Wizard’s chess

Sometimes litigation can get as complex as a game of chess. Each move by one party triggers a responsive move by the other party. France offers a large number of pieces to chess players, with different possible judges and various procedural rules depending on the nature of the claim filed at each move. And since legal actions sometimes seem to get a life of their own independently of the parties who start them, wizard’s chess would in fact be a more accurate depiction: this is the Harry Potter version of the game where animated pieces fight for real on the chessboard.

Today’s decision is but one move in a wizard’s chess game. The ruling itself is relatively short although it tackles a couple of interesting points on the saisie-contrefaçon procedure. However, the overall context is quite complicated and by itself deserves a post to describe it.

In this game, the white team is SPX Flow Technology SAS (SPX) and the black one is Pierre Fabre Dermo Cosmétique (Pierre Fabre) – that’s because the whites are those which move first.

In 2009, Pierre Fabre hired SPX for developing a sterilization process for cosmetic products. This led to the sale of two sterilization installations by SPX to Pierre Fabre in 2011. The same year, Pierre Fabre filed a French patent application related to this sterilization technology. The patent was granted in 2013.

SPX was not too happy-happy about the patent and therefore filed a declaratory action for non-infringement on October 27, 2014 in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), in order to be able to continue exploiting the sterilization technology and to sell sterilization equipment to other clients. Two months later, on December 23, 2014, they celebrated Christmas by filing an additional claim against Pierre Fabre for ownership of the patent.

The case management judge decided that the ownership claim should be decided on first, since depending on the outcome it might be useless to look at the non-infringement claim. After an oral hearing which took place on September 22, 2015, a first judgment was handed down on November 5, 2015, in which SPX’ claim for ownership was rejected. An appeal is apparently pending.

Meanwhile, on July 17, 2015, Pierre Fabre sent a cease and desist letter to Cosmetolab, one of SPX’s clients, which had bought a sterilization installation from them. It seems that Pierre Fabre had learned about SPX’ dealings with Cosmetolab in the course of the TGI lawsuit.

SPX immediately reacted to this letter by filing a disparagement claim in front of the Tribunal de commerce in Evreux (hometown to both SPX and Cosmetolab) on August 6, 2015, in urgency proceedings. Readers may want to refer to an earlier post in which I have presented some of the specifics of the French Tribunal de commerce and of its urgency proceedings – as opposed to the TGI to which we are more accustomed in patent matters. The judge in charge of urgency proceedings rejected SPX’ complaint. No appeal was filed.

The cease and desist letter was obviously only an initial skirmish in the next battle, since Pierre Fabre then filed a petition for three seizure (saisie-contrefaçon) orders on September 1, 2015. This is an ex parte motion filed in front of one of the judges on duty in the Paris TGI. The orders were granted – as is normally the case, and Pierre Fabre accordingly proceeded with seizures on September 9 and 10, 2015, not only at SPX’ but also at Cosmetolab’s as well as Agro Hall’s, the research center hosting Cosmetolab on a campus in Evreux.

In French patent law, a saisie-contrefaçon is a very usual mise en bouche – an appetizer before the meal consisting of the infringement lawsuit. In this case, since a declaratory action was already pending before the Paris TGI, the meal took the form of a counterclaim for infringement on October 7, 2015.

In the meantime, further urgency proceedings were started by SPX against Pierre Fabre so as to protect some confidential documents seized at Agro Hall’s. However, the parties found a procedural agreement to move this part of the dispute to the main non-infringement case.

Finally (for now!), SPX filed a motion for cancellation of the three seizure orders on October 22, 2015. Cosmetolab and Agro Hall intervened. And this gave rise to the decision that I wanted to talk about today – which obviously plays a relatively minor part in the overall game: namely the order by a (single) judge from the Paris TGI ruling on the motion for cancellation.

Don't be mistaken, wizard's chess is in fact no child's play.
Don’t be mistaken, wizard’s chess is in fact no child’s play.

The argumentation by SPX et al. for canceling the orders was twofold: Pierre Fabre was not entitled to file a petition for these orders, and they had acted in bad faith.

The judge nicely summarized the legal criteria to be applied:

The purpose of the motion for cancellation is to reintroduce the adversarial principle into ex parte proceedings […]; if the petition [for seizure] was granted, those concerned may refer to the judge who issued the order. 

On this occasion, the judge who authorized the seizure hears observations from the seized party or other concerned third party if the seizure did not take place in the premises of the alleged infringers, and he/she examines whether, on the day the seizure was authorized and in view of the explanations and evidence provided by those who request the cancellation, he/she would have issued the same decision, would have limited it or would not have issued it at all. 

The first argument in support of the cancellation claim is probably the most interesting one. Any patent proprietor is entitled to file a petition for a seizure based on its patent. But in this case, a claim for ownership of the patent was pending on the day the petition for seizure was filed. Did this make Pierre Fabre’s petition illegal, as there was a doubt or at least a challenge as to whether Pierre Fabre was the rightful patent proprietor? No said the judge, because Pierre Fabre was the actual owner of the IP at the time the petition was filed, and this is all that matters:

They who petition for a saisie-contrefaçon, in order to demonstrate that their petition is admissible, must file: 

– a copy of the patent at stake,

– a copy of the status of the renewal fees, 

– an extract from the national patent register showing that the petitioner is the patent proprietor as registered. 

In the present case, it is not challenged that [Pierre Fabre] filed such evidence with the judge who authorized the three seizures. 

Although the ownership of the rights was challenged in front of the court in the context of the ownership claim filed by [SPX], on the day the petition was filed [Pierre Fabre] was the owner of the [patent] and was entitled to file such a petition. 

The above quote confirms that it is pretty easy indeed to get a saisie-contrefaçon in France -this is clearly one of the strongest advantages of local practice for patentees.

The second point in SPX and its partners’ argumentation focused on Pierre Fabre’s alleged bad faith. The point was developed in two parts: Pierre Fabre was disloyal because they hid information from the judge in charge of granting the seizure orders; and they distorted the seizure procedure as they were actually looking for other evidence than that needed to prove their infringement case.

There has been a trend in recent case law to cancel orders for seizures when judges felt they had been fooled by bad faith litigants. SPX et al. attempted to follow the trend – but this time to no avail.

The timing of the petition filed by Pierre Fabre was admittedly rather remarkable: the eve of the pleadings of the ownership part of the case. SPX said the petition did not mention that this oral hearing was about to take place. The judge replied that this was not an issue, as the various pending legal proceedings were mentioned in the petition, and practically speaking the judge who issued the orders for seizure was also the chair of the court dealing with the ownership and infringement case, so that she was well aware of the timing.

Regarding the alleged distortion of the seizure procedure, SPX et al. argued that Pierre Fabre’s true agenda was not to find evidence of patent infringement but rather to intimidate Agro Hall so as to stop the business deal with SPX, and also to interfere with the then pending disparagement lawsuit in Evreux.

Well, let’s face it, although the official purpose of a saisie-contrefaçon is to find and preserve evidence of infringement of an IP right, intimidation is often part of the reasons why a saisie is performed. But this is also true of legal actions in general. In this case, the judge was not convinced that intimidation or interference with other legal proceedings were Pierre Fabre’s actual motives:

[…] [Pierre Fabre] filed […] an infringement counterclaim within the statutory time limit against [SPX], Cosmetolab and Agro Hall, which shows that their intention was really to sue the plaintiffs of the declaratory action. 

No disloyalty has been demonstrated, for the letter of July 17, 2015 is mentioned in the petition as a cease and desist letter to Cosmetolab, and a seizure was subsequently requested against this company. 

Finally and above all, the president of the Evreux Tribunal de Commerce has [already] issued the judgment against which no appeal was filed, so that the evidence collected during the seizures was not used in those proceedings. 

The orders for seizures were therefore not cancelled, and we can thus wait for the next move from one side or the other.

My guess is that the rest of the case will drag on for a very long time. The situation is quite interesting because:

  • On the one hand, the French patent has an equivalent pending at the EPO (with two divisional applications already filed). Now, in such a case, the court must stay the infringement proceedings (article L. 614-15 Code de la propriété intellectuelle) until the European patent is granted and substitutes for the French patent, or until the European application is refused, withdrawn or deemed withdrawn, or until the European patent is revoked. So this can take forever (especially if the divisional applications also need to be taken into account, which is an interesting legal question).
  • But on the other hand, examination proceedings at the EPO were suspended as from January 29, 2015 due to the pending ownership lawsuit.

At the present time, and pending resumption of the examination proceedings at the EPO, this looks like stalemate!


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, ordonnance de référé-rétractation, 3ème chambre 1ère section, February 11, 2016, SPX Flow Technology et al. v. Pierre Fabre Dermo Cosmétique, RG No. 15/15073.

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