The Federal Circuit Rules Direct Purchasers Can Bring Walker Process Claims
Antitrust issues often arise in patent cases. A patent, after all, is a government-sanctioned monopoly on the patented invention or technology. But the Supreme Court held, in Walker Process Equipment, Inc., v. Food Machinery & Chemical Corp., that a patentee that obtained its patent by knowing and willful fraud on the Patent and Trademark Office would not be protected from antitrust claims. Since that decision, accused infringers frequently assert so-called Walker Process counterclaims alleging patentees used fraudulently-obtained patents to monopolize the markets for the patented inventions.
Recently, in Ritz Camera & Image, LLC v. SanDisk Corp., the Federal Circuit clarified whether a direct purchaser of a patented product – rather than an accused infringer – has standing to bring a Walker Process claim. Unlike antitrust law, where they are the preferred plaintiffs, a direct purchaser of a patented product typically cannot challenge the patent; only an accused infringer, or a party that reasonably could be sued as an infringer, has standing bring an action to invalidate a patent. This difference in standing split courts on whether a direct purchaser could assert a Walker Process claim: Must the direct purchaser have standing to both assert an antitrust claim and challenge the validity of the patent, or is standing under the antitrust laws sufficient?
The Federal Circuit found that direct purchasers can bring a Walker Process claim. Although the court acknowledged that, as a practical matter, a successful Walker Process claim would invalidate the patent, a Walker Process claim does not invalidate the patent in and of itself. Instead, a Walker Process claim arises under the antitrust laws for which direct purchasers generally have standing.
The Federal Circuit’s decision Ritz Camera allows the plaintiff’s putative antitrust class action to proceed. Although the Federal Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that granting standing to direct purchasers would encourage frivolous claims, it is not difficult to imagine any finding, or credible accusation, of inequitable conduct or fraud in a patent litigation spurning a subsequent, tag-along antitrust class action.