Judge Albright Conditionally Transfers an Austin Case Back to Waco

Last Friday Judge Albright issued an order effectively “reverse”-transferring VLSI Technology LLC v. Intel Corporation’s trial from Austin to Waco, if the Austin Courthouse does not reopen in time for a January trial. Before we get into the Court’s analysis, some quick background information:

VLSI sued Intel in three different cases for allegedly infringing eight patents. Judge Albright granted Intel’s Motion to Transfer to Austin because, “at the time, the Court determined that the Austin division was clearly more convenient than the Waco division.” VLSI originally filed three cases against Intel (6:19-cv-00254, 6:19-cv-00255, and 6:19-cv-00256). These cases were consolidated and transferred to Austin. This Order only pertains to what was originally the -00254 case.

However, as everyone is well aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the country and the world, causing many courthouses to close – including the Austin federal courthouse. The Austin division has been closed for eight months and remains closed indefinitely. But the Waco division reopened in September 2020 and has since conducted three in-person jury trials, including Judge Albright’s first patent jury trial

Thus, Judge Albright’s dilemma is: postpone the VLSI v. Intel trial indefinitely, or transfer the case back to Waco and hold the trial in January. Judge Albright chose the latter, with a small caveat: at the end of November, Judge Albright will “consult with Judges Yeakel and Pitman to determine if the Austin division will reopen in time for a January trial.” “If the Austin judges are unable to say that the Austin courthouse will be available for a January trial, the Court will exercise discretion” to conduct the trial in the Waco division.

Judge Albright based his decision to transfer the case in part on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 77(b), which provides: “every trial on the merits must be conducted in open court and, so far as convenient, in a regular courtroom . . . But no hearing—other than one ex parte—may be conducted outside the district unless all of the affected parties consent.” Because “Courts in the Fifth Circuit have uniformly interpreted Rule 77(b) as giving a district court the discretion to hold the trial at any division within the district, even without the parties’ consent,” Judge Albright concluded that he would exercise his discretion pursuant to Rule 77(b) and move the VLSI-Intel trial “to the Waco division in order to ensure a just, speedy, and inexpensive resolution of the dispute.” 

Additionally, Judge Albright relied on his inherent power to effectively manage cases and achieve “the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.” However, as Judge Albright recognized in his order, the exercise of a district court’s inherent power must be a reasonable response to a specific problem and the power cannot contradict any express rule or statute. As Judge Albright points out in his order, the specific problem is “the indefinite closure of the Austin courthouse.” Judge Albright concluded that moving the trial to Waco was the best option in this particular case for the following reasons:

  1. The Court already delayed the trial date in the case by two months and there is no foreseeable date-certain when the Austin courthouse will reopen. 
  2. Because the pandemic has created a backlog of trials and delaying this trial will only further delay other trials, the Court found that it must manage its docket “proactively” to minimize the effect of that backlog.
  3. “Because the trial dates for the -00255 and -00256 cases are two and four months, respectively, after the trial date for the -00254 case, delaying the trial date of the -00254 case not only delays the trial date of that case, but it has a multiplicative effect by delaying the trial dates of the other two cases by the same amount of time.”
  4. Finally, because the patents have a limited term, the Court believed that it should not unnecessarily delay a trial date. 

The Court also found that its decision to hold the trial in Waco was reasonable for two reasons. First, Waco is the closest “open” division. Second, the “courthouse in Waco is only 102 miles away from the Austin courthouse.” Thus, “the amount of inconvenience is minimal, if any” (emphasis mine).