Yesterday, the Second Circuit in Lotus v. Hon Hai Precision affirmed the district court’s dismissal of antitrust and breach of contract claims arising from foreign activity based on the patent owner not licensing, but asserting in litigation in China, patents subject to FRAND-Z (i.e., royalty free) standard setting obligations.  Consistent with the U.S. Federal Trade Commision’s amicus brief (see our Jan. 13, 2014 post), the Second Circuit ruled that dismissal was proper because any effect on U.S. domestic or import commerce from the foreign activity did not “give[] rise to” the asserted antitrust claims as required under the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act (“FTAIA”).

We refer you to our prior post (Jan. 13, 2014 postMay 17, 2013 post and Feb. 13, 2013 post) for the background discussion of this case that involves plaintiff Lotes suing Hon Hai and related entities (such as Foxconn) for reneging on licensing commitments made to the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) by not licensing USB 3.0-related patents on FRAND-Z terms and violating U.S. antitrust laws by instituting foreign patent-enforcement proceedings on those patents against Lotes in China.  Below is a summary of the Second Circuit’s ruling.

FTAIA Requirements Are Substantive, Not Juridictional.  First, in overruling a prior decision, the Second Circuit ruled that the FTAIA restrictions on antitrust claims based on foreign conduct are substantive, not jurisdictional, requirements–i.e., ”they go to the merits of the claim rather than the adjudicative power of the court.”  Among other things, this means the restrictions are potentially waivable (though the Second Circuit reserved ruling on whether they actually are waiveable, noting that “[A] ‘right conferred on a private party, but affecting the public interest, may not be waived or released if such waiver or release contravenese the statutory policy.”).

Patentee’s SSO Obligation Did Not Waive FTAIA Defenses.  Second, the Second Circuit ruled that the patentee did not contractually waive the FTAIA restrictions through its standard setting commitments.  As an initial mattter, the Second Circuit stated that the plaintiff failed to first raise the issue in the district court and “an appellate court will not consider an issue raised for the first time on appeal.”  Further, even assuming arguendo that the FTAIA restrictions were waivable, “nothing in the cited [USB-IF standard setting] contractual provisions suggests that the defendants waived those [FTAIA] requirements here.”  Specifically, the plaintiff Lotes pointed to five provisions of the USB-IF’s Contributors Agreement:

  1. Paragraph 2 that recites the contributors’ understanding “that it is imperative that they and their representatives act in a manner which does not violate any state, federal or international antitrust laws and regulations.”  The Second Circuit did not find waiver here, because this “merely recites the parties’ understanding that they are subject to various antitrust laws and regulations and affirms the parties’ commitment to abide by their existing legal obligations.”  Thus, “[at] most”, this provision “can be read to recognize and incorporate into the Contribution Agreement the signatories’ preexisting obligations under U.S. antitrust law,” but “do not waive any statutory requirements or otherwise alter the scope of the signatories’ legal obligations.”  Thus the signatories “remain free to argue that, under the FTAIA, the Sherman Act does not apply to or regulate the conduct at issue in this case.”
  2. Paragraph 2 statement that “prohibits any communications regarding … exclusion of competitors or any other topic that may be construed as a violation of antitrust laws.”  The Second Circuit did not find waiver here, because this simply “prohibits the parties from engaging in anticompetitive ‘communications.’”
  3. Paragraph 6.6 statement that the Agreement is to be “construed and controlled” by New York law.  The Second Circuit found no waiver here, because this was simply a “standard choice-of-law” clause.
  4. Pargraph 6.7 statement that “all disputes arising in any way out of this Agreement shall be heard in, and all parties irrevocably consent to jurisdiction and venue in, the state and Federal courts of New York, New York.”  The Second Circuit found no waiver here, because this was simply a “standard … choice-of-forum” clause.
  5. Paragraph 6.12 statement that “the obligations of the parties hereto shall be subject to all laws, present and future, of any government having jurisdiction over the parties hereto.”  The Second Circuit found no waiver here, because this “merely reiterates the parties’ existing obligation to comply with all applicable laws” as in Paragraph 2 above.

Thus, the Second Circuit held that the patentee did not waive its FTAIA defenses by signing the USB-IF Contributor Agreement.

Foreign Conduct’s U.S. Domestic Effect.  Third, following Seventh Circuit precedent, the Second Circuit held that foreign anticompetitve conduct can have the FTAIA-required “direct, substantial, and reasonably forseeable effect”on U.S. domestic or import commerce ” even if the effect does not follow as an immediate consequence of the defendant’s conduct, so long as there is a reasonably proximate causal nexus between the conduct and the effect.”  The Second Circuit thus rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “direct … effect” standard applied by the district court below.  The Second Circuit, however, declined to decide “the rather difficult question” whether that requirement was met in this case because the case could be resolved based on the “give rise to” requirement discussed below.

Does Effect “give rise to” Antitrust Claims.  Finally, the Second Circuit ruled that the alleged anticompetive conduct did not “give[] rise to” the plaintiff’s antitrust claim because, “in the causal chain the plaintiff alleges, the plaintiff’s exclusion from the relevant market actually precedes the alleged domestic effect” [emphasis in original].  The Second Circuit described the domestic effect allegations as follows:

Lotes alleges that the defendants’ foreign conduct had the effect of driving up the prices of consumer electronics devices incorporating USB 3.0 connectors in the United States.  But those higher prices did not cause Lotes’ injury of being excluded from the market for USB 3.0 connectors–that injury flowed directly from the defendant’s exclusionary foreign conduct.  Lotes’s complaint thus seeks redress for precisely the type of “independently caused foreign injury” that … falls outside of Congress’s intent [in enacting FTAIA].

Indeed, to the extent there is any causal connection between Lotes’s injury and an effect on U.S. commerce, the direction of causation runs the wrong way.  Lotes alleges that the defendants’ patent hold-up has excluded Lotes from the market, which reduces competition and raises prices, which are then passed on to U.S. consumers.  Lotes’s injury thus precedes any domestic effect in the causual chain.  And “[a]n effect never precedes its cause.” [emphasis in original]

The Second Circuit also rejected Lotes’s “creative arguments” that “the defendants have also failed to license the necessary claims of certain U.S. patents, which has had the effect of foreclosing competition in the United States.”  Problems with the argument include no allegation that Lotes conducts business in the United States, allegation that Lotes already has rights under the U.S. patents based on the USB-IF Contributors Agreement, and fact that Lotus would still be excluded from the USB 3.0 market because of the foreign enforcement activity against Lotes’s sole-foreign-based manufacturing:

As an initial matter, we are skeptical that the defendants’ refusal to license their U.S. patents has resulted in any domestic foreclosure of competition.  Lotes has not alleged that it manufactures products in the United States, imports products into this country, or otherwise does business here.  It is thus unclear why Lotes believes it even needs a U.S. license from the defendants in order to operate.  And even to the extent a license is in fact necessary, Lotes alleges that, by virtue of the Contributors Agreement, it “either already has .. .or has in irrevocable right to a RAND-Zero license” for all patent claims and other intellectual property necessary to practice the USB 3.0 standard.  The alternative domestic effect Lotes relies upon is thus illusory.

In any event, any domestic effect resulting from the defendants’ failure to license their U.S. patents did not proximately cause Lotes’ injury.  Indeed, any such effect is not even a factual, “but for” cause of Lotes’s injury.  Even if the defendants had granted Lotes a U.S. license, Lotes would still be excluded from the USB 3.0 market by virtue of the defendants’ independent infringement suits in China.  But for the failure to license, Lotes would have suffered the same harm. [emphasis in original]

The Second Circuit thus affirmed dismissal on this alternative ground.  Further, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s denying Lotes a second opportunity to amend the complaint because, “[i]n light of our conclusion that any domestic effect did not ‘give[] rise to’ Lotes’s claim, amendment would be futile.”