Author: Ms. Dorothy R. Auth (Cadwalader)
Halo Electronics Shields Patent Defendants Who Proactively Obtain an Opinion of Counsel
In some ways, Halo Electronics represents a shift back to the Underwater Devices era, with at least one critical difference. Underwater Devices made obtaining a competent opinion of counsel an affirmative duty for defendants in order to avoid enhanced damages. In contrast, the Halo Electronics decision rejected the notion of an “affirmative duty” as in Underwater Devices.
As Justice Breyer noted in his concurrence, Halo Electronics does not create any rigid affirmative duties akin to those in Underwater Devices.14 Instead, it implicitly holds that a competent opinion of counsel, though not necessary to avoid treble damages, nearly always would be sufficient to avoid them. By acting in honest reliance on documented, independent legal advice stating that the patents are either invalid or do not cover the conduct at issue, the defendant cannot act with the bad faith the Court requires. Thus, proactively obtaining a competent opinion of counsel can be a highly effective way to shield potential infringers from the threat of enhanced damages.
On a practical level, the up-front cost of obtaining an opinion of counsel pales in comparison to the cost of protracted litigation to determine the willfulness of the defendant’s actions. Ultimately, by relying on a competent opinion of counsel, a defendant can protect itself against the threat of enhanced damages well before trial at the pleadings or summary judgment stages. Moreover, the removal of enhanced damages also disarms a critical weapon plaintiffs could wield in settlement negotiations.