Justices Reject Application of Laches in Patent Cases

(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled laches is not a defense to patent infringement suits that are brought within the Patent Act’s limitations period.

The ruling was expected and closely followed its 2014 statute of limitations decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a suit that revolved around the rights to the story that was the basis for “Raging Bull.”

In each case a majority of the justices found Congress established a statute of limitations on damages, stripping lower court judges of the power to utilize the older power of laches.

“When Congress enacts a statute of limitations, it speaks directly to the issue of timeliness and provides a rule for determining whether a claim is timely enough to permit relief,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the 7-1 majority deciding SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products.

“Laches was a ‘gap-filling’ doctrine where legislators hadn’t provided a time limit, he went on, but “where there is a statute of limitations, there is no gap to fill,” he said.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer defended the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s en banc decision in favor of maintaining the laches defense, arguing that Congress had intended to codify the laches doctrine when it drew up the Patent Act more than 60 years ago.

The protection is needed, he said, because laches work “to fill the gap by barring recovery when the patentee unreasonably and prejudicially delays suit.”

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