Fifth Circuit Takes U-Turn, But Still Concludes Automotive Supplier Can’t Force SEP Holder to Issue License

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In response to a petition for panel rehearing, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit withdrew its prior decision finding that an automotive parts supplier did not have constitutional standing to pursue an antitrust lawsuit against owners of standard essential patents (SEPs). The Court issued a new opinion summarily affirming the district court’s original decision finding constitutional standing but dismissed the case based on lack of antitrust standing. Continental Automotive Systems, Inc. v. Avanci, LLC et al., Case No. 20-11032 (5th Cir. June 21, 2022) (Stewart, Ho, Engelhardt, JJ.) (per curiam).

Continental sued several SEP holders and their licensing agent, Avanci, for violation of Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act based on Avanci’s refusal to license the SEPs on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Avanci moved to dismiss, arguing that Continental lacked both constitutional standing and antitrust standing. The district court found that Continental had constitutional standing because its lack of success obtaining licenses on FRAND terms was an injury. However, the district court found that Continental lacked antitrust standing and therefore dismissed the lawsuit. Continental appealed.

The Fifth Circuit issued its original opinion in March 2022, finding that Continental’s theory of injury was insufficient to confer constitutional standing. The Court explained that Avanci’s refusal to sell licenses did not result in a cognizable injury to Continental, and that Continental had no rights to enforce FRAND contracts between the individual patent holders and the standard setting organization (SSO) since Continental was not part of the SSO to which the SEP holders belonged. The Court also found that even if Continental was contractually entitled to a license on FRAND terms, the SSO contract had not been breached because the individual patent holders fulfilled their obligations to the SSO by actively licensing Continental’s customer, which meant that the SEP licenses were (derivatively) available to Continental on FRAND terms. Finding that Continental lacked constitutional standing, the Court did not reach the issue of whether Continental lacked antitrust standing.

Continental filed a petition for panel rehearing and rehearing en banc. Numerous third parties, including legal and economic scholars, industry associations and tech companies, also filed amici briefs supporting Continental, arguing that the Fifth Circuit wrongly found that Continental was not an intended beneficiary of the FRAND obligations that the SEP owners made to the relevant SSO.

On June 14, 2022, the Fifth Circuit issued an order withdrawing its March 2022 opinion. A week later, the Court issued a new opinion summarily stating that “[h]aving reviewed the district court’s detailed order, and considered the oral arguments and briefs filed by the parties and amicus curiae, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court that Continental failed to state claims under Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act.”

Practice Note: Although the ultimate outcome did not change, the Fifth Circuit withdrew its previous finding that third-party beneficiaries to SSOs did not have constitutional standing to file a lawsuit.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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