Federal Circuit Nixes Appeal on Claims of Unfair Treatment by California Court in Pro Se Lawsuit Over Restrictions to Cancer Research

“Although the Federal Circuit panel in the case ‘[understood] that Siegler feels unfairly treated as a result of the events she outlines, she was treated more than fairly by the district court,’ said the CAFC.”

https://depositphotos.com/229492118/stock-photo-word-phrase-affirm-dictionary-highlighted.htmlOn July 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) issued a non-precedential decision in Siegler v. Sorrento Therapeutics, Inc. in which the appellate court affirmed a series of rulings on motions in a copyright and trade secret lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California. Although the Federal Circuit panel in the case “[understood] that Siegler feels unfairly treated as a result of the events she outlines, she was treated more than fairly by the district court,” said the CAFC, and the court did not err or abuse its discretion in reaching decisions to deny several motions for default judgment and reconsideration, as well as dismissing a pair of amended complaints filed by Siegler.

Pro Se Suit Over Research Restrictions Fails After Uncured Deficiencies in the Pleadings

The present appeal stems back to a lawsuit filed by cancer researcher Sarah Elizabeth Siegler in July 2018 based on claims that a series of defendants unlawfully researched chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, specifically anti-carcinoembryonic antigen (anti-CEA) CAR T cells. In 2013, Siegler began a collaborative partnership to develop new CAR T cell-based cancer treatments with Dr. Richard Paul Junghans. Siegler published a pair of articles based on this research and developed plans to continue her research at Roger Williams Medical Center (RWMC) in Providence, RI. Dr. Junghans would go on to work at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA, and as a result of various business agreements between Dr. Junghans and Sorrento Therapeutics, Siegler alleged that she was restricted from continuing with her collaborative research with Dr. Junghans and precluded from conducting her research into cancer treatments at the RWMC.

A first amended complaint filed by Siegler asserted claims of copyright infringement, trade secret misappropriation and unjust takings in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, as well as several claims under antitrust law and for declaratory judgment that a patent application filed by RWMC related to anti-CEA CAR T cell constructs was invalid. The district court dismissed with prejudice all claims filed against the Sorrento’s Board of Directors, which lacked the capacity to be sued as a legally entity separable from Sorrento, as well as all Takings Clause claims as none of the defendants sued were government entities. Siegler’s copyright, trade secret, antitrust and patent invalidity claims were dismissed without prejudice with the court giving Siegler, a pro se plaintiff, advice on how to properly state specific elements of her claims. However, Siegler’s second amended complaint included much of the same factual allegations and the district court dismissed all claims with prejudice after determining that Siegler had not cured the deficiencies of the first amended complaint, had failed to plead protectable expression in the research articles supporting her copyright claim, had failed to specify any protectable trade secrets, and had failed to plead necessary elements of her antitrust claims including the existence of a relevant market and an injury to competition.

Federal Circuit Takes Jurisdiction Over Non-Patent Claims, Affirms Lower Court’s Dismissals

Although Siegler filed notices of appeal to bring only her patent claims to the Federal Circuit, with the non-patent claims of the case appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, she addressed several non-patent issues in her briefing at the Federal Circuit. The Ninth Circuit dismissed Siegler’s appeal for failure to comply with circuit rules on paying fees or proceeding in forma pauperis. While the defendants on appeal argued that the Ninth Circuit’s dismissal precluded the Federal Circuit’s ability to consider Siegler’s non-patent claims, the Federal Circuit noted that its jurisdiction “is case-specific, not issue-specific” and that the Ninth Circuit’s dismissal was not based on the merits of Siegler’s non-patent claims.

Turning to Siegler’s arguments on appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Southern California district court’s decision to dismiss Siegler’s claims with prejudice as well as a pair of determinations by the court on party standing. Although Siegler argued that the Ninth Circuit uses a relaxed pleading standard for pro se plaintiffs, the Federal Circuit found that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted was the proper standard for analyzing the dismissals. The appellate panel proceeded to agree with the reasoning supplied by the district court in each of the dismissals, including a finding that Siegler was the only plaintiff in the action and not a co-plaintiff with SES, an alleged sole proprietorship owned by Siegler that the court found had no legally separable identity from Siegler under applicable Ohio law. The Federal Circuit also affirmed that Southern California lacked personal jurisdiction over Tufts Medical Center as that defendant did not have sufficient contacts within the district.

Addressing a series of arguments raised by Siegler regarding motions denied by the district court, the Federal Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the lower court’s denial of Siegler’s motion for default judgment against Sorrento’s Board of Directors as the Board wasn’t legally separable from Sorrento. The Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s denial of leave to file a third amended complaint, finding that Siegler had failed to adequately explain how newly discovered information would cure any of the deficiencies from the first amended complaint. In so finding, the appellate panel rejected arguments raised by Siegler’s appeal regarding denial of a meaningful opportunity to be heard by dismissal of the case prior to discovery. The court also affirmed denials of motions to reconsider each amended complaint after Siegler argued that the court’s discretion to deny such motions filed by pro se plaintiffs led to “manifestly unjust dismissals.”

Finally, the Federal Circuit panel dismissed challenges by Siegler to other discretionary decisions by the lower court. Although the lower court did not take judicial notice of several documents linked to Siegler’s pleadings, including links to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Circuit found that the lower court was not required to take judicial notice of the inferences Siegler was trying to draw from those linked documents. The Federal Circuit also noted that it was within the district court’s discretion to resolve motions without oral argument and to set a date to spread the mandate handed down by the Ninth Circuit.

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