We previously discussed the Vermont attorney general’s enforcement action against MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, a non-practicing entity that has recently been the subject of regulatory scrutiny.  The attorney general’s complaint, filed in Vermont state court in early May of 2013, alleges that MPHJ’s patent assertion conduct directed toward Vermonters violates the state’s Consumer Protection Act.  The state seeks permanent injunctive relief, an award of restitution to Vermont businesses that were damaged by MPHJ’s alleged conduct, civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Act, and costs.

A few weeks after the suit was filed, Vermont’s governor signed into law the Bad Faith Assertions of Patent Infringement Act (Bad Faith Demand Act) which, as its title suggests, attempts to regulate patent demand letters sent in bad faith.

After several unsuccessful attempts by MPHJ to remove the attorney general’s action to federal court (see our August 11, 2014 post), MPHJ filed a separate action against the attorney general in federal district court seeking a declaration that the Bad Faith Demand Act is constitutionally invalid or federally preempted as well as a declaration that the Vermont Consumer Protection Act — as it is being applied by the attorney general in the state court action against MPHJ — is constiutionally invalid or federally preempted.  MPHJ also sought an injunction prohibiting the attorney general from prosecuting the state court action against it.

Recently, the federal judge presiding over MPHJ’s case granted in part and denied in part the attorney general’s motion to dismiss MPHJ’s amended complaint.  A summary of the Bad Faith Demand Act, MPHJ’s claims, the motion to dismiss briefing and the court’s decision is provided below.

The Bad Faith Demand Act.  The Bad Faith Demand Act provides that “[a] person shall not make a bad faith assertion of patent infringement.”  The statute permits a court to consider several factors “as evidence that a person has made a bad faith assertion of patent infringement,” including, but not limited to:

  • The demand letter does not contain the patent number, the name and address of the patent owner(s) and assignee(s), or “factual allegations concerning the specific areas in which the” recipient’s “products, services, and technology infringe”;
  • The demand letter fails to include the above-listed information, the recipient of the letter requests it, and the patentee fails to provide it within a reasonable period of time;
  • The patent owner fails to compare the claims to the recipient’s products, services and technology prior to sending the demand letter, or such analysis was “done but does not identify the specific areas in which the” recipient’s products, services and technology are covered;
  • The demand letter demands payment of a license fee or response within an “unreasonably short period of time”;
  • The patentee “offers to license the patent for an amount that is not based on a reasonable estimate of the value of the license”;
  • The claim “of patent infringement is meritless, and  the person knew, or should have known, that the claim or assertion is meritless”‘; and
  • The patentee, its subsidiaries or affiliates “have previously filed or threatened to file” a lawsuit “based on the same or similar claim of patent infringement” and those threats lacked the information listed above (e.g., the patent number, name and address of the patent owner and assignee(s), etc.) and a court found the claims to be meritless.

In analyzing whether patent assertion conduct was done in bad faith, the Bad Faith Demand Act also permits a court to consider whether such conduct was “deceptive.”  The court may also consider “[a]ny other factor [it] finds relevant.”  The facial breadth of this language may give a court discretion to consider whether a standard essential patent owner has informed the recipient that the asserted patents have been declared essential by the patent owner to a standard setting organization (SSO) and/or whether the patent owner has promised to license the patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms.

Conversely, the Bad Faith Demand Act also lists several factors that may show that patent assertion conduct was not committed in bad faith.  Among the factors that a court may consider are:

  • The demand letter contains the patent number, the name and address of the patent owner(s) and assignee(s), and “factual allegations concerning the specific areas in which the” recipient’s “products, services, and technology infringe”;
  • Where the demand letter lacks such information and the recipient requests it, the patent owner provides it within a reasonable time;
  • The patent owner “engages in a good faith effort to establish that the target has infringed the patent and to negotiate an appropriate remedy”;
  • The patent owner “makes a substantial investment in the use of the patent or in the production or sale of a product or item covered by the patent”;
  • The patent owner is the inventor or joint inventor of the asserted patent, the original assignee, an institution of higher education or a technology transfer organization owned or affiliated with an institution of higher education;
  • The patent owner has engaged in “good faith business practices in previous efforts to enforce the patent” or a “substantially similar patent” or successfully enforced the patent, or a substantially similar patent, through litigation”; and
  • Any other factor the court deems relevant.

The Vermont attorney general is empowered to bring enforcement actions for restitution, civil penalties and injunctive relief against violators of the statute.

Additionally, a recipient of a bad faith demand letter or target of other bad patent assertion conduct may bring an action and, if they prevail, may be awarded equitable relief, damages, costs and attorneys fees, exemplary damages in an amount equal to $50,000 or three times the total damages, costs, and fees, whichever is greater.

As an interim remedy, the Bad Faith Demand Act also provides that if a recipient of a demand letter or target of other patent assertion conduct establishes “a reasonable likelihood that a person has made a bad faith assertion of patent infringement” in violation of the statute, “the court shall require the person [making the demand] to post a bond in an amount equal to a good faith estimate of the target’s costs to litigate the claim and the amounts reasonably likely to be recovered” under the civil remedies provisions of the statute discussed above, “conditioned upon payment of any amounts finally determined to be due to the target” of the patent assertion conduct.  The bond may not exceed $250,000 and the court may waive it “if it finds [that] the person [making the demand] has available assets equal to the amount of the proposed bond or for other good cause shown.”

MPHJ’s Complaint.  In September of 2014, MPHJ filed a complaint against the attorney general challenging the constitutionality of the Bad Faith Demand Act as well as the attorney general’s application of Vermont’s Consumer Protection Act in the state court action against MPHJ.  In response to the attorney general’s motion to dismiss, MPHJ filed an amended complaint.

Count I-A seeks a declaration that the Bad Faith Demand Act is invalid under, or preempted by, the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  MPHJ also alleges that the Bad Faith Demand Act is preempted by Title 35 of the United States Code and the Federal Circuit’s decisions thereunder, in that it “permits liability to attach to patent owners, including injunctive and monetary liability, without a requirement that the plaintiff prove that the conduct at issue was both objectively baseless and subjectively baseless pursuant to the standard outlined in” the Federal Circuit’s 2004 decision in Globetrotter Software, Inc. v. Elan Computer Group, Inc.

Count I-B seeks a declaration that the Vermont Consumer Protection Act, as it is being applied by the attorney general in the state action against MPHJ, is also invalid under, or preempted by, the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  Specifically, MPHJ alleges that the attorney general “has [asserted] and currently asserts that the Vermont Consumer Protection Act may be applied against correspondence related to patent enforcement without pleading or proof that such conduct is objectively baseless and subjectively baseless.”  “As a result, as applied, the Vermont Consumer Protection Act is invalid or preempted under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and the Supremacy and Patent Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and Title 35 of the U.S. Code.”

The other counts in MPHJ’s amended complaint assert causes of action for, inter alia, a declaration that the Bad Faith Demand Act and the Vermont Consumer Protection Act, as applied, are invalid under or preempted by the Dormant Commerce Clause as well as a count for attorneys fees under Section 1988 of Title 42 of the United States Code for the attorney general’s allegedly unconstitutional conduct.

Motion to dismiss to briefing.

The Vermont attorney general moved to dismiss MPHJ’s First Amended Complaint, arguing that the court should abstain from hearing any of MPHJ’s challenges to the constiutionality of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act because those claims could be litigated in the state court action as affirmative defenses or counterclaims.

The attorney general also argued that MPHJ lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Bad Faith Demand Act because those claims were based on MPHJ’s intention to send demand letters in the future and, according to the attorney general, such potential future conduct was too speculative to support standing.  Even if MPHJ could establish standing, its claims were not ripe because the allegations of MPHJ’s potential future conduct were too “cursory.”

MPHJ opposed the motion.  MPHJ argued that, because the state court action did not involve claims under the Bad Faith Demand Act, abstention was not proper and MPHJ is entitled to pursue its federal challenges to the Bad Faith Demand Act.  MPHJ argued further that its challenges to the Bad Faith Demand Act were both ripe and that it has standing to pursue them because MPHJ has “alleged that Defendant’s conduct represents a credible threat of suit that chills the exercise of MPHJ’s First Amendment rights” to enforce its patents by sending demand letters.

With respect to its challenges to the attorney general’s application of the Consumer Protection Act in the state court action, MPHJ argued that abstention was not proper because, inter alia, the state does not have an important interest in deciding MPHJ’s claims.  Specifically, MPHJ argued that “it is clear that dominion over patents, and their enforcement, is not an attribute of sovereignty retained by the American states.”

The attorney general filed a reply, arguing, inter alia, that even substantial claims of federal preemption do not warrant federal court action, and that MPHJ should be required to litigate those claims in the state court action.  The attorney general also argued that MPHJ had not alleged that its asserted patent claim was valid and infringed and, therefore, MPHJ lacked standing to challenge the Bad Faith Demand Act based on potential future demand letters involving the patent claim at issue.

MPHJ filed a supplemental opposition identifying new authority regarding the attorney general’s abstention arguments that MPHJ contended required the denial of the attorney general’s motion.

The Court’s decision.  The court granted the attorney general’s motion to the extent it related to MPHJ’s challenges to the AG’s application of the Consumer Protection Act in the state action, deciding to abstain in favor of having those challenges resolved by the state court.  “The constiutionality of the [Consumer Protection Act] being enforced can be determined by the state courts…”

The court, however, denied the attorney general’s motion to dismiss MPHJ’s challenges to the Bad Faith Demand  Act.  “As there has been no civil enforcement action under the [Bad Faith Demand Act], abstention with respect to that statute is unwarranted.”

The court also rejected the attorney general’s argument that MPHJ lacked standing to challenge the Bad Faith Demand Act because the attorney general has not brought any enforcement action under that statute.  According to the court, the lack of any enforcement action was not dispositive to the standing issue.  Rather, because MPHJ “has made plain its intention to send enforcement letters in the future” and that the attorney general, in an interview, discussed the Bad Faith Demand Act’s intentions “to deter patent trolling in Vermont” and also mentioned MPHJ specifically in that same interview, “future enforcement under the [Bad Faith Demand Act] seems neither conjectural nor hypothetical.”  MPHJ, according to the court, had established “a credible threat of enforcement” sufficient to give it standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Bad Faith Demand Act and that such claims were ripe for review.

As we previously discussed, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved the PATENT Act, and that bill will soon go to the full Senate floor.  The House Judiciary Committee has also approved competing patent reform legislation that will be voted on by the full House.  Both of these bills contain provisions that would regulate patent demand letters and other patent assertion conduct.  Should either bill or revised versions of them be enacted into law, Vermont’s Bad Faith Demand Act as well as other states’ laws that attempt to regulate patent assertion conduct may be expressly pre-empted, likely mooting MPHJ’s constitutional challenges.  MPHJ’s claims for monetary damages, however, might not be mooted.