The Northern District of California recently granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of patent-plaintiff ChriMar Systems, Inc. on antitrust and state law unfair competition counterclaims filed by accused infringers Cisco and Hewlett-Packard (HP).  According to the court, the crux of Cisco’s and HP’s counterclaims alleged that ChriMar failed to disclose and commit to license one of its patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms during a standard-setting process and, subsequent to the standard being adopted, filed suit against them alleging infringement of the same patent.  Cisco and HP alleged that this was an abuse ChriMar’s “monopoly power” and also a violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law.  The court held that judgment on the pleadings was warranted because Cisco and HP failed to define the relevant market and also failed to plead facts showing market power and antitrust injury.  The court, however, granted Cisco and HP leave to amend their counterclaims.

Background.  On October 31, 2011, ChriMar filed a complaint against Cisco and HP alleging that Cisco’s and HP’s “Power over Ethernet telephones, switches, wireless access points, routers and other devices used in wireless local area networks, and/or cameras and components thereof that are compliant with the” Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) 802.3af and/or 802.3at standards infringed one or more claims of ChriMar’s U.S. Patent No. 7,457,250 (“the ’250 Patent”).  In response, Cisco and HP filed counterclaims asserting causes of action for, inter alia, monopolization under the federal antitrust laws as well as for violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law.

In their counterclaims, Cisco and HP allege that the IEEE has a “patent disclosure policy” that “requires participants in the standards setting process to disclose patents or patent applications they believe to be infringed by the practice of the proposed standard.”  Cisco and HP further allege that the IEEE policy requires those who disclose intellectual property rights to provide a written assurance stating whether they would enforce any of their present or future patents “whose use would be required to implement the proposed IEEE standard or provide” a license to such patents royalty-free or on RAND terms.  The counterclaims assert that ChriMar was required to but intentionally “failed to disclose to IEEE its belief that its ’250 Patent was essential to the proposed 802.3af and/or the 802.3at” during amendments of the 802.3 standard and that “ChriMar was not willing to license the ’250 Patent on RAND terms.”  Cisco and HP contend that due, in part, to this alleged failure to disclose, the industry adopted the present form of IEEE 802.3af and IEEE 802.3at amendments to the IEEE 802.3 standard and that they are now “locked-in to the current implementation . . . for Power over Ethernet-enabled products.”  Had ChriMar disclosed its belief that the ’250 Patent would be infringed by practicing the proposed amendments to the 802.3 standard as well as its unwillingness to license the patent on royalty-free or RAND terms, the IEEE would have, according to Cisco and HP, done one or more of the following:

  1. Incorporated one or more viable alternative technologies into the IEEE 802.3af and IEEE 802.3at amendments to the IEEE 802.3 standard;
  2. Requested ChriMar to provide a letter of assurance that it would license the ’250 Patent on RAND terms;
  3. Decided to either not adopt any amendment to the IEEE 802.3; and/or
  4. Adopted an amendment that did not incorporate technology that ChriMar claims is covered by the ’250 Patent.

Cisco and HP further contend that ChriMar has taken the position that all Power over Ethernet-enabled products infringe the ’250 Patent and that, to the extent that the ’250 Patent is essential to the 802.3af and the 802.3at standards, no viable technology substitutes exist and ChriMar has monopoly power over the Power over Ethernet Technology Market.  Both Cisco and HP allege that this conduct combined with ChriMar’s infringement action against them is an unlawful abuse of monopoly power under Section 2 of the Federal Sherman Antitrust Act and also unfair competition under California’s Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. Code § 17200 (UCL).

HP also filed a claim for attempted monopolization under Section 2, which alleges that ChriMar’s complaint against it, Cisco and several others (Respondents) before the International Trade Commission seeking an exclusion order under Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 constituted an unlawful intent to monopolize the Power over Ethernet Technology market.  According to HP, ChriMar alleged before the ITC  that Respondents infringe the ’250 Patent by importing products that practice the Power over Ethernet Standards IEEE 802.3af and 802.3at.  HP alleges that the Respondents’ imports collectively “comprise the substantial majority of products commercially offered in the Power over Ethernet Technology Market.”  HP alleges further that ChriMar’s “baseless” allegations of infringement and request for an order prohibiting these Respondents from importing Power over Ethernet products constitutes an unlawful attempt to monopolize the Power over Ethernet Technology Market.

ChriMar’s Answers and Motion to Dismiss.  ChriMar filed an answer to Cisco’s counterclaimsas well as an answer to HP’s counterclaims generally denying defendants’ antitrust and UCL allegations and asserting lack of standing and failure to state a claim as affirmative defenses.  ChriMar thereafter moved for judgment on the pleadings on the antitrust and UCL counterclaims.  In its motion, ChriMar argued that Cisco and HP failed to plead facts showing that ChriMar had monopoly power in the alleged relevant market.  Specifically, according to ChriMar, Defendants could not “simply rely on the existence of patent rights or actions to enforce them, as they have done.”  ”As a matter of law, ‘patent rights are not legal monopolies in the antitrust sense of that word’ … and simply owning or enforcing the patent right does not make one a ‘prohibited monopolist.’”  ChriMar elaborated:

While the patent may give its owner a right to exclude, that is in no way synonymous with having monopoly power. … Such is presumably the case in a market related to a standards setting context where the standard does not practice the patented technology as Defendants allege in this action, where there are market alternatives to the standard itself such as Cisco’s own proprietary inline power technology, where other parties have rights to exclude in the same technology market (in the form of other patents that read on the standards) and can effectively limit the ability of other parties to exert monopoly power (i.e., control prices), or where competing technologies like wireless communication or conventional unpowered Ethernet can exert economic influences that can keep Power over Ethernet prices or the exercise of monopoly power in check — all issues Defendants’ pleadings never address.

ChriMar further argued that its enforcement of its patent rights was presumed to be valid under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which generally grants immunity from antitrust liability for petitioning the government in the form of litigation.  To overcome this presumption, Cisco and HP had to plead facts showing that its litigation against them and ITC proceeding seeking an exclusion order were a “sham,” that is, “objectively baseless.”  To be objectively baseless, Cisco and HP must plead facts showing that ChriMar’s claims were “‘so baseless that no reasonable litigant could realistically expect to secure favorable relief.’”  If Cisco and HP could show that ChriMar’s claims were objectively baseless, they next had to allege facts showing that the litigation was subjectively brought in bad faith in order to overcome Noerr-Pennington immunity.

ChriMar argued that the only factual allegation in HP’s counterclaim is that “‘discovery in the ITC investigation established that ChriMar’s allegations for domestic industry were baseless’” and that “ChriMar withdrew its [ITC] complaint nine months after it was filed, and after HP filed a motion for summary determination on the issue of domestic market.”  These allegations, according to ChriMar, failed to overcome ChriMar’s Noerr-Pennington immunity.

ChriMar also argued that Defendants failed to plead facts adequately defining a relevant market, a necessary element for a Section 2 claim.  Defendants alleged the following relevant market in their counterclaims:

ChriMar actually, potentially, and/or purportedly competes in the United States and worldwide markets for developing and licensing technology essential to implement the IEEE 802.3af and 802.3at amendments to the IEEE 802.3 standard and for technology essential to perform certain functions, allegedly covered by the ’250 Patent, necessary to implement the IEEE 802.3 standard (hereinafter ‘Power over Ethernet Technology Market’).

ChriMar asserted that this definition is flawed because it fails to identify what particular technologies are included within the market.  Further, ChriMar argued that Defendants “have pled a market whose outer boundaries are defined by ChriMar’s infringement claims (one patent asserted against two standards) rather than any exploration of the ‘reasonable interchangeability’ of use or the cross-elasticity of demand’ outside this intersection.”  Cisco and HP’s counterclaims did not consider that the “technologies and products at issue in this litigation may be interchangeable with other technologies and products such as Power over-Ethernet technologies and products that are not compliant with the two standards . . . or even technologies and products not compliant with any standard, but that themselves are alternatives to the Power over Ethernet technologies and products compliant with these two standards.”  Under the Sherman Act, according to ChriMar, the relevant market cannot be defined by ChriMar’s economic power within the two standards.  Rather, the relevant market must be defined and measured by cross-elasticity of demand or product interchangeability:  ”Here, Defendants plead economic power with respect to those entities voluntarily choosing to continue making products compliant with these two particular standards . . . and not the market demand for these particular Power over Ethernet technologies themselves.”

ChriMar further argued that Cisco and HP failed to plead facts showing that ChriMar had monopoly power or that Defendants have suffered antitrust injury.  Further, ChriMar asserted that HP’s attempted monopolization claim was deficient because it failed to plead facts showing that ChriMar’s ITC action “was motivated by an intent to monopolize, rather than primarily motivated by legitimate business purposes.”  Finally, ChriMar argued that Cisco and HP’s UCL claims should be dismissed because they relied on the same conduct that formed the basis of their Section 2 claims.

Cisco and HP’s Opposition.  Cisco filed an opposition to ChriMar’s motion, as did HP.  Responding to ChriMar’s arguments that Defendants failed to adequately plead a relevant market, both Cisco and HP argued that “[m]arket definition is rarely grounds for dismissal of a pleading because ‘the validity of the relevant market is typically a factual element rather than a legal element” that is not appropriate to resolve on a Rule 12 motion.  

On the merits, Defendants argued that numerous cases have consistently held “that the relevant market is defined by those technologies that — before the standard was adopted — were competing to perform the function that was covered by the purportedly essential patent.”  According to Cisco and HP, “ChriMar does not cite to a single case that considered the relevant market where antitrust violations occurred in connection with misconduct in the context of standards development.”  In contrast, Defendants argued that Apple v. Samsung, Broadcom v. Qualcomm and Apple v. Motorola confirm that their market definition was adequately pled.  In Samsung, Apple pled the relevant market as “the various markets for technologies that — before the standard was implemented — were competing to perform each of the various functions covered by each of Samsung’s purported essential patents for UMTS.”  ”Apple also identified the patents Samsung declared as standard essential and alleged that ‘pre-standardization there existed alternative substitutes for the technologies covered by Samsung’s patents,’ and that after standardization, ‘viable alternative technologies were excluded.’”  Defendants asserted that the Samsung court found such allegations to “define the bounds of the relevant market” and that “Apple ha[d] sufficiently pled a relevant antitrust market” because “the incorporation of a patent into a standard . . . makes the scope of the relevant market congruent with that of the patent.”

According to Defendants, the Broadcom court reached a similar conclusion, holding that Broadcom, the alleged infringer, had adequately pled a relevant market to support a monopolization claim that was defined as “the market for Qualcomm’s proprietary WCDMA technology, a technology essential to the implementation of the UMTS standard.”  Apple v. Motorola reached a similar conclusion, finding that a relevant market was sufficiently pled as “the various technologies competing to perform the functions covered by Motorola’s declared-essential patents for each of the relevant standards.”

Cisco and HP argued that, “[c]onsistent with these cases, [Defendants] defined the market to comprise the technologies that competed to perform the functions in the [Power over Ethernet] Standards allegedly covered by the ’250 patent.”  This definition, according to Defendants, “appropriately focuses on alternative technologies that were excluded from the market by ChriMar’s deceptive conduct and which [Defendants] and other implementers of the standard cannot now choose because the industry is ‘locked-in’ to the standard.”  ”To the extent ChriMar argues the correct market definition should include the entire standard, rather than some portion of the standard, that argument is inconsistent with both the complaint and with”  Samsung, Broadcom, and Apple.

With respect to monopoly power, both Cisco and HP argued that in the standards context, “it is well settled that patentees holding standard-essential patents can possess monopoly power.”  Cisco and HP again relied upon Samsung, wherein the court concluded that “because standard-essential patents may confer antitrust market power on the patent owner, Apple’s claims” that “Samsung had market power over the relevant market because it obtained the power to raise prices and exclude competition over the technologies covered by Samsung’s standard-essential patents” and that “there was a ‘lock-in’ to the standard” were sufficient to plead monopoly power.  Cisco and HP argued that their counterclaims satisfied this standard because they alleged that, as a result of ChriMar’s accusations that “the leading vendors of Power over Ethernet-enabled products” infringe the ’250 Patent, “it is ChriMar’s position that no meaningful level of Power over Ethernet-enabled products do not infringe the ’250 Patent.”  Further, like the allegations in Samsung, Cisco and HP both allege that “because of ‘lock-in’ to the standard,” there are no “viable technology substitutes at present.”  ”Accordingly, if the ’250 Patent claims covered products that comply with the IEEE standard as claimed by ChriMar, ChriMar has monopoly power over the Power over Ethernet Technology Market.”

The element of antitrust injury was also adequately pled, according to Cisco and HP.  Defendants argued that in order to plead that they have suffered antitrust injury, they must allege facts showing an injury to competition.  ”It is well settled that misconduct before an SSO harms competition by ‘obscuring the costs of including proprietary technology in a standard and increasing the likelihood that patent rights will confer monopoly power on the patent holder.’”  Cisco and HP pointed to allegations in their counterclaims “concerning the harm to competition caused by ChriMar’s deception in the context of standards setting,” including that ChriMar “‘could charge supra-competitive prices”‘” and that “‘[c]ustomers and consumers will be harmed, either by not getting products that are compliant with the IEEE 802.af and IEEE 802.at amendment to the IEEE 802.3 standard or having to pay an exorbitant price for one.”

Cisco also took issue with ChriMar’s argument that “the anticompetitive harm alleged by Cisco ‘is a potential consequence in any successful patent litigation.’”  According to Cisco, “[t]his is not just ‘ any patent litigation,’ and the competitive harm alleged by Cisco is not the natural result of any litigation.”  ”[H]ere, ChriMar deliberately subverted the goals of the IEEE standards-setting process by not disclosing its patent rights, waiting until the industry became ‘locked-in’ to the [Power over Ethernet] Standards, and demanding royalties from implementers of the standards that Cisco has alleged will lead to ‘supra-competitive prices.’”

With respect to ChriMar’s Noerr-Pennington argument, Cisco argued that “[c]ourts have repeatedly recognized that the Noerr-Pennington doctrine does not apply to monopoly power gained through deception in the context of SSOs, even when an allegedly standard-essential patent is subsequently asserted in court.”  As the doctrine does not apply, Cisco and HP need not plead facts supporting the two exceptions.

HP argued similarly, but also asserted that its counterclaim alleged facts supporting the “sham” exception to Noerr-Pennington, that is is, that ChriMar filed a sham ITC proceeding against HP and others only to later voluntarily withdraw it.

HP also asserted that its counterclaims adequately pled that ChriMar had a specific intent to monopolize and a dangerous probability of obtaining a monopoly.  ”HP alleges facts that ChriMar deceitfully concealed its patent in connection with the IEEE standards-setting process and then sought to enforce its patent in the ITC.  This conduct shows a specific intent by ChriMar to monopolize the [Power over Ethernet] Technology Market through its anticompetitive conduct.”  ”ChriMar became dangerously close to succeeding in its attempt, having dismissed its complaint less than two months before the start of the ITC hearing.”

Finally, Cisco and HP argued that, because they adequately pled causes of action under the federal antitrust laws, they also adequately pled a cause of action under California’s UCL.

The Court’s Decision on Cisco and HP’s Monopolization Counterclaims.  After ChriMar filed its reply, the court entered an order granting ChriMar’s motion.  With respect to Cisco and HP’s monopolization claims, the court agreed with ChriMar that their pleadings failed to allege facts sufficient to define the relevant market, a necessary element to a Section 2 claim.  ”Courts typically require that the proposed relevant market be defined with reference to the rule of reasonable interchangeability and cross-elasticity of demand.”  ”However, in the context of a standard setting organization (‘SSO’) locking in a standard which eliminates substitute or alternative technologies courts have allowed a relevant market to be defined by the technologies that were competing before the standard was adopted to perform the function that is covered by the standard and the essential patent.”  ”For example, in [Apple v. Samsung], the court found sufficient Apple’s allegations that defined the relevant market as the ‘various markets for technologies that — before the standard was implemented — were competing to perform each of the various functions covered by each of Samsung’s purported essential patents for’ the standard.”  The court in Samsung further “noted that Apple alleged that pre-standardization there were alternative substitutes for the technologies covered by Samsung’s patents, and that after the SSO adopted the proposed standard, viable alternative technologies were excluded.”  Cisco and HP’s claims failed to plead such facts or facts defining the market “as comprising the technologies that competed to perform the functions in the Power over Ethernet standards allegedly covered by the ’250 Patent.”  Therefore, Cisco and HP failed to sufficiently allege the relevant market.

The court also held that Cisco and HP failed to allege sufficient facts showing that ChriMar had the requisite market power to support a Section 2 claim.  On this element, Cisco and HP argued that “their allegations regarding ChriMar’s failure to disclose its belief that the ’250 Patent was essential to the 802.3af and 802.3at amendments to the IEEE 802.3 to the standard setting organization (‘SSO’) is sufficient to allege their monopoly claims.”  Citing to an earlier decision in Apple v. Samsung,Defendants contended that “it is sufficient to allege that if the ’250 Patent is essential, then ChriMar has monopoly power.”  The court, however, concluded that the decision did not support defendants’ contention.  Specifically, “in that case, the court determined that Apple had sufficiently alleged monopoly power.”  ”The court in Samsung further noted that, in contrast to the theory that a patent holder misrepresented to an SSO that it would license its intellectual property on RAND terms, ‘[c]ourts have been more reluctant to find an antitrust violation based on the theory that a failure to disclose intellectual property rights in a declared essential patent created monopoly power for a member of the SSO.’”  Indeed, the Samsung court expressly required the plaintiff to allege that “there was an alternative technology that the SSO was considering during the standard setting process and that the SSO would have adopted an alternative standard had it known of the patent holder’s intellectual property rights.”  The Samsung court further made it “clear that the heightened pleading requirements under Rule 9(b) for fraud applies to” the types of antitrust claims brought by Cisco and HP.  Applying these standards to those claims, the court concluded that “they fail to allege non-conclusory facts which, if true, would be enough to show that ChriMar acquired sufficient monopoly power.”  ”Notably, Defendants fail to clearly allege that the IEEE would have adopted an alternative standard had it known about the ’250 Patent and ChriMar’s position with respect to its ’250 Patent.”  Therefore, Cisco and HP failed to plead the necessary element of market power.

Finally, with respect to the necessary element of antitrust injury, the court concluded that Cisco and HP’s claims merely alleged, “in conclusory fashion, that ChriMar’s alleged conduct has ’caused and will directly and proximately cause antitrust liability to [Defendants] within the Power over Ethernet Technology Market . . .”  Neither defendant pled any facts which, if true, “would demonstrate antitrust injury.”

Because Cisco and HP failed to allege the necessary elements of a relevant market, monopoly power, and antitrust injury, the court found “that Defendants have not alleged sufficient facts to state a counterclaim for monopolization.”  However, the court provided Defendants with leave to amend their monopolization claims in an attempt to remedy the deficiencies identified by the court.

Notably, the court did not address — at least not at this time — ChriMar’s Noerr-Pennington arguments but may very well do so on any subsequent motion to dismiss the amended counterclaims permitted by the court’s decision.

The Court’s Decision on HP’s Attempted Monopolization Counterclaim.  Because HP failed to plead a relevant market as well as antitrust injury, HP’s attempted monopolization claim failed as well.  ”In addition, although a lower percentage [of market share] is required for an attempted monopoly claim, as opposed to an actual monopoly claim, HP must still allege sufficient market power.”  The court concluded that HP failed to allege sufficient market power which was also “fatal to its attempted monopolization claim.”

The court disagreed with ChriMar’s argument that “HP’s attempted monopolization counterclaim fails for the additional reason that HP fails to allege specific intent to monopolize or a dangerous probability of obtaining monopoly power because HP’s attempted monopolization allegations are based solely around the terminated [ITC] investigation.”  The court concluded that “HP does not rely solely upon the ITC investigation” but “is also premised upon ChriMar’s alleged misconduct before the SSO.”  However, because the court was granting HP leave to amend its counterclaim to adequately allege a relevant market, market power and antitrust injury, the court did not reach the issue of whether HP’s additional allegations regarding the ITC investigation would be sufficient, standing alone, to state a claim for attempted monopolization “if HP sufficiently alleges the relevant market power, and an antitrust injury.”  HP’s attempted monopolization claim was therefore dismissed with leave to amend.

The Court’s Decision on Cisco and HP’s UCL Counterclaims.  The court also dismissed Cisco and HP’s UCL counterclaims.  ”Courts have held that where the alleged conduct does not violate the antitrust laws, a claim based on unfair conduct under the UCL cannot survive.”  ”Because the Court finds that Defendants have not alleged facts sufficient to state a a counterclaim for monopolization and attempted monopolization, Defendants’ UCL counterclaims” fail as well.  However, as with the other counterclaims, the court granted HP and Cisco leave to amend this claim as well.