I didn’t think Motorola’s antitrust appeal at the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals could get any stranger. This, after all, is the billion-dollar case that prompted a bizarre showdown over international antitrust policy between the U.S. solicitor general and a three-judge appellate panel led by Richard Posner.
In a notable 2001 opinion called In the Matter of Synthroid Marketing Litigation, Judge Frank Easterbrook of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals set out guidelines for trial judges awarding fees to plaintiffs lawyers in class action megacases, defined as those in which the class recovery exceeds $75 million. Easterbrook said there should be no automatic cap on fees, even in these very big cases. Instead, he pointed to the 7th Circuit’s oft-stated preference for fee awards that reflect both the risk borne by class counsel and “the normal rate of compensation in the market at the time.” The 7th Circuit has made it clear that the best way to assure a market rate is for class action lawyers and their clients to reach a fee agreement before the litigation begins, but the 2001 Synthroid opinion didn’t specify exactly how trial judges should approximate an arm’s-length negotiation if there’s no preset deal on fees. In a 2003 follow-up opinion, Easterbrook and his fellow panel members actually set class counsel fees themselves, finding that “a decent estimate of the fee that would have been established in ex ante arms’-length negotiations” was a sliding percentage of recovery that declined as the size of the settlement increased.
For the first time ever, a federal district judge has decided what constitutes a reasonable license rate for a portfolio of standard-essential patents. U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled late Thursday that Motorola is entitled to royalties of a half cent per unit for Microsoft’s use of standard-essential video compression patents and 3.5 cents per unit for Motorola’s wireless communication patents. According to Microsoft, those terms would require it to pay Motorola a grand total of about $1.8 million a year in royalties – a far cry indeed from the billions Motorola requested in a royalty demand to Microsoft in 2010. It’s still to be determined at a trial this summer whether Motorola breached its obligation to license its essential technology to Microsoft on reasonable terms. But make no mistake: Robart’s ruling on reasonable royalties is a dreadful outcome for Motorola and its parent, Google.
In the two weeks since U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Madison, Wisconsin, unceremoniously tossed Apple’s breach-of-contract against Motorola just as a trial to determine a fair licensing rate for Motorola’s standard-essential wireless tech patents was to begin, Apple’s lawyers at Covington & Burling andTensegrity Law Group have been struggling to persuade the judge to change her mind and dismiss the case without prejudice. I already told you about the bench memo Apple submitted on Nov. 5, after Crabb said at a hearing that if Apple wouldn’t agree to abide by the licensing rate she set, she would dismiss its declaratory judgment and specific performance claims. Apple argued, in essence, that since Crabb was dismissing on jurisdictional grounds, she hadn’t reached the merits of Apple’s case, so she couldn’t preclude Apple from refiling its claims. Apple repeated those arguments in a brief filed last week, responding to a Nov. 14 brief by Motorola’s lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan that urged Crabb to stick by her decision to toss the case with prejudice. “No litigant,” Motorola wrote, “should be permitted to try to engineer a judgment to its liking on the eve of the trial, then seek to walk away so that it can reengineer and refile its claims elsewhere, at some later date.”
I know Apple is a brilliantly managed company represented by brilliant outside counsel. But I cannot for the life of me figure out Apple’s endgame strategy in its breach-of-contract case against Motorola in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin.
The next great turning point in the war for global device domination comes next month, when Motorola faces two trials – one against Apple, the other against Microsoft – that will determine its ability to use its portfolio of standard-essential patents as leverage in IP disputes with its competitors. I’ve been harping on this theme for a while, but trials have a way of sharpening the issues. Both of these cases will be tried to judges, not juries, so we won’t get immediate results. But when U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Madison, Wisconsin, and U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle issue rulings, Motorola and its rivals should have a very clear understanding of how valuable Motorola’s patents on essential wireless technology are.
There is no federal judge more economically outspoken than Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, who in his scant spare time co-authors a provocative blog with the Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist Gary Becker. With a high-pitched querulous voice and no tolerance for obfuscation, Posner can demolish lawyers he considers economics slackers. If you’ve got a dubious theory of damages, you’d better hope you don’t end up arguing it before him.
If you stopped reading at page 21 of the 28-page summary judgment ruling that U.S. District Judge James Robart issued Wednesday in Microsoft’s contract case against Motorola, you’d figure Microsoft had won the all-important dispute over Motorola’s standard-essential patents. But this is an opinion you have to read all the way to the end.
With a single ruling this week, U.S. District Judge James Robart of Seattle federal court may have fundamentally altered the balance of power between Motorola Mobility and the leading opponents of Motorola’s soon-to-be-parent Google, Microsoft and Apple.
With very little fanfare, Motorola Mobility announced Monday that it has reached a memorandum of understanding to resolve shareholder litigation that might have stood in the way of a vote on Google’s proposed $12.5 billion all-cash acquisition of the company. The memo is, alas, not public, so we don’t know just what the settlement entails, or how much the plaintiffs’ lawyers who challenged the deal will get in fees. Motorola Mobility did file an 8-K amending its proxy materials, giving shareholders marginally more information about (among other things) how the Google deal came together and what kind of equity awards Motorola officers will receive. These relatively insignificant disclosure amendments are a typical ending for the rash of M&A shareholder suits that have broken out in the last few years; it’s a pretty good bet that, in this case, the additional disclosures aren’t going to sway very many Motorola Mobility shareholders when they vote on the Google deal on November 17.