Absent Explicit Statutory Language? The American Rule Still Applies
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court’s award of attorney’s fees under the prevailing party rule but affirmed the district court’s denial of the US Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) request for expert witness fees under 35 U.S.C. § 145. Hyatt v. Hirshfeld, Case Nos. 20-2321;–2325 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (Hughes, J.). The case involved prolific inventor Gilbert Hyatt and the latest chapter in his battles with the PTO.
Mr. Hyatt is known for his prolific patent and litigation filings (including hundreds of extraordinarily lengthy and complex patent applications in 1995 alone) and for often “’adopt[ing] an approach to prosecution that all but guaranteed indefinite prosecution delay’ in an effort to submarine his patent applications and receive lengthy patent terms.” After the PTO denied some of his patent applications, Mr. Hyatt elected to pursue a district court appeal under 35 U.S.C. § 145 to challenge the PTO’s decisions. The district court ordered the PTO to issue some of the patents and awarded Mr. Hyatt attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. The PTO spent millions of dollars examining Mr. Hyatt’s applications and sought, under §145, reimbursement of its expert witness fees from the case. The district court denied the PTO’s request for expert witness fees, holding that its shifting of “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings” to the applicant does not overcome the American Rule presumption against shifting expert fees. The PTO appealed.
The PTO challenged both the award of attorney’s fees and the denial of expert fees. In an earlier appeal by the PTO, the Federal Circuit held that the PTO correctly asserted prosecution laches as a defense against Mr. Hyatt, which “render[s] a patent unenforceable when it has issued only after an unreasonable and unexplained delay in prosecution that constitutes an egregious misuse of the statutory patent system under a totality of the circumstances.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s decision ordering the issuance of patents, and in this appeal, the Court vacated the district court’s holding that Mr. Hyatt is entitled to attorney’s fees—since he is no longer the prevailing party—and remanded for further proceedings.
According to the statute, in an action under § 145, “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings shall be paid by the applicant.” However, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the statutory language was not sufficiently explicit to overcome the presumption against fee-shifting under the American Rule and that litigants pay their own fees “unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.” In doing so, the Court looked at statutory phrasing, dictionary definitions (e.g., Black’s and Webster’s), legislative history, relevant case law and similarly phrased statutes to confirm whether expert fees were specifically and explicitly contemplated as being included by US Congress in the statute. The Supreme Court of the United States’ 2019 NantKwest decision (that “expenses” under §145 does not invoke attorney’s fees with enough clarity to overcome the American Rule) guided the Court’s analysis as did the many statutes that explicitly list “costs and fees” separately, suggesting that the legislature could have explicitly referenced fees should they have intended. Having found this high bar to overcome the American Rule not met, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of expert fees.