Legal action on the go Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

First there was fast food. Now there is fast legal action. One such ‘rocket docket’ for patent lawsuits is in the Eastern District of Texas. In less than five years, the town of Marshall has increased the number of patent cases heard eightfold.

To find out what is going on, Smart Business asked E. Leon Carter, a member of the litigation section of Munck Butrus PC, a Dallas-based law firm.

What is a ‘rocket docket’?

That phrase refers to jurisdictions in which cases go to trial relatively quickly. Cases in the U.S. District Court in Marshall typically go to trial 14 to 18 months from filing, as opposed to 24 to 36 months in most other jurisdictions. In effect, it cuts time to trial in half.

The phrase usually is heard in criminal cases where the defendant is indigent or in jail. It’s a good thing in patent cases, too, for both sides. Plaintiffs prefer quick resolution, and many defendants benefit from an early trial setting since ongoing litigation — particularly patent litigation — can depress stock prices.

Is Marshall the only place this is happening? Can anyone file there?

The Eastern District is the only place in Texas. For years the Eastern District of Virginia was considered a rocket docket, but that court became so inundated with lawsuits that their time-to-trial lengthened considerably. Currently, the Western District of Wisconsin is one of the few other jurisdictions also considered a rocket docket.

Patent owners from anywhere can file in Marshall, provided that the infringer is subject to personal jurisdiction in the Eastern District of Texas. That includes big cities like McKinney, Sherman, Texarkana, Tyler, Longview, Lufkin and Beaumont, so there’s a good chance the product was used there. The same holds true for the Western District of Wisconsin.

Judges in the Eastern District of Texas handle more patent cases every year than those in any other district, with the possible exception of the Northern District of California (Silicon Valley) or Southern District of New York. They have acquired considerable expertise in typical issues relating to patents and patent law.

Is this a way for the ‘little guy’ to level the field against giant corporations?

Surprisingly, fast trial settings can actually hurt little guys. Deep-pocket defendants use their resources to overwhelm a smaller opponent by contesting every issue to the fullest extent possible and by conducting ‘leave no stone unturned’ discovery. Fast trial settings compress the time frame during which such actions can be undertaken, so while a large corporation can easily just add more lawyers to the team, a smaller entity may be unable to keep pace.

Delay only benefits certain defendants who wish to continue their wrongful conduct for years while litigation drags on, or to defer a judgment against them for as long as possible.

Do local lawyers have an advantage via the ‘good ol’ boy network’?

I don’t think so; judges in the Eastern District do not show favoritism. I think that every judge would be offended by the suggestion. Local counsel is advisable simply because, as in any district, knowledge of the judge’s past rulings and views on law are important to understanding how matters are likely to be resolved. But consistent rulings on an issue are not so much evidence of bias as they are an indicator of adherence to principal. Judges all follow the law.

How did Marshall, a town of less than 25,000, become a clearinghouse for patent disputes?

Patent cases are complex and extensive, taking years to resolve. Some patent owners began taking advantage of the early, firm trial settings for which Marshall and other divisions in the Eastern District of Texas are known, to obtain quicker resolution. Judges reacted by adopting local patent rules, similar to those used in Silicon Valley, to force more efficient handling of patent cases. As a result, cases are brought to trial within a structured pretrial framework that allows both sides to more quickly learn the other side’s contentions.

So it’s a matter of fast trials and local patent rules?

No. Judges in the Eastern District were always willing to hear patent cases. Patent cases are intrinsically complex, both due to the high-level technology commonly involved and the arcane nature of patents. Parties to patent disputes are often combative, sometimes justifiably so, given the importance of technology to their enterprise. So in many other federal districts, judges are not eager to be assigned patent cases, a fact that even the U.S. Congress recognizes.

E. LEON CARTER is a shareholder at Munck Butrus PC and is a member of the firm's litigation section with over 20 years of trial and litigation experience. He has served as a Dallas County Assistant District Attorney and as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Texas. Reach him at (972) 628-3600 or lcarter@munckbutrus.com .