May trial dates are set in two cases against the California Table Grape Commission that involve the commission’s right to charge assessments and the federal government’s patents on two grape varieties.
The assessment case is in California state court and contends the commission’s assessments against growers are in violation of the state’s constitution.
A similar case filed by growers in 1996 in federal court challenged the legality of the commission’s grower assessments under the U.S. Constitution. It ended in victory for the commission when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear it on appeal.
In the patent case, filed in federal court in 2007 by owners of Delano Farms Co., Four Star Fruit Inc. and Gerawan Farming Inc., one question almost made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court this year when the commission sought review of whether the growers can sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The high court declined to hear the matter on Nov. 26, clearing the way for the growers to move forward.
The growers contend the patents for Scarlet Royal and Autumn King grapes should be rescinded because the grapes were in the public arena for more than a year at the point USDA requested patents in 2004.
The agency received patents in 2006 for both varieties. Federal law prohibits the patenting of anything that has been in the public realm for a year or more preceding a patent request.
Researchers at the USDA’s San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier, Calif., developed the varieties, along with the Sweet Scarlet variety, under programs partially funded by the grape commission, according to court documents.
Delano, Four Star and Gerawan contend growers had access to the plant stock and were growing the three varieties for years before the patents were issued.
In November, growers and the grape commission reached an agreement on the Sweet Scarlet variety and removed it from the case, said Randolf Moss, an attorney representing the commission. Under that agreement, there are no patent restrictions on the use of Sweet Scarlet in the U.S., but there are still protections in place in certain foreign countries.
Originally, growers challenged not only the USDA’s right to patent the varieties, but the right of the California Table Grape Commission to hold the license for the varieties and charge royalties for them. The growers also took issue with the fact that the commission sub-licensed only three nurseries for the patented varieties.
The growers contended in their complaint the commission met behind closed doors with USDA and developed a “secret scheme” to allow the three nurseries to profit and to create a revenue stream for the commission via royalty fees. The commission splits the royalties with USDA, with 60% going to the commission’s research and promotional efforts, according to court documents.
All of the growers’ claims in the patent case — except for the question of the validity of the patents in relation to the public domain issue — have previously been dismissed, Moss said.
The case is set for a jury trial of five to seven days, beginning May 14.