RFRA Jumps The Shark: The 8th Circuit Strikes Down the Contraception Accommodation (Part 2)


Flickr/Creative Commons – Bill Ward

By Gregory M. Lipper

Thomas Jefferson famously said that “[i]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Note what Jefferson did not say: “my neighbor is entitled to pick my pocket and break my leg, so long as the government can refill my pocket and pay for a cast on my leg.”

But the latter formulation seemed to influence last week’s Eighth Circuit ruling that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bars the government from implementing an accommodation for employers with religious objections to including contraception in their health plans. In my previous post, I explained why the Eighth Circuit reduced RFRA’s substantial-burden requirement to a mere formality, potentially subjecting any and every federal law or regulation to strict scrutiny. Once things get to strict scrutiny, the Eighth Circuit goes even further, suggesting that a federal regulation cannot be sustained if the government could, in theory, provide the benefit or service itself.

The Eighth Circuit first applied this approach to the process by which employers obtain the religious exemption. Under the current rules, an objecting organization need only send a written notice to the government and identify its insurance provider or third-party administrator; the government then works with the insurance provider or third-party administrator to arrange for the employees to receive the contraceptive coverage to which they are entitled by law.

The Eighth Circuit, however, reasoned that there is a less-restrictive alternative to requiring this information, since the government could identify the necessary insurance providers and third-party administrators on its own—well, maybe: “Even if the [third-party administrators] are not known, the government has not shown at this stage of the proceedings that the inconvenience of identifying the [third-party administrators] likely would create an administrative problem of sufficient magnitude to make its entire scheme unworkable.” According to the Eighth Circuit, then, no disclosure requirement can be sustained unless the government can prove that it would be unable to discover the information after its own investigation.

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Texas, Abortion, and the Supreme Court – Part II

[cross-posted at Prawfsblawg]

By Jessie Hill

In this second post on the certiorari petition in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, I want to consider the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take this case, and if it does, what it is likely to do with it.

I think it’s a very good bet that the Supreme Court will decide to hear this case this Term, perhaps in conjunction with one of the other cases that deals with admitting privileges laws – either Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, another admitting privileges case, in which the Fifth Circuit actually enjoined an admitting-privileges requirement that would have shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, or Planned Parenthood v. Van Hollen, in which the Seventh Circuit enjoined an admitting-privileges law. However, both of those cases are still at the preliminary-injunction stage, unlike Whole Women’s Health, which was rushed to trial on an expedited schedule. Still, SCOTUS has been holding onto the petition in Jackson Women’s Health Organization since the spring and may well decide to consolidate it with Whole Women’s Health. (No petition has yet been filed in Van Hollen, as that case is back in front of the district court and scheduled for trial.)

There are a lot of reasons for the Court to grant cert in at least one of these cases.

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A Circuit Split on Contraceptives Coverage

Perhaps foreshadowed by the dissent in the 10th Circuit that I wrote about here, the 8th Circuit has now officially launched a circuit split regarding the legal validity of the accommodation that allows modified compliance/objection to the contraceptives coverage mandate.  Unlike the seven other circuits to have considered the question since Hobby Lobby, the 8th Circuit yesterday issued opinions upholding preliminary injunctions in two cases (here and here), thereby preventing the mandate+accommodation from being enforced against the objecting non-profits.

First, the 8th Circuit determined that the accommodation still substantially burdens objectors’ religious beliefs because it imposes significant financial penalties if they refuse to comply with a requirement that they view as violative of those religious beliefs. As I explained previously, I do think the court was right to focus on the monetary consequences of objection, rather than assuming that merely filing the required paperwork for an accommodation does not or cannot actually make objectors complicit in the way they claim it does.

Like SCOTUS in Hobby Lobby, the 8th Circuit then went on to assume that the contraceptives coverage mandate advances a compelling government interest, which is the next step in the analysis under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act once the substantial burden test is met.  So far, so good.  But that’s the end of my agreement.

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Texas, Abortion, and the Supreme Court

[cross-posted at Prawfsblawg]

By Jessie Hill

Several Texas abortion providers have filed a petition for certiorari in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of a Texas state law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and requiring all abortion clinics to qualify as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), including requirements that are more demanding than those that apply to other, similar facilities that do not provide abortions. Here is my brief analysis of the legal issues in that case. (Note that this analysis is only of the “undue-burden” issues; there is also a res judicata issue in that case, which I will not analyze.)

The plaintiffs in Whole Women’s Health claim that the admitting-privileges and ASC requirements are unconstitutional because, under the standard identified in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they impose an undue burden on the right to abortion. There are basically two ways in which these requirements can be seen to impose an undue burden.

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Hell Hath No Fury Like An ACA Opponent Scorned


Flickr Creative Commons/Tabitha Kaylee Hawk

by Gregory M. Lipper

Over the weekend, Ted Cruz again lamented the role played by John Roberts in rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments in King v. Burwell, the recent attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court. After Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Supreme Court’s 6–3 opinion in the case, the emerging narrative in some conservative circles is that Roberts and his (apparently illegitimate) judicial restraint is to blame. Cruz said that “if [Edith] Jones and [Michael] Luttig had been on the court instead of Souter and Roberts, then the marriage laws in every state would still be on the books and Obamacare would not been law.” Apparently, the same Chief Justice who invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, went out of his way to reach the First Amendment question in Citizens United, and joined aggressive decisions targeting contraceptive coverage and labor unions is actually a passive Obama apologist who should never have been nominated.

That, I suppose, is one lesson to be learned. Another is that the King lawsuit was so obviously frivolous and nakedly political that even arch-conservative and Affordable Care Act skeptic John Roberts felt constrained to reject it.

Let’s review: in King v. Burwell, the plaintiffs argued that four words in the Affordable Care Act should be read in isolation to prevent the federal government from offering subsidies to those who lived in states that refused to create their own healthcare exchanges. They pressed this argument even though such a reading would have rendered the federal exchanges entirely illusory, stripped millions of Americans of health insurance, and produced the very death spiral the Act was supposed to prevent.

Commentators noted that the plaintiffs’ argument was reminiscent of “an old Amelia Bedelia story” and that it depended on the “Moops doctrine.” And those were the nice reviews. Others described the case as “cynically manufactured,” “mean-spirited,” and a “political challenge … dressed up in legal garb.” The plaintiffs’ counsel didn’t help matters by speaking about the companion case in rather political terms.

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Induced Infringement in Patent Law and the Doctor-Patient Relationship

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I often think and write about the interaction between the induced infringement doctrine in patent law and medical method patents of various kinds (previous blog posts are here and here).  Until the recent en banc decision in Akamai v. Limelight, courts had been extremely reluctant to attribute the actions of multiple parties to a single actor for purposes of assigning infringement liability.  These cases have largely involved business method or software patents, but I had hypothesized in prior work that this analysis would extend to medical method patents, making them difficult to enforce.

Last week, Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana provided evidence for the opposite proposition.  Eli Lilly had sued a set of generic drug companies for patent infringement, arguing that they had induced physicians to infringe a set of method-of-treatment claims involving a chemotherapy drug.  The problem for Lilly was that its claims require action by both physicians and patients, who must take certain other medications, including folic acid, before the physician administers the chemotherapy drug.  Judge Pratt was tasked with determining whether the actions of the patient in preparing for their chemotherapy could be attributed to the physician.  She ruled that because the physician “directs or controls the patient’s administration of folic acid,” “the performance of all the claimed steps … can be attributed to a single person, i.e. the physician.”  As a result, the generic companies could be held liable for infringement.

One problem with Judge Pratt’s ruling is that it fails to confront the single Federal Circuit opinion to have considered and rejected this argument.  McKesson Technologies, Inc. v. Epic Systems Corporation dealt with a patent on electronic communication between physicians and their patients.  In that case, the Federal Circuit had occasion to consider how the doctor-patient relationship fits into the induced infringement paradigm.  Judge Linn’s opinion concluded that “[a] doctor-patient relationship does not by itself give rise to an agency relationship or impose on patients a contractual obligation such that the voluntary actions of patients can be said to represent the vicarious actions of their doctors,” declining to attribute the patients’ actions to their physicians for purposes of assigning liability.

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Akamai v. Limelight: Implications for Medical Method Patents (Redux)

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a unanimous en banc ruling in Akamai v. Limelight, altering the reach of patent liability for induced infringement of a method claim under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b).  This is the second time the en banc court has considered Akamai.  Three years ago, in a splintered decision, a majority of the court had ruled that liability for induced infringement was possible where no single entity had performed all the steps of a claim, but where those steps were divided between two or more parties, one of whom had induced the other(s) to infringe.  In 2014, the Supreme Court reversed, essentially reinstating this single entity rule, and after a panel opinion largely adopting the Supreme Court’s reasoning, a unanimous en banc court has now broadened – at least somewhat – the scope of divided infringement liability, relative to the Supreme Court’s decision.

More specifically, the Federal Circuit concluded that an entity may be held liable for others’ performance of steps of a method claim “in two sets of circumstances: (1) where that entity directs or controls others’ performance, and (2) where the actors form a joint enterprise.”  Noting the court’s prior holdings that these circumstances are met where there is an agency relationship between the relevant actors or there are explicit contractual duties to perform the steps of the method claims, the en banc court added another such circumstance in which liability may be found: “when an alleged infringer conditions participation in an activity or receipt of a benefit upon performance of a step or steps of a patented method and establishes the manner or timing of that performance.”  Because this third condition was present in the case under consideration, the Federal Circuit deemed Limelight liable for infringement.

Exactly thirteen months ago, after the Supreme Court’s decision but before the Federal Circuit had considered the case on remand, I had blogged here about the case’s potential implications for diagnostic method patents.  (For those interested in this field, I then wrote a longer article about diagnostic technologies more broadly, which features a more detailed explanation of this issue.) Essentially, my argument was that the increasing restrictions the courts have placed on patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 would interact with these new divided infringement rules.

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Another Opinion Upholding the Contraceptives Coverage Accommodation

Today, the 10th Circuit issued its opinion in the Little Sisters of the Poor case, holding that the accommodation offered to religious nonprofits – and now also to certain closely-held for-profits – is legally acceptable under the standard imposed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  The accommodation, just recently finalized in its current form, allows eligible employers to avoid covering contraceptives for their employees so long as they notify their insurer or the government of their religious objection to doing so. Importantly, employees are still legally guaranteed access to free contraceptives through alternate mechanisms, usually the via insurer directly.

The 10th Circuit’s opinion represents the fifth win for the administration on the accommodation issue following Hobby Lobby. (Note that Hobby Lobby was about an employer who was not previously eligible for the accommodation.)  The RFRA standard provides that the government “may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

In Little Sisters, the 10th Circuit dispensed with the RFRA claim by holding that there was no substantial burden, one of the threshold questions in the RFRA analysis.  It explained that the fact of the employer’s opt-out does not *cause* contraceptives coverage (i.e., by requiring another party to provide coverage in their stead), which instead is mandated by federal law.  It also determined that there is no substantial burden from complicity in the overall scheme to deliver contraceptive coverage, i.e., by delivering notice of objection, because their only involvement in the scheme is the act of opting out.  Thus, RFRA’s protections were not implicated, and the accommodation can stand.

I fully agree with the result in this case, but would have gotten there another way.

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Onward And Upward For The ACA After King v. Burwell

Christie Hager, a speaker at the Petrie-Flom Center’s “King v. Burwell and the Future of the Affordable Care Act” conference on April 1 has a new piece up at the Health Affairs Blog discussing the Supreme Court’s decision. From the piece: 

Chief Justice Roberts, in the majority opinion in King v. Burwell, confirmed that the only insurance spiral now is one onward and upward for the millions of Americans who will benefit from the peace of mind and protections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.

Among the many benefits of the ACA, Exchanges have been operating in some form to increase coverage in every state since 2013. Millions of lives have been changed or saved as a result. Many legal theorists and Supreme Court observers are rightly praising the sound legal reasoning and Constitutional principles in action that led to upholding key aspects of the Affordable Care Act (again).

It is a stark example of the relationship among the three branches created by the Constitution: Legislative drafting and passage, Executive implementation, and Judicial interpretation of language that in this case may have been less than clear. Additionally, the practical implications of the Court’s decision also are particularly salient. […]

Read the full piece here.

The Argument That Wasn’t

Guest Blogger Abigail R. Moncrieff of the Boston University School of Law and a speaker at the Petrie-Flom Center’s “King v. Burwell and the Future of the Affordable Care Act” conference on April 1 has a new piece up at the Health Affairs Blog discussing the Supreme Court’s decision. From the piece: 

Last Christmas, I spent a somewhat panicky inter-semester break writing an amicus brief for King v. Burwell. I was worried that five Supreme Court justices were going to be too tempted by the plaintiffs’ legalistic interpretation of Obamacare’s text, despite ample evidence beyond the text that Congressnever intended to deprive citizens in 34 states of health insurance subsidies.

In a seminar I taught at Boston University, one of my students had proposed a legalistic version of the common sense point that Congress could not possibly have intended the plaintiffs’ result—a legalistic argument that could be fatal to the plaintiffs’ case but that the government could not make—and I decided to spend my break writing and submitting it. […]

Read the full piece here.

Reproductive Malpractice and the U.S. Military

Check out the new op-ed at HuffPo by Bill of Health bloggers Dov Fox and Alex Stein on the unfair treatment of American servicewomen (and their children) under the Feres doctrine should they fall victim to medical malpractice during their pregnancy or delivery. Fox and Stein call for SCOTUS to fix the loophole it left open in the 1950 case, or for Congress to “set up a fund for compensating children whose disabilities were caused by substandard care at military medical facilities.”  Take a look at the full post here.

King v. Burwell And The Importance Of State Politics

David K. Jones of the Boston University School of Public Health and a speaker at the Petrie-Flom Center’s “King v. Burwell and the Future of the Affordable Care Act” conference on April 1, has a new piece up at the Health Affairs Blog discussing the Supreme Court’s decision. From the piece: 

The Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell brings an important chapter of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) implementation to a close. The fight about health reform is not over, with Republican presidential candidates promising to repeal the law while supporters of the law push for Medicaid expansion and the development of Accountable Care Organizations.

But it is important to pause and reflect on what we have learned the last five years. This is uncharted territory for supporters of comprehensive health reform who for so many decades studied why legislation was so difficult to enact rather than how complicated it is to implement. […]

Read the full piece here.

The ACA Survives — But With A Note Of Caution For The Future?

Academic Fellow Rachel Sachs has a new piece up at the Health Affairs Blog discussing the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell. From the piece: 

Chief Justice Roberts has once again saved a core provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In King v Burwell, a majority of six Justices upheld the validity of an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rule interpreting the text of the ACA to permit tax credits to be distributed through both state and federal insurance exchanges. As a result, the millions of Americans receiving subsidies through federally established exchanges in the states that have not chosen to establish their own exchanges will continue to receive them.

Much of the briefing and argument in King involved the legal principle known as Chevron deference, in which courts generally defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of statutes if the statutory language is ambiguous. In this case, the government first argued that the statutory language clearly permitted tax credits to be made available on federally established exchanges. But even if the statute was ambiguous, it contended, Chevron counseled deference to the IRS’ reasonable interpretation of the statute.

Read the full piece on the Health Affairs Blog!

Happy about the Supreme Court’s ACA decision? Thank a law professor

By Rachel Sachs

[Originally published on The Conversation].

The core of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has now survived its second trip to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in King v Burwell, holding that the federal government may provide subsidies for citizens to purchase health insurance on exchanges that were established by the federal government, rather than by their own state.

A ruling for the challengers (the “King” in King v Burwell) would not only have stopped the flow of subsidies to 6.4 million people currently receiving them, but it would also have disrupted the functioning of the individual insurance markets in the 34 states that have not established their own exchanges. Continue reading

King v. Burwell And A Right To Health Care

Bill of Health contributor Gregory Curfman has a new piece up at the Health Affairs Blog discussing the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell in the broader context of Americans’ right to care. From the piece:

Do Americans have a fundamental right to health care? This oft-debated question is timely given the Supreme Court’s stunning ruling yesterday in King v. Burwell, in which health insurance subsidies on the federal exchange were upheld in a 6-3 decision.

Here I will place the King v. Burwell opinion in the larger context of to what extent Americans are provided a right to care. The Constitution itself does not stipulate a general right to health care, but a patchwork of rights to certain aspects of health care have emerged over time from both constitutional and statutory law.

Read the full piece at the Health Affairs Blog!

Some Thoughts from a Health Lawyer on King v. Burwell

By Joan H. Krause

[Cross-posted from Hamilton and Griffin on Rights]

The long-awaited and much-debated opinion in King v. Burwell is here. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts – who almost single-handedly saved the ACA with his 2012 opinion in N.F.I.B. v. Sebelius – and newly joined by N.F.I.B. dissenter Justice Kennedy as well as the more liberal Justices, the Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit that the ACA’s tax credits (or “subsidies”) are available to individuals who purchase insurance through both State and Federal health insurance Exchanges. The Petitioners, four Virginia residents who did not wish to purchase health insurance, had argued that Virginia’s Federally-run Exchange did not constitute “an Exchange established by the State” under the ACA tax credit provision; because unsubsidized coverage would cost more than 8% of the Petitioners’ incomes, they would be exempt from the Act’s individual mandate and would not be required to purchase health insurance. While acknowledging that the Petitioners’ arguments regarding the “plain meaning” of the phrase were strong, the majority nonetheless sided with the Government, holding that the context and structure of the overall statute led to the conclusion that the statute permitted tax credits for insurance purchased on “any Exchange created under the Act,” whether State or Federal (slip op. at 21). Justice Scalia penned a scathing yet witty dissent (“We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” slip op., Scalia, J. dissenting, at 21), arguing that the plain meaning of the language made clear that tax credits were available only on State exchanges, and that any flaws in the Act’s design should be left to Congress to fix.

Despite the attention it received, King was something of a stealth ACA case. Lacking the Constitutional controversies of N.F.I.B., it was in many ways a run-of-the mill statutory interpretation case focusing on four words in a massive document containing, in the words of the Chief Justice, “more than a few examples of inartful drafting” (slip op. at 14).   And yet the potential effects of the decision were perhaps even more far-reaching, in large part because of the timing. N.F.I.B.’s Commerce Clause analysis may have more precedential value in the long-run, but far fewer of the Act’s provisions had gone into effect in June of 2012. With approximately 7 million individuals now receiving insurance through the Federal Exchange, and the majority of them (an estimated 87%) receiving subsidies, the decision in King could have led to the devastating loss of insurance for millions of Americans.

While commentators will no doubt parse every sentence of the opinion (including the Court’s refusal to defer to the IRS’s interpretation of the statute under Chevron), as a health lawyer I found two aspects of the opinion notable. First, the Chief Justice drafted a very nuanced (and mercifully succinct) description of the health insurance market flaws the ACA was designed to address. The Chief Justice understood the ACA’s “three key reforms” – guaranteed issue and community rating of insurance policies, the individual mandate, and tax credits – as well as the ways in which the three were “closely intertwined” (slip op. at 3-4). The first few pages cite multiple horror stories from states where some, but not all, of these reforms were enacted; for data, the opinion cites liberally to the Brief for Bipartisan Economic Scholars as Amici.   In its depth (not to mention brevity), the analysis is completely different from the tortured description of health insurance found just a few years ago in N.F.I.B., evincing a far more sophisticated understanding of both the legal issues and the legislation itself.

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King v. Burwell: Is the ACA Here to Stay?

With Chief Justice Roberts’ remarkably strong decision today for the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell millions of Americans can now rest assured:  affordable health insurance is here to stay.  There may not be a constitutional right to health care in the U.S., and thanks to the Court’s 2012 decision regarding the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, millions of citizens (not to mention non-citizens) remain uninsured; but the ACA’s promise of providing affordable coverage to millions of low income Americans is now secure.

The question before the Court in Burwell was whether individuals in the 34 states that rely on a federally-operated health insurance exchange, rather than a state-created exchange, are eligible for the federal tax credits. Without those credits, most people could not afford to buy insurance on the exchanges. Nor would they be subject to the ACA’s mandate to have coverage. As the Court recognized, as healthy people fled the exchanges, the insurance markets in states with federally-operated exchanges would experience a death spiral.

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Human Rights Tribunal Upholds France’s Policies on Ending Life Support for Permanently Unaware Patients

By Norman L. Cantor

France recently confronted its version of America’s 2005 Schiavo case (in which the Florida Supreme Court upheld a spouse’s determination to end life support to a permanently unconscious patient despite the patient’s parents’ objections). In 2014, France’s Conseil d’Etat ruled that artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) could be withdrawn from a permanently vegetative patient based on oral statements that the patient had made, while competent, indicating unwillingness to be medically sustained in such a condition. The patient’s objecting parents then sought a declaration from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that such termination of life support would violate the European Convention on Human Rights. On June 5, 2015, the ECHR rejected the objecting parents’ contention, finding that France’s approach met human rights standards both in the process and the criteria followed by medical personnel in deciding to end life support.   Lambert v. France, #46043/14 (ECHR 2015).

Vincent Lambert, then 32 years old, was grievously injured in a 2008 traffic accident. He suffered massive brain trauma and was hospitalized for the next 7 years at Reims University Hospital. His precise medical status was initially uncertain. In July 2011, a medical evaluation found him to be “minimally conscious plus.” Over the next year and a half, he underwent 87 speech therapy sessions which failed to establish any code of communication between Mr. Lambert and his surroundings. In early 2013, the attending physician, Dr. Kariger, initiated a process to review Mr. Lambert’s condition and to determine whether the ANH sustaining Mr. Lambert should be withdrawn.

The process that followed was extensive. During 2013, Dr. Kariger consulted with 6 physicians concerning the patient’s mental status and held 2 family meetings at which Mr. Lambert’s wife, Rachel, his parents, and 8 siblings were present. In January 2014, Dr. Kariger announced his determination to end artificial nutrition and reduce hydration. Dr. Kariger’s written report explained that Mr. Lambert had become permanently unaware of his environment and, according to accounts of Mr. Lambert’s prior oral expressions, he would not wish to be medically sustained in such a debilitated condition. Five of the six medical consultants agreed, as did the patient’s wife and 6 of his 8 siblings.

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Ariosa v. Sequenom Invalidates the Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing Patent

On Friday, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment of invalidity of several claims in Sequenom’s diagnostic method patent on the grounds that they were not directed to patent-eligible subject matter under the relevant section of the Patent Act, 35 U.S.C. § 101.  The case, Ariosa v. Sequenom, is important not only to those who have been following the recent back-and-forth between the Federal Circuit and Supreme Court on patent-eligible subject matter, but also to those who study medical innovation, as it implicates questions of innovation incentives and of access to an important new technology.

The case involves a technology known as non-invasive prenatal testing, or NIPT.  Previously, pregnant women seeking to determine whether their fetuses possessed particular genetic abnormalities only had the option to undergo procedures, like amniocentesis, which pose a risk to the developing fetus.  The scientists in this case made a startling discovery: there is a small amount of fetal DNA circulating in the pregnant woman’s plasma and serum.  These portions of maternal blood samples had previously been discarded as medical waste, and the idea that genetic abnormalities could be discovered through a non-invasive procedure like a blood draw, which poses no risk to the health of the fetus, was groundbreaking.  A patent on the method of detecting the fetal DNA in the mother’s serum or plasma was obtained, and Sequenom commercialized a test to practice the patent.  Sequenom was soon embroiled in litigation with Ariosa and other companies which it believed were infringing its patent.

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Commil v. Cisco: Exploring the Relationship Between Patent Infringement and Validity

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Commil USA, LLC v. Cisco Systems, Inc., in which it held that a defendant’s belief that a patent is invalid is not a defense to induced infringement of that patent under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b).  Four years ago, in a case called Global-Tech, the Court had held that a defendant could not be liable for induced infringement unless it had knowledge not only of the patent’s existence but also that its behavior constituted patent infringement.  In Commil, six Justices clarified that a defendant who has knowledge of a patent’s existence but believes it to be invalid may still be held liable for inducing its infringement.  (Justice Scalia dissented and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, with Justice Breyer recused.)

Commil raises several issues for discussion, but I want to talk about just one here: the majority’s fixation on the distinction between infringement and validity.  The key passages of Justice Kennedy’s opinion, on pages 9 through 11, seem to rest heavily on preserving the separation between these two issues.  Essentially, as Justice Kennedy puts it, “because infringement and validity are separate issues under the Act, belief regarding validity cannot negate the scienter required under §271(b).”  Justice Kennedy is clearly correct as a formal matter.  We ask different legal questions when adjudicating issues of infringement and validity, we apply different burdens of proof to the two questions, and we involve different parties in their resolution.

But Justice Kennedy’s opinion ignores the close practical relationship between the two issues.  By contrast, scholars and practitioners have long recognized the tension between infringement and validity as instantiated in patent litigation.  A patentee wants its patent to be construed broadly, to ensure that the defendant’s invention falls within its bounds.  Yet at the same time, the patentee must avoid claiming too broadly, or its patent may be invalidated on precisely those grounds.  (Defendants typically advocate the opposite positions.)

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