Patent Watch: Hall v. Bed Bath & Beyond, Inc.

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[A] sua sponte dismissal of a complaint "is usually reserved for those cases in which the complaint is so confused, ambiguous, vague, or otherwise unintelligible that its true substance, if any, is well disguised."

On January 25, 2013, in Hall v. Bed Bath & Beyond, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Newman,* Lourie, Linn) affirmed-in-part, reversed-in-part and remanded, inter alia, the district court's dismissal of Hall's complaint that Bed Bath &Beyond infringed U.S. Design Patent No. D596,439 S, which related to the "Tote Towel" (a large towel with binding around all the edges, zippered pockets at both ends and an angled cloth loop in the middle). The Federal Circuit stated:

The district court stated that Hall's patent infringement complaint did not contain "any allegations to show what aspects of the Tote Towel merit design patent protection, or how each Defendant has infringed the protected patent claim." Hall states that its complaint properly pleaded the issue of design patent infringement. [This court has] outlined five elements of a patent infringement pleading, to (i) allege ownership of the patent, (ii) name each defendant, (iii) cite the patent that is allegedly infringed, (iv) state the means by which the defendant allegedly infringes, and (v) point to the sections of the patent law invoked. The court stated that this is "enough detail to allow the defendants to answer" and that "Rule 12(b)(6) requires no more." . . . Although the defendants now argue that the complaint is flawed because of the absence of "claim construction," the position taken by the district court, claim construction is not an essential element of a patent infringement complaint.

The district court stated that the complaint should have included answers to questions such as: "What is it about Plaintiff's towel that he claims is 'new, original and ornamental,' meriting the protection of a design patent?" . . . "Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Here the defendants never stated that they were not apprised of Hall's infringement claim and its grounds.

[I]nfringement of a design patent is based on the design as a whole, not on any "points of novelty." "In conducting [infringement] analysis the patented design is viewed in its entirety, as it is claimed." The criterion is "if, in the eye of the ordinary observer, giving such attention as a purchaser usually gives, two designs are substantially the same, if the resemblance is such as to deceive such an observer, inducing him to purchase one supposing it to be the other, the first one patented is infringed by the other." . . .

Hall presented a lengthy complaint, stating that the resemblance is such as to deceive an ordinary observer, in accordance with the Gorham criteria of infringement. Hall's assertion that the accused towel is "virtually identical in design" to Hall's Tote Towel is plausible. The pleading requirements for design patent infringement were readily met. The district court erred in requiring that the complaint identify "new, original, and ornamental" aspects of the design, for in Egyptian Goddess the court negated the "point of novelty" requirement for design patents. "The ordinary observer test similarly applies in cases where the patented design incorporates numerous functional elements."

Nonetheless, the district court sua sponte dismissed the complaint. [A] sua sponte dismissal of a complaint "is usually reserved for those cases in which the complaint is so confused, ambiguous, vague, or otherwise unintelligible that its true substance, if any, is well disguised." Such unintelligible traits are not here alleged, and cannot be discerned in the complaint. "A court's task in ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is merely to assess the legal feasibility of the complaint, not to assay the weight of the evidence which might be offered in support thereof." [T]he pleadings fully complied with Rule 8, stated the correct law, and showed plausible entitlement to relief. Whether the facts as plausibly pleaded can be proved is a matter for trial. The complaint meets the pleading requirements, for it has sufficient "facial plausibility" to "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable." Hall's factual allegations in the complaint "raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and cross "the line from conceivable to plausible." The dismissal of the patent infringement count is reversed.