COVID-19 has taken an unprecedented toll on the United States and the world at large. It has impacted nearly every facet of both professional and personal life and, with that, the patent landscape, too—especially as it pertains to the interplay between in-person events (trials, hearings, depositions and the like) and the need for “social distancing.”
Most venues are walking the delicate balance of trying to maintain their dockets and move cases along, while at the same time deal with the ever-changing “new normal.”
Among significant patent venues that have suspended all in-person hearings and trials are the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the International Trade Commission, the Central District of California, the Northern District of California, the Western District of Texas, the District of Delaware and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Most of these venues are also liberally granting parties’ requests for extensions of case deadlines, due to the impact of COVID-19 on parties and their attorneys.
Perhaps the most significant outlier is the Eastern District of Texas, which has not issued a blanket order suspending in-person hearings or trials, but rather has issued an order with “targeted visitor restrictions” (e.g., those who are sick, have traveled to certain countries, or are a doctor). The lone exception in the district is the closure of the Plano courthouse until April 1 due to an individual with a presumptive positive diagnosis for the COVID-19 coronavirus visiting the courthouse on March 18.
There are also differing views of extension requests among judges in the Eastern District of Texas. For example, on the one hand, Judge Schroeder granted an unopposed request for a three-week extension of case deadlines, where the defendant, witnesses and counsel were from Seattle and some of the individuals had been in contact with individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
On the other hand, Judge Gilstrap denied an unopposed joint request for a 30-day continuance, where one of the parties was based in Seattle and facing a similar COVID-19 fallout. In denying the request, Judge Gilstrap reasoned:
It is worth noting, however, that there are no current official travel restrictions or advisories from government health agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While the Court is sensitive to the Parties[’] concerns and the hazards associated with the Coronavirus, the Court is not inclined to implement delays or grant continuances unless a party can put forward specific concerns backed by firm restrictions from a governmental/public health level or actual exposure. The Court is confident that the attorneys for the Parties can craft viable solutions that allows the case to continue while minimizing the potential health risks. Both Parties are well-versed in the technological innovations that would remotely produce high-quality witness depositions. Having considered the Motion and striving to balance its decision between the competing parameters of prudence and panic, the Court is of the opinion that the Motion should be and hereby is DENIED.
Below is a further summary of how major patent forums are handling COVID-19: