The Supreme Court has reversed the Federal Circuit’s en banc decision in SCA Hygiene Prods. v. First Quality Baby Prods., 807 F.3d 1311 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc), which held that laches (unreasonable, prejudicial delay) is available as a defense to patent damages even if the damages were incurred within the Patent Act’s 6-year limitation period (looking backward from the time the complaint is filed). Quoting its decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), a copyright case involving the same question, the Court reiterated its view that “‘laches . . . cannot be invoked to bar legal relief . . . [i]n the face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress.” The Court’s opinion does not disturb the Federal Circuit’s additional holding that laches can bar equitable relief in patent cases.
Justice Breyer, the lone dissenting Justice, argued that laches “fills a gap” that can exist in patent cases because, for example, “a patentee might wait for a decade or more” to see if the alleged infringer’s product becomes successful and, if so, can then file suit and collect damages up to six years backward from the filing date without fear of a laches challenge. He also criticized the majority for discounting “a long history of prior case law that shows with crystal clarity that Congress intended the statute to keep laches as a defense.” The bitter irony of that criticism will not be lost on the Federal Circuit, which is typically on the receiving end of criticism from the Supreme Court that it glosses over historical Supreme Court precedent in favor of bright line rules. In SCA, however, the shoe is on the other foot: it is the Supreme Court that has grasped at the bright line, finding that, historical precedent notwithstanding, the statute precludes any laches defense to damages.