties were dropped. First, the Court disagreed that dropping the parties would result in the plaintiff being unable to obtain certain information during discovery. The Court noted that discovery had been ongoing for more than a year, and in any event the plaintiff would still be able to discover material from the dropped parties by way of subpoenas or, more likely, through Materia, whose assignment agreement indicated that Materia would be responsible for and comply with discovery requests relating to the dropped parties. Id. at 8. Second, the Court rejected the argument that dropping the two parties would prejudice the plaintiff’s ability to recover attorneys’ fees, explaining that the argument was entirely speculative at this point since the plaintif had not yet prevailed in the litigation. Id. at 10. Moreover, the assignment agreement indicated that Materia would be responsible for any attorneys’ fees award related to the dropped parties’ conduct in the litigation. Id. at 11. Although the plaintiff appears to have argued that this assurance was illusory because Materia might enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Court explained that it could not “keep UNOF and UNORTF tethered as parties solely for the purpose of affording their adversary leeway in deciding how to obtain a speculative award for attorneys’ fees . . . .” Id. at 12. “Absent some indication of fraud or bad faith, a party’s filing for bankruptcy cannot serve as a legitimate reason to avoid the legal consequences of an otherwise properly executed assignment agreement. The Court also reminded the plaintiff that Materia had not yet entered bankruptcy, and there was no evidence in the record that it definitely would do so.