Airline wifi supplier Gogo says ex-lawyers' missteps cost the company patents, market presence

By Scott Holland | Aug 11, 2016

Chicago-based GoGo, facing stiff competition as it looks to maintain is place atop the in-flight wireless Internet market, is going on the offensive against its old legal team, alleging its former lawyers failed to adequately protect Gogo’s patents. 

In a complaint filed Aug. 5 in Cook County Circuit Court, Gogo alleged “fraud and legal malpractice” on the part of Squire Patton Boggs, of Cleveland, and attorneys James M. Graziano and Scott A. Chambers. For more than 15 years, the defendants represented Gogo’s patent and trademark portfolios, which largely cover the company’s wireless telecommunication technologies that allow airline passengers to access wifi signals during flights, according to the lawsuit. 

Among the technology involved in the dispute are Gogo’s ground-based systems that allow creation of Internet protocol networks on airborne airliners to allow multiple devices to connect to the wifi network, as well as those for managing emergency calls that come from the aircraft using its wireless network. 

Gogo paid the defendants more than $2.5 million in fees for legal work and portfolio management. Gogo’s lawsuit alleged the defendants’ “outdated methods” and “negligent and baseless priority claims on several” Gogo patent applications resulted in severely diminished patent value, including two that allegedly “actually expired before they were even issued.” Further, Gogo asserted Graziano and a former Gogo employee “formed and represented at least two intellectual property companies specializing in wireless telecommunication technologies.” 

The complaint alleged that prior to forming one of those firms, Vulano Group, Graziano engineer the sale of the other, Vesuvius, to Qualcomm, a Gogo supplier. The chief assets in that sale, Gogo contended, were five Vesuvius wifi patents. 

One point of contention is the June 1995 change in U.S. patent law that set the term relative to the patent’s priority date, not its issue date. After the change, terms were limited to 20 years from the filing date of the earliest application to which priority was claimed. The suit claims the defendants continued to manage Gogo’s portfolio according to old rules, “filing as many as 27 individual patent applications” through September 2011. In some cases the lawyers claimed priority on patents that were so old the patents issued to Gogo were already expired. 

The complaint detailed a 2014 communication breakdown between Gogo and its lawyers as the company sought clarification on the terms of its patents. That August, Gogo moved its patent profile to Marshall, Gerstein & Borun, including spending at least $10,000 to the new firm to investigate the extent to which prior representation’s mismanagement devalued its patent portfolio. 

Ultimately, Gogo said its new representation determined two patents were lost altogether, and between five and 17 others are now subject to limited enforcement terms. They also alleged their business posture and market position are compromised due to Graziano’s involvement with Vulano Group, Vesuvius and Qualcomm. 

The lawsuit comes in the wake of news that Gogo’s share of the airline wifi market may be shrinking. Just two months before filing its complaint against its ex-lawyers, Gogo lost out on a bid to provide wifi to 100 new American Airlines planes. According to a June 3 report in the San Diego Union Tribune, American opted for ViaSat, of Carlsbad, Calif., to outfit 100 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft with its satellite-based wifi network as opposed to Gogo’s ground-based technology, already the standard in many of American’s 1,100 planes. Gogo does have a satellite-based wifi approach in 134 Airbus Group craft in American’s fleet. 

In addition to a jury trial, Gogo seeks at least $50,000 in damages, and wants the court to order Squire Patton to refund the money it paid for patent portfolio management, plus punitive damages. 

Representing Gogo in the complaint is the Patterson Law Firm, of Chicago.

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