In Lifetime Industries, Inc. v. Trim-Lok, Inc., No. 2017-1096, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 7, 2017), the Federal Circuit reviewed a district court’s dismissal of a patent infringement suit under Rule 12(b)(6) for failing to adequately plead direct or indirect infringement. Applying the Iqbal/Twombly standard to the claims, the Federal Circuit reversed the dismissal, concluding that the allegations—largely based on one assembly of an infringing combination and the defendant’s knowledge of the patent—supported claims of both direct and indirect infringement. The decision shows that even without the benefit of form pleading, sufficiently alleging infringement under Iqbal/Twombly remains a relatively low hurdle that most patentees will be able to satisfy.
The plaintiff’s infringement allegations
Lifetime Industries owns U.S. Patent 6,966,590 (“the ’590 patent”), which issued in 2005 and “generally describe[d] a two-part seal for use in a mobile living quarters (also referred to as a ‘recreational vehicle’ or ‘RV’) with a slide-out room.” Lifetime Indus., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *2. Figure 1 from the ’590 patent appears below.
According to the complaint (technically the Second Amended Complaint after amendments), two of Lifetime Industries’ engineers left the company in the first half of 2013. Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *4. The engineers both allegedly knew of the ’590 patent, as well as of Lifetime Industries’ products covered by the ’590 patent, and each engineer subsequently began working for Trim-Lok within one month of leaving Lifetime Industries. Id.
Lifetime Industries asserted that “Trim-Lok [started], for the first time, . . . offering for sale a two-part seal for an RV with a slide-out room in June 2013, soon after [the two engineers] began working for Trim-Lok.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *4. Specifically, Lifetime Industries alleged that its representative “discovered a two-part Trim-Lok seal installed on an RV with a slide-out room at a plant run by” a third-party RV manufacturer. Id. at *4-5.
Based on this discovery, Lifetime Industries sued Trim-Lok in 2013 for both direct and indirect infringement of the ’590 patent. Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *4-5. The complaint asserted that “[a]t least one representative, agent, or employee of” Trim-Lok visited the third-party manufacturer’s RV plant “on behalf of” Trim-Lok and “directly installed” Trim-Lok’s two-part seal onto an RV to create an infringing combination. Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *5. The complaint further alleged that Trim-Lok “influenced” the third-party RV manufacturer to include a two-part seal on RVs “knowing that such combination would fulfill all elements of at least one claim of the ’590 patent,” and that Trim-Lok’s agents “assisted in the installation, [or] directed the installation” of the seals. Id. (alteration in original). Lifetime Industries additionally asserted that “the two-part seal sold by Trim-Lok had only one purpose—for use on RVs with slide-out rooms” and that “Trim-Lok assisted in or directed the installation of the seal on an RV.” Id.
The district court dismissed these allegations as inadequate to support any patent infringement claim. According to the district court, the allegations failed to state a direct infringement count “because the [’590 patent’s] claims require both a two-part seal and an RV, and Trim-Lok only manufactures seals.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *6. For indirect infringement, the district court concluded that Lifetime Industries had alleged no “facts from which intent [to infringe] could be inferred in this case.” Id. (alternation in original). The district court therefore dismissed all of Lifetime Industries’ infringement claims.
Was the direct infringement claim properly evaluated under Form 18 or Iqbal / Twombly?
Before tackling the merits of the case, the Federal Circuit addressed an underlying dispute between the parties about which pleading standard applied to the direct infringement allegations—Form 18 of the Appendix of Forms to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or the requirements of Iqbal/Twombly. Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *7-9. The disagreement arose because the pleadings and district court order at issue in Lifetime Industries straddled the Supreme Court’s abrogation of Form 18—with Lifetime Industries’ operative complaint filed before the abrogation of Form 18 and the district court’s dismissal order filed after the abrogation. Id. at *8. Lifetime Industries urged the application of Form 18, while Trim-Lok urged the “more rigorous Iqbal/Twombly standard.” See Id.
The Lifetime Industries panel expressed doubt about both sides’ “assum[ption] that there is a difference between the requirements of Form 18 and Iqbal/Twombly,” reminding the litigants that the Federal Circuit has “never recognized such a distinction.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *9 (citing K-Tech Telecomms., Inc. v. Time Warner Cable, Inc., 714 F.3d 1277, 1284 (Fed. Cir. 2013)). Without resolving the question of whether any difference exists, the panel applied the putatively “more rigorous” Iqbal/Twombly and concluded the direct infringement allegations were sufficient even under that standard. Id.
Direct infringement does not require manufacture of all claimed components; alleged assembly alone can support a direct infringement claim
In assessing the direct infringement count, the Federal Circuit emphasized that the “district court dismissed [the] count on the basis that Trim-Lok only made one of the two components that comprised the patented invention.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *11. In other words, the direct infringement claim was dismissed “because Trim-Lok only makes seals, not the seal and RV combination required to infringe the claims.” Id. at *10.
The Federal Circuit flatly rejected this reasoning, stating that “[c]ommercial manufacture is not the only way that a combination can infringe.” Lifetime Indus.2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *10. Instead, plausible allegations that a defendant assembled even one infringing device can support a patent infringement claim. See Id. (quoting Siemens Med. Sols. USA, Inc. v. Saint-Gobain Ceramics & Plastics, Inc., 637 F.3d 1269, 1290 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (“One who ‘makes’ a patented invention without authorization infringes the patent.”)).
In the complaint at issue, Lifetime Industries alleged “that an agent of Trim-Lok installed the seal onto the RV, and that the resulting seal-RV combination infringed the ’590 patent.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *10. These allegations were “consistent with [Federal Circuit] precedents holding that assembling the components of an invention is an infringing act.” Id. at *11. Moreover, the complaint’s other allegations, including “where the alleged infringement occurred,” “when it occurred,” “who performed the allegedly infringing act,” and “why” the act occurred, provided further factual details allowing the direct infringement count to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Id. at *11-12. The Federal Circuit therefore reversed the dismissal of the direct infringement claim.
Induced infringement was plausibly pleaded by allegations that the defendant learned of the patent and subsequently directed a third party to make an infringing combination
Turning next to the induced infringement count, the panel explained that claims of induced infringement must be supported by factual allegations plausibly showing that the accused infringer (i) “specifically intended [another party] to infringe [the patent]” and (ii) “knew that the [other party]’s acts constituted infringement.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *13 (alternations in original). The Federal Circuit found these requirements satisfied by the allegations in Lifetime Industries’ complaint.
First, the court held that the complaint contained sufficient factual allegations to plausibly infer Trim-Lok’s knowledge of the patent before infringement commenced. The complaint alleged the two engineers (and former Lifetime Industries employees) “had knowledge of the patent and its scope when they joined Trim-Lok,” which “ma[d]e it plausible that Trim-Lok had knowledge of the ’590 patent” before infringement later began. Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *14.
Second, the panel concluded the allegations sufficiently pleaded an intent to induce infringement. The complaint alleged that Trim-Lok “assisted in or directed [a third party’s] installation of exactly the same type of seal as the one described in the patent” shortly “[a]fter Trim-Lok gained . . . knowledge” of the patent from the two engineers. Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *14. Additionally, Lifetime Industries alleged that “Trim-Lok never made or sold these particular seals,” which “have no noninfringing use,” before learning of the ’590 patent. Id. These allegations, together with the asserted prior knowledge of the patent, were adequate to infer an intent to induce infringement. Id. at *15. As such, the Federal Circuit also revered the dismissal of the induced infringement count.
Contributory infringement was plausibly pleaded by allegations that the defendant learned of the patent and assisted or direct installation of an infringing combination
Finally, turning to the contributory infringement count, the Lifetime Industries panel again found the complaint sufficient, specifically that it “plausibly pleaded that Trim-Lok knew of the patent and knew of infringement.” Lifetime Indus.,2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17257, at *16. After first noting that contributory infringement does not require proof of a defendant’s intent, the Federal Circuit explained that the same allegations supporting induced infringement also supported a contributory infringement count as well. Id. at *15-16. The court pointed to the allegations that Trim-Lok gained knowledge of the ’590 patent from the engineers and subsequently “assisted with or directed” installation of a two-part seal on an RV. Id. at *16. Based on these allegations, the court concluded it was “reasonable to infer . . . that Trim-Lok also knew of infringement,” thus warranting reversal on the contributory infringement claim. Id.
Lifetime Industries, Inc. v. Trim-Lok, Inc. illustrates that, even under the Iqbal/Twombly standard, patentees do not face a severe burden in alleging infringement. Extensive and detailed allegations of repeated infringement are not necessary to state direct patent infringement claims. Instead, even a single instance of alleged direct infringement can provide a sufficient pleading basis. Likewise, patentees need not allege every minute detail to state a claim for induced or contributory infringement, but may rely on reasonable inferences so long as the complaint contains plausible factual allegations of the indirect infringement.