Precision Instrument Mfg Co v. Automotive Maintenance Machinery Co

Decision Date23 April 1945
Docket NumberNo. 377,377
Citation65 USPQ 133,324 U.S. 806,65 S.Ct. 993,89 L.Ed. 1381
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 325 U.S. 893, 65 S.Ct. 1189.

Petition for Clarification of Opinion Denied June 18, 1945.

See 325 U.S. 843, 65 S.Ct. 1561.

Mr. Casper W. Ooms, of Chicago, Ill., for petitioners.

Mr. Fra k Parker Davis, of Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MURPHY, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent, Automotive Maintenance Machinery Company, charged in two suits that the various petitioners had infringed three patents owned by it relating to torque wrenches.1 It was further asserted that the allegedly infringing acts also breached several contracts related to the patents. In defense, the petitioners claimed inter alia that Automotive possessed such 'unclean hands' as to foreclose its right to enforce the patents and the contracts.

The District Court, at the close of a consolidated trial on the sole issue of Automotive's alleged inequitable conduct, delivered an oral opinion holding that Automotive's hands were soiled to such an extent that all relief which it requested should be denied. This opinion was subsequently withdrawn at the request of one of the witnesses and is not a part of the record. At the same time, however, the court entered written findings of fact and conclusions of law, forming the basis for a judgment dismissing the various complaints and counterclaims 'for want of equity.' On appeal, the Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the facts at length and concluded that the District Court's findings of fact were not supported by substantial evidence and that its conclusions of law were not supported by its findings. The judgment was accordingly reversed. 7 Cir., 143 F.2d 332. We brought the case here because of the public importance of the issues involved.

The basic facts necessary to a determination of the vital issues are clear and without material dispute. In chronological order they may be summarized as follows:

In 1937 and prior thereto Automotive manufactured and sold torque wrenches developed by one of its employees, Herman W. Zimmerman. During this period Snap-On Tools Corporation was one of its customers for these wrenches. Automotive also had in its employ at this time one George B. Thomasma, who worked with Zimmerman and who was well acquainted with his ideas on torque wrenches. In November, 1937, Thomasma secretly gave information to an outsider, Kenneth R. Larson, concerning torque wrenches. Together they worked out plans for a new wrench, although Thomasma claimed that it was entirely his own idea.

After unsuccessfully trying to interest other distributors, Larson made arrangements to supply Snap-On with the new torque wrench. On October 1, 1938, Larson filed an application for a patent on the newly-developed wrench, which application had been assigned to Snap-On several days prior thereto.2 Then in December, 1938, Larson, Thomasma and one Walter A. Carlsen organized the Precision Instrument Manufacturing Company to make the wrenches to supply Snap-On's requirements. All three received stock and were elected officers and directors of the new company. Manufacture of the wrenches began in January, 1939, and Precision succeeded in taking away from Automotive all of Snap-On's business. Thomasma continued to work for Automotive until the latter discovered his connection with Precision and discharged him in June, 1939. Thomasma's connection with Precision was also concealed from Snap-On during most of this period.

Subsequently on October 11, 1939, the Patent Office declared an interference between certain claims in Larson's pending patent application and those in one filed by Zimmerman. Automotive was the owner of Zimmerman's application. Shortly after the interference was declared, R. E. Fidler, Automotive's attorney, wrote to the president of the company that the 'whole situation confronting your opponents in this interference is quite messy, and I will be somewhat surprised if they fight the matter.' He further wrote that if there was a contest 'they surely will have a lot of explaining to do.'

In August, 1940, Larson filed his preliminary statement in the Patent Office proceedings. In it he gave false dates as to the conception, disclosure, drawing, description and reduction to practice of his claimed invention. These dates were designed to antedate those in Zimmerman's application by one to three years. Larson also claimed that he was the sole inventor of his wrench. When Fidler learned of this preliminary statement he immediately suspected that 'there must be something wrong with this picture' and suggested to Automotive's president that a 'very careful and thorough investigation' be made of the situation. The president agreed. Fidler then employed several investigators who made oral reports to him from time to time. According to Fidler's memoranda of these reports, Fidler learned in great detail in August and September, 1940, the part that Thomasma played in the development of the Larson wrench and in the organization of Precision. He discovered that Thomasma claimed to have invented the wrench and that Larson 'was now trying to freeze him out.'

From October 24 to November 4, 1940, Larson and eight witnesses testified in the interference proceedings in support of his claims, corroborating his statements as to dates despite cross examination. The day before this testimony ended Thomasma met with Fidler and Automotive's president and stated that he had developed Larson's wrench and that Larson's patent application was a 'frame-up.' Fidler then procured from Thomasma an eighty-three page statement concerning these matters, which Thomasma swore to on November 15. As the District Court found, this statement or affidavit 'related in extensive detail the statements of Thomasma with respect to Larson's early work and disclosed such intimate knowledge thereof as to leave little doubt of the author's knowledge of the facts.'

With these facts before him, Fidler admitted that he 'personally was inclined to take the position that I should do something drastic' in the form of taking the matter up with the Patent Office or the District Attorney. He resolved his problem, however, by submitting it to an out- side attorney. The latter advised him that his evidence was insufficient to establish Larson's perjury, that the Patent Office would not consider the matter until all proofs in the interference proceedings were in and that the District Attorney probably would not touch the situation while the interference proceedings were pending. Fidler followed his advise.

A few days later Fidler informed Larson's patent attorney, Harry C. Alberts, of the information disclosed in the Thomasma affidavit. Alberts admitted that 'it looked very much like Larson had given false testimony' and asked that further examination of Thomasma be made in his presence. Accordingly, on November 28, Thomasma was examined orally before Alberts, Fidler and officials of Automotive and Snap-On. Thomasma repeated substantially the same story as in his affidavit. Snap-On's president said that if the story were true 'the whole thing smells to the high heavens.' And Alberts remarked that under the circumstances he felt he would have to withdraw as Larson's attorney.

On the same day, Alberts and Snap-On's president confronted Larson and Carlsen with the Thomasma story and demanded an explanation. Larson refused to commit himself on the truth of Thomasma's account but finally admitted that 'my testimony is false and the whole case is false.' Alberts then withdrew as their attorney,3 giving them the names of three other lawyers, including M. K. Hobbs. The fact that Alberts withdrew was communicated by him to Fidler.

Larson and Carlsen called on Hobbs the next day, November 29. They told him they were willing to concede priority in Zimmerman and wanted Hobbs to settle the interference proceedings.4 Hobbs took the case on that basis, making no effort to inquire into the reasons for the concession since he considered that matter immaterial. Even when Fidler tried to tell him later about the perjury, Hobbs stopped him for he 'didn't want to hear the conflict in testimony.'

Hobbs immediately undertook to settle the interference proceedings. On December 2 he proposed a settlement which included a concession of priority by Larson, but this proposal was apparently not satisfactory to all those concerned. Meanwhile Fidler presented the facts to another disinterested lawyer and asked him whether he thought there was enough evidence to bring a conspiracy suit for damages or a criminal action. The lawyer, after admitting that he did not have the slightest doubt but that Thomasma was telling the truth, replied in the negative.

On December 13 Fidler submitted a draft agreement that he had prepared. This draft contained a recital that 'it has been determined by the parties hereto and their respective counsel that the party Zimmerman is the prior inventor of the subject matter involved in said Interference No. 77,565, as well as all other subject matter commonly disclosed in said Zimmerman and Larson applications.' But this draft was likewise unacceptable.

For a time negotiations were broken off and resumption of the interference proceedings seemed imminent. One of the other attorneys for Automotive wrote a letter on December 19 to Alberts, who was still acting as attorney for Snap-On, stating that 'you must recognize that a large part of the testimony taken on behalf of Snap-On and Larson is, to put it mildly, not the whole truth' and that 'you are holding up the issuance of the Zimmerman patent without the slightest justification.' Fidler, who had approved this letter, justified these remarks on the ground that 'they had told us Zimmerman was the prior inventor and we hadn't yet received a concession of...

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