Thursday, February 13, 2014

Relitigation of Same Patent Against Different Generic Survives Motion to Strike

Valeant Canada LP v Cobalt Pharma Co / diltiazem (NOC) 2013 FC 1254 Zinn J
             2,242,224 / diltiazem

In Sanofi-Aventis v Novopharm 2007 FCA 163 aff’g 2006 FC 1135 the FCA held that when an a patentee has failed in an NOC proceeding against one generic, it is an abuse of process to relitigate the same allegation of invalidity when made by second generic. In this case, Zinn J distinguished Sanofi-Aventis v Novopharm, and held that Valeant’s attempt to relitigate its ‘224 patent after having previously lost the same argument in Biovail Corp v Rhoxalpharma Inc 2005 FC 1424 (appeal dismissed for mootness 2006 FCA 92), at least survives a motion to strike.

The ‘224 patent is a formulation patent for diltiazem with a surfactant. Claim 35 and 36, which were at issue in both this litigation and Biovail, specify that the diltiazem “is released . . . with the help of a surfactant.” The question in both cases is whether, on the proper construction of these claims, the surfactant must be in the active layers, or whether it could also be in the sustained release lawyer: [10], [Biovail 28]. In Biovail Noël J held that these claims require that the surfactant be located in the active layer. In this litigation, Cobalt sought to have struck those parts of Valeant’s application which raised this same question.

Zinn J dismissed this motion, and allowed Valeant’s argument to stand. He distinguished Sanofi on the basis that “Unlike Sanofi, the present application turns on an issue of law not of fact” [22]. While this is true, this does not strike me as a particularly persuasive distinction. In Sanofi, the patentees argued that their application was not an abuse precisely because it was “a question of fact and that unlike questions of law, one court’s finding of fact is not binding on another judge considering a similar issue” [23]. Now, a prior FC decision is not strictly binding on a subsequent court at the same level, but is followed only as a matter of comity, but nonetheless, there is no evident reason why it is less abusive to relitigate a question of law than a question of fact. Certainly in Sanofi the FCA drew no such distinction: it referred generically about relitigating “the same issues” [26], and whether the allegations were “similar in all material respects” [8].

In Sanofi the FCA held that “[p]ermitting the same innovator to relitigate the same issues repeatedly poses a severe threat to the integrity of the adjudicative process,” because of the “risk of different courts reaching inconsistent results in respect of the same issues” [26], [26]. This does not strike me as entirely compelling; given that NOC proceedings are not in rem, we must accept the possibility of inconsistent results in NOC and infringement proceedings. I do not see this as a particular embarrassment, but simply a reflection of the facts that different evidence may lead to different results, and I don’t see why different factual conclusions in different NOC proceedings are any more embarrassing. With respect to questions of law, the need for legal certainty does make divergent interpretations more problematic, but I do not see the embarrassment. Questions of law may be difficult, and it may be desirable to have different interpretations tested in different proceedings before the law is finally settled. I do not think the FCA is, or should be embarrassed when it is overruled by the SCC. The law turns on the need for finality, not on the need to avoid judicial embarrassment. At the same level of court, the relevant principles are those of comity, which do not require slavish adherence to the first decision on a point of law. But whether it is persuasive or not, that was the basis for the FCA’s holding, and it applies equally in this context. Moreover, the FCA in Sanofi also pointed to the need for efficient use of judicial resources; one NOC proceeding and a subsequent infringement action is already enough litigation over a patent, without allowing multiple NOC proceedings.

Zinn J emphasized that “the blind application of the principle of consistency should not and cannot override fairness” [25]. What appears to be driving his decision is the concern that Noël J’s construction was wrong (and see also [38]), and, as just noted, comity alone is not sufficient reason to allow a wrong decision to stand. But that does not address the FCA’s point about efficiency in litigation, which implies that the patentee gets one shot at the NOC proceeding, and if it is not successful, whether rightly or wrongly, it must proceed by way of an infringement action. Zinn J rejected argument, saying “[32] Must a patentee be required to institute an infringement action or be forever foreclosed from advancing another interpretation of the claims of the patent in a future NOC proceeding? I fail to see any principled reason for adopting such a draconian position.” Whether or not there is a principled reason for such a position, it does appear to be the implication of the FCA Sanofi decision.

In any event, as Zinn J emphasized, this was only a motion to strike. Apart from the point that an argument should be clearly futile, or something close to it, in order to be struck [17-18], Zinn J held that even if this were an abuse of process, he would not exercise his discretion to strike Valeant’s argument on this issue. In part this was because on the particular facts of this case, there would be no judicial economy [38], as the ‘224 patent was one of two patents being litigated, and in Zinn J’s view the additional resources need to argue this point would be modest and could be compensated in costs. This point does go directly to the FCA’s point regarding the need for judicial economy. Zinn J’s other main point was that “I am satisfied, even considering judicial comity, that the position Valeant advances as to the interpretation of the ‘224 Patent has more than a mere possibility of success. To deny it an opportunity to present its case would be unfair” [38]. This brings us back to the points discussed above; there is a tension between justice and certainty; a strict rule that relitigation of the same issues is always an abuse comes down strongly on the side of certainty, but in Zinn J’s view, on these particular facts, the countervailing interest in justice outweighed the need for certainty and economy of judicial resources.

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