U of M Asserts Sovereign Immunity Prevents USPTO from Invalidating Its Patents

Prof. Richard Stern, MJLST Guest Blogger

The University of Minnesota owns a number of patents on cell phone signal processing technology that was invented by Professor Georgios Giannakis of U of M’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and his colleagues. The U of M claims that AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Cellco Partnership (a joint venture between Verizon and Vodaphone, doing business as Verizon Wireless) are infringing five of these patents, and in 2014 it sued the companies in Minnesota federal district court for patent infringement. The U of M is “a great research university,” President Eric Kaler said, and “must vigorously protect our faculty, [their] discoveries and the overall interests of our university.” (The U collects about $40 million annually in royalties from licensing and the commercialization of faculty work.) Apparently, the cell phone carriers infringed the patents by utilizing Ericsson radio chips that code signals for wireless transmission and practicing patented methods the chips performed.

 

The case was assigned to Chief Judge John R. Tunheim in Minneapolis, who denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case for defective pleading, in September 2015. He did reject the U’s claim, however, that the defendants engaged in “willful blindness” in infringing the patents. Judge Tunheim said that the U “alleges no actions that would constitute deliberate avoidance of knowledge” that they were infringing, although they did know of the patents and they “actively entice[d] their customers through advertising, marketing and sales activity to use [their] infringing products.”

 

Ericsson, the wireless carriers’ equipment supplier, then acted to protect its defendant customers against the U by intervening in the Minnesota infringement suit. Ericsson then filed inter partes review (IPR) proceedings in the USPTO to invalidate the U of M patents on which the U was suing the carriers. An IPR is a new type of administrative proceeding that the recent America Invents Act established to provide a swifter and supposedly cheaper way for small companies to resist demands by trolls that they pay patent tribute. Instead of engaging in district court litigation, an aggrieved party can seek an IPR before the USPTO, which then employs its patent expertise to determine whether the patents it issued are invalid, and (if so) consequently relieving the aggrieved party from infringement liability (an invalid patent cannot be infringed).

 

Here is where the complications set in. The 11th Amendment preserves state sovereign immunity against suit—“The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States . . . .” Thus, when a patent owner sued a Florida state agency that provided college tuition payment plans, for patent infringement, the Supreme Court held the law subjecting states to infringement liability unconstitutional under the 11th Amendment. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd. v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999). Accordingly, in two January 2017 IPR cases, the USPTO held that the 11th Amendment required it not to allow proceedings before it against Maryland and Florida. Neochord, Inc. v. Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore and Harpoon Medical, Inc., IPR2016-00208 (May 23, 2017), http://www.ptablitigationblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/IPR2016-00208.pdf; Covidien LP v. University of Florida Research Found. Inc., IPR2016-01274 (Jan. 25, 2017), http://www.finnegan.com/files/upload/LES_Insights_Column/2017/CovidienvUFIPRNos20160126476.pdf. Although waiver was urged, the USPTO said it was inapplicable because the 11th Amendment is jurisdictional—it deprived the tribunal of any jurisdiction to act, so that jurisdiction could be considered at any time. Waiver requires an affirmative act of invoking federal jurisdiction in the relevant tribunal, and that had not occurred.

 

Ericsson argued, in support of its claim that there was jurisdiction to hear its IPR challenges, that the U had waived its 11th Amendment immunity by suing Ericsson’s customers in the Minnesota district court. Ericsson said that the U “has consented to jurisdiction,” when it sued Ericsson’s customers in the district court, because by filing lawsuits against Ericsson’s customers, “it could surely anticipate” that Ericsson would bring an IPR case at the USPTO to invalidate the patents asserted against its customers for using its products. The U has now urged the USPTO to dismiss Ericsson’s IPR cases, insisting that it has not waived its sovereign immunity by suing the phone carriers—not Ericsson, a third party to the U’s patent infringement suits.

 

The U argues that the law is clear that a waiver must be personal, i.e., filing a lawsuit or counterclaims in the same action and in the same forum. Thus, in Regents of Univ. of New Mexico v. Knight, 321 F.3d 1111, 1125 (Fed. Cir. 2003), the Federal Circuit held that it would be unfair to let New Mexico sue in federal court to enforce a right to ownership of patents arising from contracts “and, at the same time, to claim immunity from liability [in the same case] for royalties or other compensation arising from those same contracts and conduct.” The court added, “Moreover, because a state as plaintiff can surely anticipate that a defendant will have to file any compulsory counterclaims [in the same case] or be forever barred from doing so, it is not unreasonable to view the state as having consented to such counterclaims.” Id. at 1126. On the other hand, the Federal Circuit has held that “a state that files a [patent infringement] lawsuit in one district court does not waive its immunity in a related [invalidity declaratory judgment] lawsuit filed by a party in another district court.” Board of Regents of the Univ. of Wis. Sys. v. Phoenix Int’l Software, Inc., 653 F.3d 448, 462 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Tegic Communications Corp. v. Board of Regents of the Univ. of Texas Sys., 458 F.3d 1335, 1342 (Fed. Cir. 2006)).

 

In the Tegic case, in which UT sued Tegic’s customers for patent infringement in Texas, the Federal Circuit held that UT waived its immunity against a declaratory judgment counterclaim in Texas. But UT did not waive immunity against the separate declaratory judgment action that Tegic wanted to bring in Washington (where Tegic resided). The court said that if Tegic wanted to litigate patent validity, it could intervene in the Texas case and subject itself to infringement liability if the patent was valid and infringed. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s concept in the College Savings Bank that the 11th Amendment is more about where a state is willing to be sued than whether it can be sued—for example, most states allow suits against them in their own courts of general jurisdiction. (But they don’t want to be sued in another jurisdiction.)

 

Based on this case law, the U argued: “IPR petitions are [not] counterclaims nor adjudicated in the same forum—they are a different action brought in a different forum.” Further, “a state that files an infringement action does not waive its immunity from a different action challenging the patent in a different forum.” The USPTO had said previously that it was not passing on what would happen if the patentee did file a patent infringement suit, as U of M did here. Furthermore, Ericsson did intervene in the Minnesota district court patent infringement suit, as the Tegic court said the equipment seller should if it wanted to challenge validity. But the Minnesota district court has stayed the federal patent action (at Ericsson’s request) to await the result in the IPR case, as district courts usually do in order to let the experts in the USPTO resolve the patent issues for them. (Presumably, the court will vacate its stay if the IPR case is dismissed.)

 

The U quoted the Federal Circuit opinion in Tegic that insisted that Tegic could not show that adjudication of its claim of invalidity was “not available in the Texas action,” and the U then argued, “Similarly, Ericsson cannot show that adjudication of invalidity counterclaims is not available in the Minnesota court,” where the U has (constructively) waived its immunity. There is a serious conflict here between the respective policies of the 11th Amendment that states should not be subjected to forums not of their choice and of the America Invents Act that a cheap, fast, expert determination of patent validity should be available in lieu of litigation in courts. Like the College Savings Bank case, this case may well end up in the Supreme Court. One important issue, not raised or resolved so far, is whether Congress may constitutionally impose, as a condition of the statutory right to acquire the benefit of a patent, and thus make as an integral element of the patent right, that the patent is subject to validity determination in IPR proceedings. Or would the 11th Amendment make that an unconstitutional condition on a benefit, as applied to a state, rather than a legitimate part of the statutory definition of a patent right?

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