U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania attracts patent cases
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Lawsuits filed by a San Jose, Calif., company against businesses as far-flung as Starbucks in Seattle, Southwest Airlines in Dallas and Groupon in Chicago, seem an unusual fit for the U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania.
In June, however, patent violation suits filed by Maxim Integrated Products against those three companies, among others, were transferred here. They are among the first in a new wave of high-profile and out-of-state patent cases expected to come to Pittsburgh as a result of the district court's participation in the federal government's new Patent Pilot Program.
In the year since the program went into effect, District Court Chief Judge Gary Lancaster said, the court has seen a "substantial increase" in patent lawsuits.
From September 2010 to June 2011, just 12 patent suits were filed in Western Pennsylvania District Court; from June 2011 to June of this year, 33 were filed. That number will only continue to rise in the coming years, Judge Lancaster said.
Nationally, patent cases have hit an all-time high, with more than 4,000 suits filed in 2011 according to intellectual property blog Chipworks. And cases are increasingly technologically-based -- the Maxim Integrated Products suits allege infringement on methods of transmitting information from secure modules, or mobile payment apps. The increase in both the number of cases and in their complexity has created a demand for district courts that can better handle patent litigation.
The Western Pennsylvania District Court was one of 14 courts to be selected for the 10-year Patent Pilot Program, which is designed to measure and increase the effectiveness of courts and judges who are specially trained to handle patent cases.
Through the Patent Pilot Program, judges can become specialized "patent judges," receiving training in patent law and case management. Though cases will still initially be randomly assigned, non-specialized judges in participating courts can choose to pass on the cases to patent judges.
The program will track the differences in reversal rates and disposition times among the different types of judges. Because patent cases can be highly involved and technical -- attorneys who practice patent law must pass a specialized exam in addition to the bar -- it is especially important that judges who hear patent cases be comfortable with those particular aspects of the law, Judge Lancaster said.
Of the 10 judges in the Western Pennsylvania District Court, six have opted to specialize in patent cases, a percentage that is significantly higher than in other court systems.
"The test is to see whether judge specialization will improve the efficiency of the courts," said John McIlvaine, an intellectual property attorney and vice president at the Webb Law Firm, Downtown.
Mr. McIlvaine was one of several local attorneys who, in 2005, drafted rules specially tailored to patent cases, such as setting deadlines and timetables for exchanges of information and contentions between parties.
The local district court was one of the first in the country to enact such rules, which are attractive to litigators because they provide certainty and efficiency in a process that can, in other circumstances, be dragged out over long periods of time.
While the district courts of New York and Los Angeles were chosen for the pilot program because of the high number of patent cases they hear, it was the specialized patent rules that set Western Pennsylvania apart.
"The rules make for a better decision-making process," said Mr. McIlvaine. "It's more timely and cost-effective for litigants."
Judge Lancaster said he hopes that the combination of specialized patent judges and rules will continue to attract more out-of-state cases to the area.
The reputation of the local district court, Judge Lancaster said, could be greatly impacted.
"We're hoping this will raise the profile of the local court and its judges as particularly adept at handling patent cases," said Mr. MacIlvaine.
The increase in the number of patent cases in Western Pennsylvania also will likely affect area patent attorneys, who can find work as local counsel even if cases are filed by larger out-of-state firms. Clerk of Court Robert Barth predicts that larger firms may also establish local offices in the area in the coming years.
First Published July 23, 2012 12:00 am