Caterpillar, West Fargo couple spar in court over fraud allegations
FARGO — A West Fargo couple who claimed a patent was invalidated because global construction equipment giant Caterpillar allegedly lied to the U.S. patent office will have to wait several weeks for a magistrate to decide whether to dismiss their case.
U.S. District Magistrate Alice Senechal in Fargo listened Friday, Nov. 8, to arguments from Caterpillar attorney David Swenson and Ernie and Gail Brookins, who represented themselves in court. Caterpillar asked the federal court to dismiss the couple's lawsuit, which alleges the company committed fraud.
“Caterpillar broke the law in order to steal my patent, which is my private property,” Ernie Brookins said as he read from a written statement. “In order to get that done, they became white-collar crooks who need to be prosecuted and sent to jail.”
The dispute that has spanned five lawsuits stems from a defunct patent for a hydraulic clutch Ernie Brookins, 77, invented more than 10 years ago. The clutch builds up pressure created from a vehicle engine’s energy. Once enough pressure is stored, the engine can be shut off, but the vehicle can run on the pressure without creating carbon emissions. The invention can be used to fight climate change, the couple said.
Ernie Brookins sued Caterpillar in 2016, claiming the company stole his patent. The company sent a letter asking him to dismiss the case, or it would file a petition with the U.S. patent office claiming his patent was not valid.
The inventor lost his patent, so he and his 75-year-old wife decided to pursue one last route against Caterpillar: They argued the company provided false statements to the U.S. patent office and in federal court.
Caterpillar’s motion to dismiss said the couple “failed to state a claim on which relief can be granted.” Swenson argued allegations of false statements have been brought up in the previous lawsuits.
“The point is, the issue has been raised and addressed multiple times,” he said.
The couple said the previous cases were not fraud lawsuits, that they were dismissed before the issue at hand could be addressed and Gail Brookins was not a party in the cases, meaning this case can be brought before a judge, she argued.
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In patent infringement cases, only the patent holder can bring a lawsuit against a party and participate in court. Gail Brookins asked during the lawsuits to help her husband read statements since he was diagnosed with dyslexia, but Caterpillar attorneys objected.
Swenson argued the couple had a year during the patent review process to bring up allegations of false statements but never did. While Gail Brookins did not participate in court in earlier cases, she sat next to Ernie Brookins and helped him operate a PowerPoint presentation.
She is allowed to speak in this case, and she handled much of the legal arguments Friday.
The couple did not sign a contract with Caterpillar, meaning fraud was not explicitly committed against the couple because false statements were not made to them, Swenson said.
But Gail Brookins argued there was an implied contract “based on statements contained in documents” sent to the couple.
The couple is trying to use tactics to “game the system,” Swenson said. They initially filed this lawsuit in Cass County District Court, an effort Swenson called “judge shopping.” Caterpillar won its motion to move the case to federal court.
The couple filed a motion to add Caterpillar attorneys as defendants in the case. Attorneys have an obligation to represent their clients, and the “court system would grind to a halt” if parties who didn’t like the result of their cases filed fraud charges against opposing attorneys, Swenson said.
“It’s just an attempt to manipulate the system to prolong the case,” he said, adding that the couple is trying to add parties in hopes of getting a different result.
After the hearing, Ernie Brookins said Caterpillar is focusing on technicalities. The couple said they are not sure which way the ruling will go.
“If Caterpillar gets away with breaking the law in order to steal my patent, it will mean patents are not worth the paper they are written on,” he said.
A Caterpillar spokesperson said via email the company "does not comment on on-going litigation."
Senechal has taken the two motions under advisement. Though she said she wasn't sure when a decision will be issued, she mentioned it could be "in a few weeks."