False Marking Claims Must Be Pled with Specificity as to Intent

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit settled a split among the district courts when it held that false patent marking claims must be pled with particularity under Fed. R. of Civ. Pro. 9(b).   In granting the defendant’s petition for a writ of mandamus, the Federal Circuit held that the district court should have dismissed a false marking complaint for failure to plead, with particularity, the circumstances of defendant’s alleged intent to deceive the public.   In re BP Lubricants USA Inc., Misc. Docket No. 960 (Fed. Cir., Mar. 15, 2011) (Linn, J.).

The plaintiff had included in its complaint allegations that BP was a “sophisticated company” having experience applying for, obtaining and litigating patents.   Based on that categorization, the plaintiff claimed BP “knew or should have known” that the patent had expired.   The district court concluded that the complaint satisfied the requirements of Rule 9(b) because it had pled the who, how, what and when of the alleged fraud.  BP sought mandamus at the Federal Circuit.

The Federal Circuit clarified that in all cases sounding of fraud or mistake, Rule 9(b) requires the plaintiff to plead “with particularity the circumstances constituting the fraud or mistake.”   The Court noted that Rule 9(b) acts as a “safety valve to assure that only viable claims alleging fraud or mistake are allowed to proceed to discovery.   … Permitting a false marking complaint to proceed without meeting the particularity requirement of Rule 9(b) would sanction discovery and adjudication for claims that do little more than speculate that the defendant engaged in more than negligent action.” The Court stated that the district court erred in denying BP’s motion to dismiss because it expressly relied on the plaintiff’s general allegations that BP knew or should have known that the patent expired. The Court explained that a complaint must provide some objective indication to reasonably infer that the defendant was aware that the patent expired.  Accordingly, general allegations that the defendant is a “sophisticated company” and that it “knew or should have known” that the patent expired are insufficient under Rule 9(b).

The Court went further and provided exemplary allegations with which a court may reasonably infer an intent to deceive, “[alleging that a] defendant [had] sued a third party for infringement of a patent after the patent had, e.g., expired or made multiple revisions of the marking after expiration” may set forth facts upon which intent to deceive can be reasonably inferred.