Thursday, February 21, 2013
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday in Gunn v. Minton that a federal statute granting jurisdiction over cases related to patents to federal courts alone did not mean that a state court lacked jurisdiction to hear an attorney malpractice case that grew out of such a patent case. Let's unpack that:
Minton brought a patent infringement suit in federal court and lost. Minton's attorneys didn't timely raise an argument that he thought was a winner, and the federal courts held that he waived it. So he brought a malpractice suit against his attorneys in state court for waiving the argument. He lost there, too. On appeal, he argued that federal courts had exclusive jurisdiction over the malpractice claim, and that the state trial court (which ruled against him) lacked jurisdiction.
Minton's argument turned on two points. First, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1338(a) gives federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over any case "arising under any Act of Congress relating to patents." Next, his malpractice claim required the court to determine whether his waived argument in the original case--an argument based on federal patent law--would have gone his way. (If the waived argument would have gone his way, he might've succeeded in arguing that his attorneys engaged in malpractice by raising it too late.) In short, according to Minton: federal law requires that only federal courts determine issues of patents, and his malpractice claim turned on an issue of patents (even if a hypothetical one).
The Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court wrote that Minton's patent claim was, indeed, hypothetical--a case within a case--and that the state court's ruling on it (as part of the malpractice case) wouldn't have had any significant national impact. The ruling was based on the three factors in Grable & Sons Metal Products v. Darue Engineering (2005). That case said that when federal law didn't actually create the cause of action (as here, because Minton's claim was based on state malpractice law), the case can "aris[e] under" federal patent law only if it "necessarily raise[s] a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities." The Court ruled that Minton's case didn't satisfy the "substantial" part of that test, because the patent question was merely hypothetical and wouldn't have any significant national impact.