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July 28, 2022

Court to Counsel: Be Frivolous at Your Own Risk

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The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit may "award just damages and single or double costs to the appellee" under the Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 38 if an appeal is frivolous as filed or as argued. In a non-precedential decision, the Court granted-in-part and denied-in-part a party's motion for sanctions and request to hold the opposing party's counsel jointly and severally liable. Pop Top Corp. v. Rakuten Kobo Inc., Case No. 21-2174 (Fed. Cir. July 14, 2022) (Moore, C.J.; Newman, Stoll, JJ.) (per curiam). (Newman, J., dissenting). The Court granted attorneys' fees and double costs, although it lowered the requested amount for attorneys' fees.

Pop Top owns a patent describing methods and systems related to enabling highlighter functionality on web pages. The patent's claim requires an "internet document [that] includes code for invoking a highlighting service to operate with the internet document." Pop Top alleged that Kobo's e-books on an app infringed as they are "highlightable" and "include code." Kobo explained that all highlighting-related code was in the app, not the e-books, an assertion supported by a declaration from its chief technology officer. The district court granted summary judgment of noninfringement.

Pop Top appealed, arguing that the district court erred by not resolving the parties' alleged claim construction dispute regarding the limitation "code for invoking," and by deciding that Pop Top's citation of the Kobo declaration and the infringement contentions (for the first time on appeal) was insufficient evidence of infringement to survive summary judgment.

An appeal is frivolous as filed if "the judgment by the tribunal below was so plainly correct and the legal authority contrary to appellant's position was so clear that there really is no appealable issue." The Federal Circuit decided that the appeal was frivolous as filed, explaining that there was no reasonable basis to appeal the summary judgment. The district court had determined that Pop Top offered "no evidence whatsoever" that the e-books included "code for invoking a highlighting service" but relied solely on the Kobo declaration, which stated that the app, not the e-books, contained the highlighting functionality.

An appeal is frivolous as argued if "the appellant engages in misconduct in arguing the appeal." The Federal Circuit decided that Pop Top's appeal was frivolous as argued because it "blatantly misconstrue[d] Kobo's position" when arguing disputed scope for "code for invoking." Kobo explained that there was no dispute; even under Pop Top's construction, there was no infringement because the e-books do not contain code invoking the highlighting service. Pop Top further compounded its misconduct in arguing that it presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment, failing to explain how any cited evidence, such as the Kobo declaration, showed that Kobo's e-books contain code related to highlighting.

The Federal Circuit explained that it may hold that counsel be jointly and severally liable for a sanctions award if "an appeal is frivolous due to the nature of the advocacy in support of it." Because Pop Top's appeal was frivolous "entirely because of the baseless arguments advanced by counsel," the Court granted Kobo's motion to hold Pop Top's counsel jointly and several liable for the sanctions award.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Newman explained that due process and the Federal Rules provide the right of appeal. Although she agreed that Pop Top did not have a winning case, she warned of the potential "undue chilling effect on the behavior of later litigants" when an appellate court awards certain damages and costs. A weak case does not make an appeal frivolous or egregious, and a mere "border" on the "ragged edge of frivolity" is not necessarily sanctionable. It is not usual that an appellant would argue error in claim construction, and Judge Newman suggested that sanctions may be more appropriately limited to situations such as deliberate misstatements or intentional misrepresentation.

ALM expressly disclaims any express or implied warranty regarding the OnPractice Content, including any implied warranty that the OnPractice Content is accurate, has been corrected or is otherwise free from errors.

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