The Legal Challenge to the SEC’s Conflict Minerals Reporting Regulations

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In the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, the United States Congress required, inter alia, the SEC to promulgate regulations requiring certain manufacturers to trace the sources of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold that are contained in products they manufacture or contract to manufacture to allow them to report yearly to the SEC whether the products are “not DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] conflict free.” Conflict free was defined by Congress as meaning the products do not contain minerals that finance or benefit violent armed groups in the DRC or adjoining countries. Congress required the SEC action because “it [was] the sense of Congress” that the exploitation of conflict minerals from that region was financing armed groups that engaged in “extreme levels of violence” creating “an emergency humanitarian situation.”

Various industry groups lobbied heavily against the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act and later submitted comments during the SEC’s rulemaking challenging the proposed regulations’ due diligence and reporting obligations as unduly burdensome and costly. After considering the comments, the SEC, where it would not run afoul of the Congressional mandate, did reduce some of the burdens that would be imposed on industry. However, the SEC acknowledged that compliance with Congress’s intent precluded reduction of other burdensome aspects of the regulations. The SEC promulgated the regulations in August 2012.

In October, 2012, the National Association of Manufacturers, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, commenced a legal challenge to the conflict minerals regulations. Since then, voluminous briefs have been filed by NAM and the SEC along with briefs by numerous interested groups. These briefs outline the parameters of the dispute and suggest that NAM faces an uphill battle.

The crux of the industry’s challenge is that the SEC failed to properly quantify the benefits and costs associated with the regulations and thereby acted arbitrarily and capriciously in promulgating them. NAM claims the reporting requirements will not aid the DRC and could cripple the region economically. It also claims that the SEC failed to agree to certain revisions that would have lessened the burdens and costs on business, like carving out a de minimus exemption for manufacturers whose products used only trace amounts of conflict minerals and predicating a burdensome due diligence requirement on whether a manufacturer had “reason to believe” that their products contained conflict minerals that may have originated in the DRC as opposed to whether the products “did originate” there. NAM asks the court to strike the entire regulation and send the SEC back to square one.

The SEC responds that it was not its responsibility to quantify the benefits of the regulations, noting that Congress had made that calculation and had determined that the benefits justified the reporting requirement Congress mandated. In fact, the SEC admitted it could not quantify the benefits because it lacked data to do so. Rather it performed a qualitative analysis. It also defends its rejection of NAM’s proposed revisions that would have reduced the costs of compliance. The SEC noted, and various members of Congress agreed, that Congress had considered and rejected the de minimus exemption because it would defeat the purpose of the rule. Congress concluded that thousands or millions of trace amounts can add up to a significant amount, the trade in which would undercut the rule’s purpose of stopping the flow of money to armed insurgents in the region. The second NAM proposal was rejected because in the SEC’s view, it would encourage willful blindness by industry. That is, if a business encountered a red flag suggesting the sources of its minerals were not conflict-free, it would investigate no further, so as to avoid a determination that they did originate there.

An interesting issue concerns the regulation’s imposition of the reporting requirements not just on manufacturers but also to those who contract for the manufacture of goods. NAM believes that this extension of the reporting requirements is contrary to the express language of Dodd-Frank. It supports its position through application of rules of construction routinely used in interpreting statutes and its argument is logical. However, former and current members of Congress came to the SEC’s aid on this issue claiming in their brief that they intended to include those who contract for the manufacturer of goods, again to prevent exemptions that would significantly undercut what the regulations sought to achieve.

Oral arguments are scheduled for May 15, 2013. It will be very interesting to see how receptive the panel from the DC Circuit is to NAM’s arguments. Asking the court to scuttle the entire regulation, the parameters of which Congress as a matter of policy framed, makes NAM’s challenge all the more difficult.

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International Trade Commission Rules Lack of Domestic Industry Results in a Termination of Investigation

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The International Trade Commission (ITC) is an independent, quasi-judicial agency that adjudicates the importation of products that allegedly infringe U.S. intellectual property rights. The ITC can halt the importation of goods that infringe U.S. patents and/or trademarks, and thus is an effective tool for obtaining a relatively rapid determination of infringement (one year) and an exclusion order. One of the requirements for such an order is to prove harm to a domestic industry. The following case (ITC investigation 337-TA-874) is an example of one way that such an investigation can be defeated.

In a recent decision, the ITC ordered an investigation into whether certain laminated products infringed the claims of a nonpracticing entity’s (NPE) patent. In initiating the investigation, the ITC ordered the administrative law judge (ALJ) overseeing the investigation to hold a preliminary hearing and to issue a decision as to whether the NPE has the required domestic industry in the United States to bring an investigation before the ITC. A finding of a lack of domestic industry would result in a termination of the investigation, as the NPE would not have standing with the ITC. This is a departure from current ITC practice, and it may provide an effective tool for preventing NPEs from bringing frivolous suits before the ITC.

Under 19 U.S.C. § 1337(a), the ITC has jurisdiction to hear matters in which a party alleging infringement (the complainant) has, or is in the process of establishing, a domestic industry in the United States. The determination of domestic industry is a two-prong test. The first prong, referred to as the “technical prong,” requires the complainant to show that it is practicing a valid claim of each asserted patent in a product sold in the United States. The analysis of the technical prong is similar to an infringement analysis, in which each claim is compared to the domestic product.1 The second prong of the test, referred to as the “economic prong,” requires the complainant to demonstrate “(a) a significant investment in plant and equipment, (b) significant employment of labor and capital, or (c) a substantial investment in its exploitation, including engineering, research and development, or licensing.”2

The complaint in the present investigation (337-TA-874) was brought by Lamina Packaging Innovations, an NPE, against a group of companies including Hasbro, John Jameson Import Company, Cognac Ferrand USA, Inc. and Camus Wines & Spirits Group. In the investigation, Lamina Packaging alleged that the respondents were infringing two of Lamina’s patents directed to a packaging material. In initiating the investigation, the ITC ordered the ALJ to issue an initial determination as to whether Lamina has satisfied the economic prong of the domestic industry requirement. Further, the ITC stated that the initial determination would become the ITC’s final determination 30 days after the date of service of the initial determination. Accordingly, a finding of no domestic industry by the ALJ would result in a termination of the investigation. The ITC ordered the ALJ to issue a decision on domestic industry within 100 days from the institution of the investigation.

Typically, lack of domestic industry is an affirmative defense presented by a respondent. The new ruling by the ITC may allow respondents to terminate ITC investigations early, opposed to the current practice that requires respondents to endure a summary judgment motion or a trial before a domestic industry decision is rendered. As more NPEs file complaints with the ITC in an attempt to “test run” future district court cases, this recent decision may greatly reduce the number of NPE cases filed with the ITC.


1 Alloc, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 342 F.3d 1361, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2003).

2 19 U.S.C. § 1337(b).

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False Marking Claims Must Be Pled with Specificity as to Intent

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit settled a split among the district courts when it held that false patent marking claims must be pled with particularity under Fed. R. of Civ. Pro. 9(b).   In granting the defendant’s petition for a writ of mandamus, the Federal Circuit held that the district court should have dismissed a false marking complaint for failure to plead, with particularity, the circumstances of defendant’s alleged intent to deceive the public.   In re BP Lubricants USA Inc., Misc. Docket No. 960 (Fed. Cir., Mar. 15, 2011) (Linn, J.).

The plaintiff had included in its complaint allegations that BP was a “sophisticated company” having experience applying for, obtaining and litigating patents.   Based on that categorization, the plaintiff claimed BP “knew or should have known” that the patent had expired.   The district court concluded that the complaint satisfied the requirements of Rule 9(b) because it had pled the who, how, what and when of the alleged fraud.  BP sought mandamus at the Federal Circuit.

The Federal Circuit clarified that in all cases sounding of fraud or mistake, Rule 9(b) requires the plaintiff to plead “with particularity the circumstances constituting the fraud or mistake.”   The Court noted that Rule 9(b) acts as a “safety valve to assure that only viable claims alleging fraud or mistake are allowed to proceed to discovery.   … Permitting a false marking complaint to proceed without meeting the particularity requirement of Rule 9(b) would sanction discovery and adjudication for claims that do little more than speculate that the defendant engaged in more than negligent action.” The Court stated that the district court erred in denying BP’s motion to dismiss because it expressly relied on the plaintiff’s general allegations that BP knew or should have known that the patent expired. The Court explained that a complaint must provide some objective indication to reasonably infer that the defendant was aware that the patent expired.  Accordingly, general allegations that the defendant is a “sophisticated company” and that it “knew or should have known” that the patent expired are insufficient under Rule 9(b).

The Court went further and provided exemplary allegations with which a court may reasonably infer an intent to deceive, “[alleging that a] defendant [had] sued a third party for infringement of a patent after the patent had, e.g., expired or made multiple revisions of the marking after expiration” may set forth facts upon which intent to deceive can be reasonably inferred.

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Replication without Human Intervention: Lessons from Monsanto v. Bowman

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Until now, the practicing of an invention needed some direct form of human action; someone was needed to “do something” to bring the invention into existence, as well as replicate it by making more (in the case of a physical object) or performing it again (in the case of a method). However, this may no longer be necessary in all instances. At least in the case of some biological technologies, once an invention has been created by a human, further human intervention may no longer be needed for replicating the invention. In these instances, does a patent owner lose the right to exclude future uses, sales, offers for sale or importations of such an invention?

In Monsanto v. Bowman, the Supreme Court is poised to bring some clarity to this question. Monsanto Company designs and manufactures herbicide-resistant soybean seeds and related technology. Monsanto sold patented seeds to farmers for growing and resale as commodity items to be used in such things as public-school lunches and animal feed. Such sales were made under license agreements that allowed the beans to be sold without any ongoing restrictions on the use of those beans.

Vernon Bowman is a soybean farmer. Bowman purchased these beans and replanted them as second-generation seeds, which were the products of seeds purchased from a licensed Monsanto technology distributor.

Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement, arguing that the beans were products of Monsanto’s patented herbicide-resistant seeds and that, by planting them instead of purchasing new seeds, Bowman violated the Monsanto Technology Agreement for the seeds. The U.S. District Court found that Bowman’s activities infringed upon Monsanto’s patent and awarded damages to Monsanto for violation of its patented technology. The Federal Circuit agreed and upheld the decision, holding that Monsanto’s patent covered both the original seeds and a product of the original seeds, such as those second-generation beans grown by Bowman.

Bowman appealed, arguing that, under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, Monsanto’s patent rights were exhausted upon its initial sale of the seeds that Bowman later purchased from the licensed distributor, and that use of progeny seeds is an expected use of the product. In response, Monsanto argued that in the case of self-replicating technologies, such as seeds that grow and produce more seeds, the patent extends to the underlying technology (i.e., herbicide resistance) and not only to the seed itself.

The important question raised in this case is whether an exception to the doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies is needed and/or warranted. While this question is clearly important to the biotechnology and agricultural industries, it also has the potential to significantly affect the software and robotics industries. For example, as robotics and artificial intelligence become increasingly sophisticated in their abilities to adapt and “grow,” it does not seem too outlandish to think that, one day, these may also become self-replicating technologies.

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National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Issues Guidance on Lawful Confidentiality Language

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On July 30, 2012, the NLRB (“Board”) issued a decision in Banner Health System dba Estrella Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 93 holding, among other things, that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) (which prohibits employers from interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights), by restricting employees from discussing any complaint that was then the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.

To minimize the impact of such a confidentiality mandate on employees’ Section 7 rights, the Board found that an employer must make an individualized determination in each case that its “legitimate business justification” outweighed the employee’s rights to protected concerted activity in discussing workplace issues.  In Banner Health, the employer did not carry its burden to show a legitimate business justification because it failed to make a particularized showing that:

  • Witnesses were in need of protection;
  • Evidence was in danger of being destroyed;
  • Testimony was in danger of being fabricated; or
  • A cover-up must be prevented.

The Board concluded that the employer’s one-size-fits-all rule, prohibiting employees from engaging in any discussion of ongoing internal investigations, clearly failed to meet these requirements.

More recently, the NLRB’s Office of the General Counsel clarified the limits of how such policies could be drafted without running afoul of Section 7 in an advice memorandum released on April 24, 2013 (dated January 29, 2013).   The Region had submitted Verso Paper, Case 30-CA-089350 (January 29, 2013) to the Office of the General Counsel for advice regarding the confidentiality rule at issue and whether it unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights.  Specifically, the Verso Code of Conduct contained this provision prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing internal investigations:

Verso has a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of its investigations.  In every investigation, Verso has a strong desire to protect witnesses from harassment, intimidation and retaliation, to keep evidence from being destroyed, to ensure that testimony is not fabricated, and to prevent a cover-up.  To assist Verso in achieving these objectives, we must maintain the investigation and our role in it in strict confidence.  If we do not maintain such confidentiality, we may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.

Reiterating that employees have a Section 7 right to discuss disciplinary investigations of their co-workers, the General Counsel’s Office found that the Verso Paper provision did not allow for a case-by-case analysis of whether or not the employer’s business justification for the restriction outweighed the employees’ Section 7 rights as required by Banner Health.  According to the General Counsel’s Office, the employer may establish this by presenting facts specific to a given investigation that give rise to a legitimate and substantial business justification for imposing confidentiality restrictions.

However, in footnote 7 of its advice, the General Counsel’s Office, after noting that the first two sentences of the Verso Paper rule lawfully set forth the employer’s interest in protecting the integrity of its investigations, surprisingly put forward a modified version of the remainder of the Verso Paper provision that it said would pass muster under Banner Health:

Verso may decide in some circumstances that in order to achieve these objectives, we must maintain the investigation and our role in it in strict confidence.  If Verso reasonably imposes such a requirement and we do not maintain such confidentiality, we may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.

Although this guidance is not binding, combining this language above with the first two sentences of the Verso Paper provision could certainly strengthen an employer’s argument that its intent was not to violate an employee’s Section 7 rights, but rather, to lawfully put employees on notice that if the employer “reasonably” imposes a confidentiality requirement, they must abide by it or face discipline.  However, employers must remain mindful that using a provision like this suggested does not obviate the need for the employer to engage in the particularized case-by-case determination of its substantial and legitimate business need that would permit it to impose confidentiality restrictions on the investigation.

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Twitter: Little Statements with Big Consequences for Companies

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Twitter is under attack. In recent months, accounts belonging to media giants CBS, BBC, and NPR have all been temporarily taken over by hackers. The Associated Press is the most recent victim. On April 23, 2013, a false statement about explosions at the White House and the President being injured sent shock waves through the Twitter-sphere. The real surprise is the effect the single tweet had in the real world: the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped so sharply moments after the frightening tweet that $136 billion in market value was wiped out. While the hacking of these massive media outlets make headlines, everyday businesses are not safe from the threat, either. In February of this year, a hacker changed the @BurgerKing feed to resemble that of McDonald’s, putting the McDonald’s logo in place of Burger King’s. The hackers posted offensive claims about company employees and practices. If accounts belonging to well-established companies like these are vulnerable, so is yours. If a tweet can have a profound impact on the nation’s stock market, imagine what an ill-contrived tweet could do to your business.

Business owners may have the knee-jerk reaction to delete their Twitter account, but despite the recent blemishes to its security, Twitter remains one of the most important social media sites out there. Just recently, the Securities Exchange Commission made clear that companies could use social media like Twitter when announcing key information in compliance with Regulation Fair Disclosure. Twitter is not just a marketing or PR tool—Twitter is business. And you should never turn your back on existing business. So instead of hanging up your hashtags, consider some steps that can make your Twitter account safer.

Limit Access

Not every employee should have access to the company’s Twitter account. In fact, hardly anyone should, except a few designated employees like the marketing director or business owner. While those with access may never do anything harmful to the account, the more people who have the log-in information, the more likely it is to fall into the wrong hands.

Create a strong password

I know, you already have too many passwords to remember. But a creative password is your best defense against someone seeking to break into your account. Employers should, at minimum, have unique passwords for their most commonly used media sites; please do not use the same word for your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter account. Once a hacker figures it out, they have control of your entire social media presence.

When creating a password, avoid using anything that would be too common. “Password,” “1234,” or the business’s name should never be the only thing standing between you and a hacker. The longer the password, the better. Use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.

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Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) New Chairwoman Ramirez Says Health Care Continues To Be Top Priority

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In remarks made this week at the International Competition Network annual conference, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Edith Ramirez stated that health care will continue to be a top priority for the FTC.   Referring to health care and hospital mergers in particular, she said that the Commission will “guard[] against what we consider to be consolidation that may end up having adverse consequences for consumers.”  The Chairwoman’s comments indicate that the recent leadership change at the FTC from former Chairman Jon Leibowitz to Chairwoman Ramirez has not altered the Commission’s priorities.

Recent months have seen a flurry of FTC activity in the courts related to health care.  For example, two FTC cases came before the U.S. Supreme Court this term — the FTC’s challenge to Phoebe Putney’s acquisition of Palmyra Park Hospital in Georgia and the FTC’s challenge to “pay-for-delay” patent infringement litigation settlements between branded and generic pharmaceutical manufacturers.

In February, the Supreme Court ruled that the state action doctrine did not immunize Phoebe Putney’s hospital transaction from federal antitrust scrutiny, and the FTC has subsequently filed renewed motions in federal district court to stop further integration of the two hospitals even as it prepares for a full administrative hearing on the merits that will begin in August.

A decision on the “pay-for-delay” case is expected in June.  The Supreme Court’s ruling may have a large impact on further FTC efforts against what it perceives as anticompetitive efforts to delay generic drug entry.

Health care clients considering acquisitions are advised to consult antitrust counsel early in the transaction process.  Given the FTC and DOJ’s close scrutiny of health care transactions, early advocacy before the antitrust agencies is often critical to a deal closing on schedule.

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