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RESQNET.COM, INC. v. LANSA

July 21, 2004.

RESQNET.COM, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
LANSA, INC., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT SWEET, Senior District Judge

OPINION

The third party witness Jeffrey I. Kaplan ("Kaplan"), who is also counsel to plaintiff ResQNet.com, Inc. ("ResQNet"), has moved under Rules 26 and 45, Fed.R. Civ. P., to quash the subpoena served upon him by defendant Lansa, Inc. ("Lansa"), or in the alternative, for a protective order. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted, and the subpoena quashed.

Prior Proceedings

  This action was commenced on April 27, 2001. Discovery with respect to claim construction issues proceeded and a Markman hearing was held on June 12, 2002. The opinion of the court construing the claims was rendered in September of 2002, see ResQNet.com v. Lansa, Inc., No. 01 Civ. 3578 (RWS), 2002 WL 31002811 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 5, 2002) (the "September Opinion") and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the September Opinion in part and reversed in part on October 16, 2003. See ResQNet.com v. Lansa, Inc., 346 F.3d 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2003). Discovery resumed and was scheduled to close on June 30, 2004.

  On or about June 10, 2004, Lansa served a deposition subpoena on Kaplan, trial counsel for ResQNet. Lansa subsequently identified four topics as subjects for the deposition: (1) the prosecution of five patents alleged to be related, two of which are the subject of this action, (2) communications with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, (3) prior art, and (4) draft patent applications. Thereafter, on June 22, 2004, Kaplan filed the instant motion. After further briefing, the motion was marked fully submitted on July 7, 2004.

  The Standard to Be Applied

  Lansa has asserted that Federal Circuit law, rather than the law of this Circuit, applies with respect to the quashing of a subpoena in a patent case. However, on procedural issues not unique to patent law, such as whether litigation counsel has information such that he should be deposed, the Federal Circuit defers to the law of the regional circuit. See Utah Med. Prods., Inc. v. Graphic Control Corp., 350 F.3d 1376, 1381 (Fed. Cir. 2003) ("The Federal Circuit applies its own law with respect to issues of substantive patent law and certain procedural issues pertaining to patent law, but applies the law of the regional circuits on non-patent issues."); Amana Refrigeration, Inc. v. Quadlux, Inc., 172 F.3d 852, 856 (Fed. Cir. 1999) ("Although under our courtesy rule we are generally guided by the law of the regional circuit to which district court appeals normally lie, unless the issue pertains to or is unique to patent law, we have applied our own law to both substantive and procedural issues intimately involved in the substance of enforcement of the patent right.") (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Although the Federal Circuit has applied its own law to discovery disputes in certain contexts, see, e.g., In re Spalding Sports Worldwide, Inc., 203 F.3d 800, 803 (Fed. Cir. 2000), it has also recognized that, in general, "[a]n order quashing a subpoena is not unique to patent law" and should be evaluated under the law of the regional circuit. Truswal Sys. Corp. v. Hydro-Air Eng'g, Inc., 813 F.2d 1207, 1209 (Fed. Cir. 1987). Lansa has not demonstrated that the instant motion presents issues unique to patent law and, indeed, has relied heavily on a case from this Circuit, Alcon Labs., Inc. v. Pharmacia Corp., 225 F. Supp.2d 340 (S.D.N.Y. 2002). Accordingly, the law of this Circuit will apply here.

  The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that parties may obtain discovery, including by oral depositions, "regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the claim or defense of any party" and that "[r]elevant information need not be admissible." Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). However, a district court may limit

 
The frequency or extent of the use of discovery methods otherwise permitted under [the federal] rules . . . if it determines that: (i) the discovery sought is unreasonably cumulative or duplicative, or is obtainable from some other source that is more convenient, less burdensome, or less expensive; (ii) the party seeking discovery has had ample opportunity by discovery in the action to obtain the information sought; or (iii) the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit, taking into account the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the parties' resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the litigation, and the importance of the proposed discovery in resolving the issues. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(2). "The burden of persuasion in a motion to quash a subpoena and for a protective order is borne by the movant." Jones v. Hirschfeld, 219 F.R.D. 71, 74-75 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (citing Dove v. Atl. Capital Corp., 963 F.2d 15, 19 (2d Cir. 1992)).
  In this Circuit, "depositions of opposing counsel are disfavored." United States v. Yonkers Bd. of Educ., 946 F.2d 180, 185 (2d Cir. 1991). The rationale behind the presumption against such discovery is that "`even a deposition of counsel limited to relevant and nonprivileged information risks disrupting the attorney-client relationship and impeding the litigation.'" Alcon Labs., 225 F. Supp.2d at 344 (quoting Madanes v. Madanes, 199 F.R.D. 135, 151 (S.D.N.Y. 2001)). Depositions of opposing counsel are not, however, categorically prohibited. "Rather, `the request to depose a party's attorney must be weighed by balancing, generally speaking, the necessity for such discovery in the circumstances of the case against its potential to oppress the adverse party and to burden the adversary process itself.'" Madanes, 199 F.R.D. at 151 (quoting Johnston Dev. Group, Inc. v. Carpenters Local Union No. 1578, 130 F.R.D. 348, 352 (D.N.J. 1990)).
  In determining whether a deposition of opposing counsel is appropriate this Court is guided by dicta contained in a recent opinion of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, In re Subpoena Issued to Dennis Friedman, 350 F.3d 65 (2d Cir. 2003).*fn1 In Friedman, the Court of Appeals observed that it has never adopted the doctrine set out in Shelton v. Am. Motors Corp., 805 F.2d 1323 (8th Cir. 1986), which requires that a party "seeking to depose `opposing trial counsel' must show that `no other means exist to obtain the information [sought] than to depose opposing counsel.'" Friedman, 350 F.3d at 68 (quoting Shelton, 805 F.2d at 1327). Describing the Shelton rule as "rigid," id. at 67, the Second Circuit instead directed that
[T]he standards set forth in Rule 26 require a flexible approach to lawyer depositions whereby the judicial officer supervising discovery takes into consideration all of the relevant facts and circumstances to determine whether the proposed deposition would entail an inappropriate burden or hardship. Such considerations may include the need to depose the lawyer, the lawyer's role in connection with the matter on which discovery is sought and in relation to the pending litigation, the risk of encountering privilege and work-product issues, and the extent of discovery already conducted. . . . Under this approach, the fact that the proposed deponent is a lawyer does not automatically insulate him or her from a deposition nor automatically require prior resort to alternative discovery devices, but it is a circumstance to be considered.
Friedman, 350 F.3d at 72. The considerations identified by the Second Circuit in Friedman are the factors that will be applied in deciding the instant motion. Discussion

  Lansa seeks to depose Kaplan concerning the prosecution of the patents-in-suit because he is the only person who is listed as having prosecuted those patents for ResQNet. Specifically, Lansa seeks to determine when and under what circumstances relevant prior art become known to Kaplan, and argues that the factual information sought from Kaplan and "the role he played during the prosecution history of the patents-in-suit are directly at issue [in] this case." (Lansa Opp. Mem. at 7.)

  It is not anomalous for a party to seek to depose the attorney who prosecuted the patent at issue in a litigation. See United Phosphorus, Ltd. v. Midland Fumigant, Inc., 164 F.R.D. 245, 249 (D. Kan. 1995) ("When a party employs counsel to represent it in a case where an attorney has played a role in the underlying facts, both the attorney and the party have every reason to expect that the attorney's deposition may be requested."). According to Lansa, attorneys that prosecute patents are routinely deposed when the patent is litigated, especially when questions of inequitable conduct arise. See, e.g., Alcon Labs., 225 F. Supp.2d at 344-45; Environ Prods. Inc. v. Total Containment, Inc., 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1302, 1306 (E.D. Pa. 1996); see also Amicus Communications L.P. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., Inc., No. 99 Civ. 284 (HHK) (DAR), 1999 WL 33117227, at *2 (D.D.C. Dec. 3, 1999) (noting "that several courts have allowed the depositions of patent prosecution counsel"). The fact that the attorney who prosecuted the patent has been selected to serve as litigation counsel does not, in and of itself, protect that attorney from being deposed. See, e.g., Alcon Labs., 225 F. Supp.2d at 344 ("Moreover, [the patent holder's] choice of White as trial counsel, with the knowledge that he was the lead prosecuting attorney for the patent, cannot shield his deposition."). Nonetheless, even if the depositions of attorneys who have prosecuted patents may be, as Lansa suggests, routine, Lansa has not established that Kaplan's deposition in this action is either appropriate or necessary.

  No Defense of Inequitable Conduct Has Been Asserted

  Lansa argues that Kaplan's deposition is necessary in light of Lansa's affirmative defense of inequitable conduct. The defense of inequitable conduct, giving rise to an inquiry as to the mental impressions of counsel prosecuting the patent, see Alcon Labs., 225 F. Supp.2d at 344, has not been explicitly asserted in this action. However, Lansa argues that it has pled inequitable conduct because it has indicated that the patents are unenforceable due to patent misuse. Lansa further argues that it pled, as a separate affirmative defense, that it reserves the right to assert and rely upon any other affirmative defenses as they appear during discovery or as they otherwise become known. Patent misuse and inequitable conduct are different defenses. Misuse is a defense based upon the idea that a patent properly procured has been broadened in scope impermissibly so as to be used to impose an unreasonable restraint in competition through, for example, an improper licensing or tying arrangement. See Virginia Panel Corp. v. MAC Panel Co., 133 F.3d 860, 868 (Fed. Cir. 1997). Misuse renders the patent unenforceable during the period of misuse only, and may be cured so that the patent is again enforceable. See Senza-Gel Corporation v. Seiffart, 803 ...


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