The Supreme Court today decided a monumental case in patent law regarding venue, i.e., where a patent plaintiff can file a lawsuit. TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC (May 22, 2017). For a few decades, the operative venue standard governing where patentees could sue a defendant was 28 U.S.C. 1391(c): ” a defendant that is a corporation shall be deemed to reside in any judicial district in which it is subject to personal jurisdiction at the time the action is commenced.” This broader “personal jurisdiction” standard was promulgated by the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of various Congressional amendments to this statute, which seemed to broaden venue over and above the more specific patent venue statute, 28 U.S.C. 1400(b).
In the case today, the Court discussed the law of venue from the Judiciary Act of 1789 through various Congressional changes to the venue statutes today. The Court also cited Transmirra Prods. Corp. v. Fourco Glass Co., 233 F. 2d 885 (1956), where the Court expressly stated that the then 1391 statute did not supersede, augment or supplement the standalone 1400 statute, which exclusively governed patent cases. Thus, the seminal Federal Circuit decision VE Holdings Corp. v. Johnson Gas Appliance Co., 917 F. 2d 1574 (Fed. Cir. 1990), which did just that, is now reversed, reflecting an ongoing trend of CAFC reversals.
The TC Heartland decision will greatly affect plaintiff patentee’s choices as to where to sue a defendant. Indeed, under 1400(b), a company’s “residence” is their State of Incorporation, which rather restricts the places to sue. Plaintiff patentees will thus be less likely to file their infringement actions in the Eastern District of Texas, which over the last two decades or so has morphed into a haven for patentees, i.e., the juries in East Texas generally favor the patent system and patentees, driving the defendant corporations mad.
Time will tell how this new decision, on the backs of so many other Supreme Court narrowings of patent law, will impact the patent system. Many corporations, desirous of insulating themselves from patent lawsuits, will continue their onslaught, via lobbyists and other means, to further derail the U.S. patent system.
Having practiced in the Great State of Texas (its legal name) many years ago, I can relate a humorous anecdote about the Eastern District courts. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Texas federal courts, particularly in the Eastern District had specialized in personal injury (PI) cases. With tort reform, however, these cases and the specialization of these courts became irrelevant. So, the story goes that the courts there, as a means to perfect another area of specialization, focused on intellectual property, i.e., IP as opposed to PI;) Perhaps the Eastern District will need to refocus again – with different letter acronyms.