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Seed Co. Ltd. v. Westerman

SRINIVASAN, Circuit Judge: This case involves a legal malpractice action arising out of an unsuccessful application for a patent. Seed Company Limited, a Japanese company, is led by Shigeru Tamai. Tamai invented a dispenser of correctional tape enabling users to correct printed documents by rolling white tape over errors. Seed and Tamai hired legal counsel in connection with their patent applications. The effort to obtain a U.S. patent ultimately failed because of counsel’s noncompliance with Patent Office regulations when filing a motion related to the application. As a result of the error, another inventor obtained the patent for the same invention.

Seed and Tamai sued their attorneys, alleging that they had committed malpractice when they submitted filings for the patent application without complying with the Patent Office regulations. The district court first rejected the defendants’ argument that the suit was barred by the statute of limitations. But the court then granted summary judgment in their favor, ruling that they had exercised reasonable professional judgment in concluding (erroneously) that their filings complied with the Patent Office’s rules.

We reverse and remand. We conclude that the statute of limitations had elapsed with respect to the malpractice claims against one group of defendants—those who ceased working on behalf of Seed and Tamai when the law firm engaged in the representation split into two firms. With regard to the remaining defendants—those who continued to represent Seed and Tamai after the breakup of the firm—we find that the statute of limitations poses no bar to the malpractice action. On the merits of the claims against those defendants, we reverse the grant of summary judgment in their favor and remand the case for trial.

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