Ragner Tech. Corp. v. Berardi

Decision Date22 March 2018
Docket NumberNo. 1:15–cv–7752 (NLH/AMD),1:15–cv–7752 (NLH/AMD)
Citation324 F.Supp.3d 491
Parties RAGNER TECHNOLOGY CORP. and Tristar Products Inc., Plaintiffs, v. Michael BERARDI, Cheryl Berardi, Greg Janson, National Express, Inc., and Estate of Edward Kelley, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

HILLMAN, District Judge

This is a Walker Process action related to other patent infringement litigation pending in the District of New Jersey. This Opinion addresses two separate but partially overlapping motions: Defendant National Express, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim and Defendants Michael Berardi ("Mr. Berardi") and Cheryl Berardi ("Mrs. Berardi") (collectively the "Berardi Defendants")'s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction, Improper Venue, and Failure to State a Claim. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant both motions. The Court will dismiss the claims against Defendants without prejudice and with leave to amend. The Court will dismiss Mrs. Berardi as a party defendant for lack of personal jurisdiction.

I. Relevant Facts

The following facts come from Plaintiffs' April 29, 2016 Second Amended Complaint.1 On September 25, 2005, U.S. Patent No. 6,948,527 ("the '527 patent") entitled "Pressure–Actuated Linearly Retractable and Extendible Hose" was issued to Gary Dean Ragner and Robert Daniel deRochemont, Jr. On June 23, 2009, U.S. Patent No. 7,549,448 ("the '448 patent") entitled "Linearly Retractable Pressure Hose" was issued to Ragner. Ragner Technology is the owner and assignee of all rights to the '527 and '448 patents, subject only to exclusive licenses granted to Tristar Products.

In May 2011, Ragner Technology was introduced to Greg Janson, who appeared to be interested in investing in Ragner Technology or bringing Ragner Technology to the attention of potential investors. Janson was hired as a broker to recruit investors for Ragner Technology's patented products.

Janson informed Defendants that Ragner Technology was seeking to meet with investors. Janson scheduled a meeting between Ragner Technology and Defendants for August 23, 2011. On August 23, 2011, Ragner, deRochemont, and Margaret Combs, CEO of Ragner Technology, arrived in Jupiter, Florida for the scheduled meeting. At that time, they learned they were at the home of the Berardi Defendants. Also at the meeting was Edward Kelly, CEO of Defendant National Express. Janson and Vince Simonelli, a business broker, were also present at the meeting. The Berardi Defendants were introduced as Kelly's producers for his television commercials.2

At the start of the meeting, Ragner Technology made clear it was seeking investors and not licensing opportunities. Prior to disclosing any confidential information, Combs informed the Berardi Defendants and Kelly that non-disclosure agreements had not been prepared because they had been unaware of whom they were meeting with. Nonetheless, Combs insisted on a non-disclosure agreement before commencing the meeting. The Berardi Defendants and Kelly verbally agreed to terms of confidentiality and non-disclosure for the meeting. They also agreed to execute written non-disclosure agreements to be sent by Combs following the meeting.

After the oral agreement, Ragner Technology "disclosed information relating to Ragner Technology, the scope of its patents, product specifications, and target market of the Microhose product." They further disclosed

specific engineering diagrams, ideas, materials of manufacture, including but not limited to, prior iterations of prototype hoses and prototype hoses constructed of more than one layer, more than one material, at least one fabric layer, various materials of manufacture including but not limited to, vinyl, nylon, rubber, polyester, and/or polypropylene, at least one layer with cord reinforcement including a hose wherein the biasing was performed by elastic material such as polymers made of thermoplastic polyurethane to provide retracting force, manufacture know-how, concepts, etc. related to its prototypes of the Microhose product.

Ragner Technology also demonstrated one of the patented prototypes of the Microhose product. Mr. Berardi was able to use one of the patented prototypes and saw it expand and retract.

During the meeting, National Express articulated its interest in licensing the patented technology and an intent for the product to be manufactured in Taiwan. Ragner Technology reiterated its request was solely for investors, but also conveyed its hesitancy to use a foreign manufacturer. After reassuring Ragner Technology of the capabilities of its foreign manufacturing contact, Kelly requested permission to contact the foreign manufacturer to address its ability to manufacture the product using the patented technology, subject to the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. Ragner Technology agreed to that limited disclosure. Kelly indicated he would contact the manufacturer as discussed.

The morning following the meeting, August 24, 2011, Combs prepared the non-disclosure agreements, all dated August 23, 2011. The non-disclosure agreements were never executed by Defendants. Ragner Technology was similarly never contacted regarding Kelly's communications with the manufacturer in Taiwan.

A little over two months later, on November 4, 2011, Mr. Berardi filed a patent application entitled "Expandable and contractible hose," which Plaintiffs allege "claim[ed] novel features of the prototypes of the Microhose product demonstrated by Ragner Technology at the August 23, 2011 meeting." Mr. Berardi obtained U.S. Patent No. 8,291,941 ("the '941 patent"), entitled "Expandable and contractible hose," U.S. Patent No. 8,291,942 ("the '942 patent") entitled "Expandable hose assembly," and U.S. Patent No. 8,479,776 ("the '776 patent").3

Blue Gentian, LLC is the owner of all the rights in the '941, '942, and '776 patents. Mr. Berardi is a managing member of Blue Gentian. Blue Gentian, in turn, granted National Express the exclusive right under the '941, '942, and '776 patents to market and sell the expandable hose product.

Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint on May 30, 2014 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, which was set before the Honorable William P. Dimitrouleas, U.S.D.J. On June 11, 2015, the Southern District of Florida granted Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and granted leave to file an amended complaint. This Order was followed by a First Amended Complaint on June 25, 2015. This matter was then transferred, sua sponte, from the Southern District of Florida to the District of New Jersey on October 28, 2015. This case was originally assigned to the Honorable Kevin McNulty, U.S.D.J. before being reassigned to the undersigned on December 2, 2016 because of the pendency of related matters.

Plaintiffs' April 29, 2016 Second Amended Complaint brings three counts against Defendants: conspiracy to monopolize (in the alternative, attempt to monopolize) (Count I); common law fraud (Count II); and breach of contract (Count III).

This Court's Opinion proceeds as follows. The Court first addresses the arguments made that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over the Berardi Defendants and that venue is improper in the District of New Jersey. The Court then addresses the different jurisdictions' laws it is required to apply in considering these motions, of which there are several. The Court then addresses Count I of the Second Amended Complaint, asserting conspiracy to monopolize and, alternatively, attempt to monopolize. This requires consideration, first, of whether Plaintiffs have antitrust standing and, second, whether Defendants are immune from antitrust liability. The antitrust immunity issue requires consideration of whether there was fraud on the PTO and, if so, the merits of whether Plaintiffs have a monopolization claim. As the Court finds it must dismiss Count I, the Court chooses not to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' state law claims for common law fraud and breach of contract. Lastly, the Court considers Plaintiffs' request for leave to amend.

II. Personal Jurisdiction and Venue

In its February 7, 2018 Opinion, this Court extensively considered whether it had personal jurisdiction over the Berardi Defendants. The Court determined it had personal jurisdiction over Mr. Berardi but lacked personal jurisdiction over Mrs. Berardi. The Court asked for supplemental briefing on the personal jurisdiction issue, which the Court timely received on March 9, 2018. The Court summarizes its February 7, 2018 personal jurisdiction analysis here, incorporating the input of the parties from the supplemental briefing before reaching its ultimate decision.

As this case was transferred from the Southern District of Florida, the Court began by considering any decisions made by that court with regard to personal jurisdiction. In its order transferring this case to the District of New Jersey, the Southern District of Florida did not specifically address whether this Court has personal jurisdiction over Defendants. Its order found transfer "would serve the interest of justice ... as the claims in this action may be affected by, and are intricately related to, several pending actions in the District of New Jersey." The court acknowledged that, while Plaintiffs and National Express consented to transfer (and National Express to jurisdiction in the District of New Jersey), the Berardi Defendants contended that the District of New Jersey did not have personal jurisdiction over them. The court concluded: "Plaintiffs acknowledge that Michael Berardi and Cheryl Berardi may attempt to challenge personal jurisdiction in the District...

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