In SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products, No. 15-927, the Supreme Court held that laches is not a defense against a claim for damages brought within the six-year limitations period provided by § 286 of the Patent Act.
SCA sent First Quality a letter in 2003 alleging infringement of its patent. First Quality responded with a communication alleging that SCA’s patent was invalid. Communications between the parties ceased for nearly seven years. In 2010, SCA sued First Quality for infringement. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of First Quality based on laches and equitable estoppel. The Federal Circuit panel held that SCA’s claims were barred by laches. The Federal Circuit reheard the case en banc in light of the Supreme Court’s Petrella decision, and reaffirmed that SCA’s claims were barred by laches.
The Supreme Court applied its reasoning from the recent copyright case, Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. _ (2014), where the Court held that laches cannot defeat a damages claim brought within the three-year period prescribed by the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations. Similar to the Copyright Act, section 286 of the Patent Act prescribes a six-year limitations period for recovering damages for patent infringement. The Court determined that Congress enacted the six-year statute of limitations to directly address the issue of timeliness for patent infringement claims. The Court reasoned that judges applying laches within the six-year limitations period would effectively override congressional judgement on timeliness for bringing suit. The Court held that laches cannot be invoked as a defense against a claim for damages brought within the six-year limitations period specified in the Patent Act.
In dissent, J. Breyer focused on the same language from § 286 as the en banc Federal Circuit opinion. Section 286 allows for “except[ions] provided by law,” which J. Breyer argued include unenforceability due to laches under § 282.