In re BP Lubricants UA Inc., Misc. Docket No. 960 (Fed. Cir., March 15, 2011)
BP's CASTROL motor oil products are distributed in a unique bottle design for which BP received a design patent. The patent expired in 2005, but BP continued to mark its bottles with the patent numbers. Respondent Thomas A. Simonian (a patent attorney) filed a qui tam relator complaint under 35 U.S.C. §292.
BP attempted to dismiss Simonian's complaint in the district court under FRCP Rule 9(b), which provides:
In alleging fraud or mistake, a party must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake. Malice, in-tent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person’s mind may be alleged generally.
When the district court concluded the complaint stated an actionable claim, BP petitioned the Federal Circuit for a writ of mandamus seeking to dismiss the complaint. The Fed. Cir. granted the petition in this regard, noting that FRCP Rule 9(b)'s particularity requirement for false marking was "one of first impression for this court."
Simonian's complaint asserted mostly "upon information and belief" that: (1) BP knew or should have known that the patent expired; (2) BP is a sophisticated company and has experience applying for, obtaining, and litigating patents; and (3) BP marked the CASTROL products with the patent numbers for the purpose of deceiving the public and its competitors into believing that something contained or embodied in the products is covered or protected by the expired patent.
The Federal Circuit found this sort of pleading deficient:
A plaintiff is not empowered under the Rules “to plead the bare elements of his cause of action, affix the label ‘general allegation,’ and expect his complaint to survive a motion to dismiss.” . . . Instead, a complaint must in the § 292 context provide some objective indication to reasonably infer that the defendant was aware that the patent expired . . . Because the relator’s complaint here provided only generalized allegations rather than specific underlying facts from which we can reasonably infer the requisite intent, the complaint failed to meet the requirements of Rule 9(b).
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First, relator contends that asserting in the complaint that BP is a “sophisticated company and has experience applying for, obtaining, and litigating patents” is enough under Rule 9(b). This court disagrees. That bare assertion provides no more of a basis to reasonably distinguish a viable complaint than merely asserting the defendant should have known the patent expired. Conclusory allegations such as this are not entitled to an assumption of truth at any stage in litigation.
Second, relator contends that a false marking inherently shows scienter. This argument is also unpersuasive. In Merck & Co., v. Reynolds, 130 S. Ct. 1784, 1793 (2010), the Supreme Court stated “[w]e recognize that certain statements are such that, to show them false, is normally to show scienter.” The Court gave as an example one claiming “I am not married” when in fact the person is married. Id. However, in other contexts where the relationship between factual falsity and state of mind is not nearly as apparent, Merck rejected this proposition. Id. This situation clearly falls into the latter category, requiring more than a mere statement.
Third, relator contends that unlike the inequitable conduct claim featured in Exergen, false marking is “anonymous” and is not an individualized fraud. . . . Overlooked by the relator is that the naming of specific individuals is not the only way to set forth facts upon which intent to deceive can be reasonably inferred. In an amicus brief, the United States points out that a relator can, for example, allege that the defendant sued a third party for infringement of the patent after the patent expired or made multiple revisions of the marking after expiration. None of these or similar assertions are present in the complaint here.
Read/download a copy of the opinion here (link).