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Seed Company Ltd. v. Westerman

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 18, 2017

SEED COMPANY LTD., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WESTERMAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [Dkts. ##161, 162]

          RICHARD J. LEON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Seed Company Limited and its leader, Shigeru Tamai (collectively "Seed" or "plaintiffs"), brought this suit against their former attorneys, Westerman, Hattori, Daniels, and Adrian, LLP (the "Westerman defendants") and Kratz, Quintos, and Hanson, LLP (the "Kratz defendants"), alleging legal malpractice arising out of an unsuccessful patent application. Before the Court is the Westerman defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings as to Count II [Dkt. #161], and the Kratz defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on Counts III and IV of the Amended Complaint [Dkt. #162]. Upon consideration of the pleadings, relevant law, and the entire record herein, the Court will GRANT the motions.

         BACKGROUND

         The issue in this case is whether Tamai, an inventor of a dispenser of white correctional tape, can recover for malpractice against his company's former attorneys following the mishandling of a U.S. patent application and the award of the patent to another inventor, Christopher J. Stevens. The background has been set forth in detail by our Court of Appeals and by this Court. See Seed Co. Ltd. v. Westerman, 832 F.3d 325, 329-31 (D.C. Cir. 2016) ("Seed II")[1] Seed Co. Ltd. v. Westerman, 62 F.Supp.3d 56, 59-62 (D.D.C. 2014) ("Seed I"). The Court will thus limit its present statement of the facts to that necessary for the present disposition.

         Plaintiffs allege that defendants committed legal malpractice by failing to file an English-language translation of their international Patent Cooperation Treaty ("PCT") application and by giving erroneous advice about the implications of a patent suit in the Federal Circuit. The first and second counts of the amended complaint assert that both the Westerman and Kratz defendants are responsible for these errors. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 42-52 (May 29, 2008) [Dkt. #29].' The third and fourth counts, which are contingent on the dismissal of the first two counts on statute-of-limitations grounds, name only the Kratz defendants and allege that these defendants committed malpractice by giving erroneous advice concerning the statute of limitations for plaintiffs' primary claims. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 53-66. Following the close of discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. I found that plaintiffs' claims were not barred by the statute of limitations, granted judgment for defendants on count one and two, and dismissed counts three and four as moot. Seed I, 62 F.Supp.3d at 67.

         The Court of Appeals reversed. Although the court agreed that the first and second counts were timely as to the Westerman defendants, it held that they were untimely as to the Kratz defendants. Seed II, 832 F.3d at 335. On the merits, the court held that the Westerman defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on count one because plaintiffs had raised "a genuine dispute of material fact about whether the defendants' decision [not to file a translation of the PCT application] could have been characterized as an exercise of professional judgment in 1997, " id. at 336-37, and because the Westerman defendants had "introduced no evidence of their deliberative process in reaching the decision not to file the translation, " id. at 338. The court remanded count one for trial. As to count two, the court declined to review my determination that plaintiffs had withdrawn this count. Instead, responding to arguments plaintiffs raised for the first time on appeal, the court reasoned that "[b]ecause the district court found that the claims were brought within the statute of limitations, it had no occasion to consider whether the second count alleges damages stemming from appellants' failure to pursue their malpractice claims sooner due to the defendants' erroneous advice about the significance of the Federal Circuit appeal (and, if it does, whether Seed waived those damages as well)" and "remand[ed] to the district court to interpret the complaint in the first instance." Id. at 339. Finally, consistent with its determination that counts one and two were untimely as to the Kratz defendants, the Court of Appeals reinstated contingent counts three and four against the Kratz defendants and remanded them "for the district court to adjudicate ... in the first instance." Id. at 335.

         On remand, the Westerman defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings as to count two. The Kratz defendants moved for summary judgment on counts three and four. Plaintiffs opposed both motions, Pls.' Mem. in Opp'n to Westerman Defs.' Mot for J. on the Pleadings ("Opp'n to Westerman") [Dkt. #169]; Pls.' Mem. of P. & A. in Opp'n to Kratz Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. on Counts III and IV of the Am. Compl. ("Opp'n to Kratz") [Dkt. #170], and defendants replied in support of their motions, Reply in Supp. of Westerman Defs.' Mot. for J. on the Pleadings as to Count II [Dkt. #172]; Kratz Defs.' Reply Mem. in Supp. of their Mot. for Summ. J. on Counts III and IV of the Am. Compl. [Dkt #173]. I took the motions under advisement shortly thereafter.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Westerman defendants move for judgment on the pleadings. "[A] party may move for judgment on the pleadings" "[a]fter the pleadings are closed ... but early enough not to delay trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The motion shall be granted "if the moving party demonstrates that no material fact is in dispute and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Schuler v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 514 F.3d 1365, 1370 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Peters v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 966 F.2d 1483, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1992)). In ruling on the motion, the court must "tak[e] the complaint's factual allegations as true." Mpoy v. Rhee, 758 F.3d 285, 287 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009)). "[A]ny ambiguities or doubts concerning the sufficiency of the claim must be resolved in favor of the pleader, " Schuler, 514 F.3d at 1370 (quoting Doe v. DOJ, 753 F.2d 1092, 1102 (D.C. Cir. 1985)) (emphasis deleted), and the court should "accord the benefit of all reasonable inferences to the non-moving party, " Jones v. Law Office of David Sean Dufek, 77 F.Supp.3d 134, 137 (D.D.C. 2015), aff'd, 830 F.3d 523 (D.C. Cir. 2016), cert, denied, 137 S.Ct. 1336 (2017).

         The Kratz defendants move for summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "A fact is material if it 'might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ' and a dispute about a material fact is genuine 'if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Steele v. Schafer, 535 F.3d 689, 692 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). "In making that determination, the court 'must view the evidence in the light most favorable to [the nonmoving party], draw all reasonable inferences in [their] favor, and eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.'" Calhoun v. Johnson, 632 F.3d 1259, 1261 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Lathram v. Snow, 336 F.3d 1085, 1088 (D.C. Cir. 2003)).

         ANALYSIS

         A. Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings as to Count Two

         The Court of Appeals remanded the second count so that this Court could "interpret the complaint in the first instance and decide whether Seed waived any remaining claims." Seed II, 832 F.3d at 339. "[I]f the allegations in the complaint cover such a claim and Seed did not concede it, Seed could seek damages based on the Westerman defendants' faulty advice about the timing of its (now dismissed) claims against the Kratz defendants." Id.

         The first question I must answer is "whether the second count [of the amended complaint] alleges damages stemming from [plaintiffs'] failure to pursue their malpractice claims sooner due to the defendants' erroneous advice about the significance of the Federal Circuit appeal." Id. The Westerman defendants contend that our Circuit' opinion answers this question in the negative. See Mem. in Supp. of Westerman Defs.' Mot for J. on the Pleadings as to Count II 10-12 [Dkt. #161-1]. But that is plainly ...


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