The U.S. Supreme Court has granted a petition for writ of certiorari in a Texas case that could determine whether federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction to hear legal-malpractice suits involving patent law.
On Oct. 5, the high court granted review in Vernon F. Minton v. Jerry W. Gunn, et al., a 2011 decision in which the Texas Supreme Court found by a 5-3 vote that a Texas legal-malpractice case, which involves the alleged mishandling of a patent matter, belongs in federal court.
Minton sued a number of attorneys and firms in state court alleging legal malpractice, allegations the defendants denied. A state trial court judge dismissed Minton’s clams, granting the defendants’ no-evidence summary judgment motion and their motion to dismiss, and rendering judgment in their favor.
While Minton’s case was on appeal in the state court system, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a 2007 opinion in Air Measurement Technologies v. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a case of first impression. The Federal Circuit found that federal courts should handle patent legal-malpractice claims when “establishing patent infringement is a necessary element of a [state] malpractice claim stemming from alleged mishandling of . . . earlier patent litigation, the issue is substantial and contested, and federal resolution of the issue was intended by Congress.”
Based on Air Measurement, the Texas Supreme Court found that federal courts should handle Minton and dismissed the state court case. [See "Federal Legal Mal: Malpractice Suits With Patent Allegations May Shift Out of State Courts," Texas Lawyer, Dec. 26, 2011, page 1.] The defendants in Minton appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since the Federal Circuit issued Air Measurement, federal and state appellate courts have split over whether state or federal courts should hear legal-malpractice claims involving patent litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to grant cert to several cases that involved Air Measurement jurisdiction questions until now, says Jane Webre, a partner in Austin’s Scott, Douglass & McConnico who filed the defendants’ cert petition in Minton.
Webre says the case involves a “completely clean presentation” of the scope-of-jurisdiction question. “It’s a post-Air Measurement conundrum. The court has had this issue presented in half-a-dozen cases in cert applications previously. . . . We had a perfect storm, and we had this issue cleanly presented.”
Webre’s clients believe the high court should overturn Air Measurement because legal-malpractice cases and the discipline and regulation of attorneys have long been the exclusive jurisdiction of state courts, she says.
Earlier this year, Minton filed a federal complaint in the Eastern District of Texas, which has been stayed until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the jurisdictional question. [See "Another Bite at the Apple," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 30, 2012, page 1.]
Thomas Michel, a partner in Fort Worth’s Griffith, Jay & Michel who filed Minton’s response to the cert petition, argues that his client’s case belongs in federal court.
“Congress has set forth a very strong intention that patent law-related issues be handled exclusively in federal court,” Michel says. “And Congress also created a nationwide exclusive appellate jurisdiction related to patent law in the federal court of appeals.”
He believes the Texas Supreme Court’s decision should be affirmed. Notes Michel, “We think the Supreme Court of Texas correctly followed United States Supreme Court precedent.”