August 21, 2020

Local Rules, unlike the Pirate Rules, Are More than Mere Guidelines and Ignoring Them Can Cause a Loss of Rights

In Sowinksi v. California Air Resources Board, [2019-1558] (August 21, 2020), the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Sowinski’s Complaint for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,601,033 on grounds of res judicata.

In 2015, Sowinski sued the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) and several individual and corporate defendants associated with CARB in California Superior Court for, among other things, infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,601,033. After the case was removed to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, it was dismissed with prejudice and without leave to amend because Sowinski failed to file a response to defendants’ motion to dismiss. The dismissal was affirmed by the Federal Circuit.

In 2018, Sowinski again filed suit on the ‘033 patent, limiting his damages claim to the period after dismissal of the 2015 action, and the district court dismissed it on grounds of res judicata.

The Federal Circuit said that res judicata arises when the prior case or claim was previously tried and the merits were adjudicated. Sowinski argued that the case was not a final judgment on the merits, because the dismissal was based on the technicality of a local deadline. However, there is precedent that dismissal for failure to prosecute should be treated as an adjudication on the merits for purposes of preclusion.  Further, FRCP 41(b) states that a dismissal for failure to prosecuting or comply with the FRCP or a court order can operate as an adjudication on the merits. Thus, the Federal Circuit concluded that the district court properly precluded the claim.

As to Sowinski’s claim for damages subsequent to the dismissal, the Federal Circuit noted that preclusion does not apply to new or changed products or methods, but does apply when the accused products or methods are essentially the same.

Although Dr. Sowinski stresses the inequity that he did not obtain resolution of the question of infringement, CARB pointed out that he had the opportunity to do so. The Federal Circuit said that application of preclusion encourages reliance on judicial decisions, bars vexatious litigation, and frees the courts to resolve other disputes.

Unlike the Pirate Rules in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, local rules are more than mere guidelines, and ignoring them can cause a loss of rights.