December 14, 2018

Exceptional Does Not Mean “Wrong” — Otherwise Every Case Would be Exceptional

In Spineology Inc. v. Wright Medical Technology, Inc., [2018-1276] (December 14, 2018), the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of Wright Medical Technology, Inc.’s motion for attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285, finding no abuse of discretion.

The district court issued a claim construction order in 2016, acknowledging that the parties disputed construction of the term “body,” but it declined to adopt either party’s construction. Wright and Spineology then filed cross-motions for summary judgment on infringement.

Recognizing the alleged infringement depended on how “body” was construed, the district court construed “body” consistent with Wright’s noninfringement position and granted Wright’s motion. Wright then moved for attorney fees, arguing Spineology’s proposed construction of “body,” its damages theories, and its litigation conduct rendered this case “exceptional” under § 285. The district court denied the motion, determining that, while ultimately the court rejected Spineology’s proposed construction, it was not so meritless as to render the case exceptional. The district court concluded that nothing about this case stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of Spineology’s litigating position or the manner in which the case was litigated.

The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that, while Spineology’s proposed construction of “body” was ultimately rejected at summary judgment, the attempt was not so meritless as to render the case exceptional. The Federal Circuit stressed that a party’s position ultimately need not be correct for them not to standout.  The Federal Circuit further noted that Wright was hardly in a position to complain about Spineology’s continuing to pursue a construction not adopted by the district court in the claim construction order, since the district court declined to adopt Wright’s proposed construction as well.

Even though the case was resolved in summary judgment, Wright complained about Spineology’s damages theory. While conceding that perhaps Spineology’s damages theories would not have prevailed, the Federal Circuit said “a strong or even correct litigating position is not the standard by which we assess exceptionality.”

The Federal Circuit noted that Wright was asking the court to basically decide the damages issues mooted by summary judgment in order to determine whether it ought to obtain attorney fees for the entire litigation. The Federal Circuit refused to do so — it will not force the district court, on a motion for attorney fees, to conduct the trial it never had, and the Federal Circuit declined to conduct the trial in the first instance.

The bottom line is exceptional does not mean “wrong” — otherwise every case would be exceptional.