Supreme Court – Equitable Defense Of Laches Unavailable To Defeat Claim Of Patent Infringement

In SCA Hygiene Products AB v. First Quality Baby Products LLC, Case No. 15-927 (Mar. 21, 2017), the United States Supreme Court held that “[l]aches cannot be interposed as a defense against damages where the infringement occurred within the period prescribed by [35 U.S.C.] § 286.”

The Supreme Court relied on its 2014 decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), where it was held that the statute of limitations provisions of the Copyright Law,  17 U.S.C.§ 507(b), precluded the use of a laches defense in response to charges of copyright infringement.

In view of Petrella, the Supreme Court found that both “separation-of-powers principles” and the “traditional role of laches in equity” removed use of the laches doctrine, characterized by the Court as a  “a gap-filling doctrine” to be used only if no statute of limitations is prescribed, to block a legal claim in the patent context.  The Court reasoned that where a statute of limitations is defined by Congress, the timeliness of a claim is established and no “gap” exists to be filled.  Permitting courts to deny claims brought within a statutory limitations period based on a laches defense “would give judges a ‘legislation-overriding’ role that is beyond the Judiciary’s power.”  The Court further rejected the assertion that that the six-year damages period set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 286 is “not a true statute of limitations” stating that the argument relied on “debatable taxonomy.”

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