Stern v. Trustees of Columbia University
Summit Technology v. Nidek

UNITHERM FOOD SYSTEMS, INC. v. SWIFT-ECKRICH, INC., dba CONAGRA REFRIGERATED FOODS

Abuse of Patent in Violation of Antitrust Laws

After respondent ConAgra warned companies selling equipment and processes for browning precooked meats that it intended to protect its rights under its patent for that process, petitioner Unitherm, whose president had invented the process six years before ConAgra filed its patent application, and one of ConAgra’s direct competitors jointly filed suit in an Oklahoma federal court. As relevant here, they sought a declaration that ConAgra’s patent was invalid and unenforceable and alleged that ConAgra had violated §2 of the Sherman Act by attempting to enforce a patent obtained by fraud on the Patent and Trademark Office, see Walker Process Equipment, Inc. v. Food Machinery & Chemical Corp., 382 U.S. 172, 174. The District Court found the patent invalid and allowed the Walker Process claim to proceed to trial. Before the case was submitted to the jury, ConAgra moved for a directed verdict under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) based on legal insufficiency of the evidence. The court denied the motion, the jury returned a verdict for Unitherm, and ConAgra neither renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b) nor moved for a new trial on antitrust liability pursuant to Rule 59. On appeal to the Federal Circuit, ConAgra maintained that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the Walker Process verdict. The court applied Tenth Circuit law, under which a party that has failed to file a postverdict sufficiency of the evidence challenge may nonetheless raise such a claim on appeal, so long as the party filed a Rule 50(a) motion before submission of the case to the jury. The only available relief in such a circumstance is a new trial. Freed to examine the sufficiency of the evidence, the Federal Circuit vacated the judgment and ordered a new trial.

Held: Since respondent failed to renew its preverdict motion as specified in Rule 50(b), the Federal Circuit had no basis for reviewing respondent’s sufficiency of the evidence challenge.

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