Re­turn to sender: Supreme Court to hear un­de­liv­er­able mail case

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY JES­SICA GRESKO

Mitch Hunger­piller thought he had a first-class so­lu­tion for mail that gets re­turned as un­de­liv­er­able, a com­mon prob­lem for busi­nesses that send lots of let­ters.

But the process he helped de­velop and built his small Alabama tech­nol­ogy com­pany around has re­sulted in a more than decade­long fight with the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, which says his so­lu­tion shouldn’t have been patentable.

The David vs. Goliath dis­pute has now ar­rived at the Supreme Court. On Tues­day, the jus­tices will hear Mr. Hunger­piller’s case, which in­volves pars­ing the mean­ing of a 2011 pa­tent law.

“All I want is a fair shake,” said Mr. Hunger­piller, who lives in Birm­ing­ham and is a father of three.

Mr. Hunger­piller, 56, started think­ing se­ri­ously about re­turned mail in 1999, when he was do­ing com­puter con­sult­ing work. While vis­it­ing clients, he kept see­ing huge trays of re­turned mail. He read that every year, bil­lions pieces of mail are re­turned as un­de­liv­er­able, cost­ing com­pa­nies and the Postal Ser­vice time and money.

So he de­cided to try to solve the prob­lem. He de­vel­oped a sys­tem that uses bar codes, scan­ning equip­ment and com­puter data­bases to process re­turned mail al­most en­tirely au­to­mat­i­cally.

His clients, from fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pa­nies to mar­ket­ing com­pa­nies, gen­er­ally di­rect their re­turned mail to Mr. Hunger­piller’s com­pany, Re­turn Mail Inc., for pro­cess­ing. Clients can get in­for­ma­tion about whether the mail was ac­tu­ally cor­rectly ad­dressed and whether there’s a more cur­rent ad­dress.

Mr. Hunger­piller says de­vel­op­ing Re­turn Mail’s sys­tem took sev­eral years. As part of the process, the com­pany ap­plied for a pa­tent. In 2004, right be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, Mr. Hunger­piller got a call with good news. The com­pany would be is­sued U.S. Pa­tent No. 6,826,548. “Oh I was so thank­ful. Best Thanks­giv­ing of my life,” he said, de­scrib­ing the phone call as “just a wow mo­ment.”

To cel­e­brate he bought dec­o­ra­tive copies of the pa­tent for com­pany lead­ers. His copy, a plaque about the size of a piece of pa­per, hangs in his of­fice next to a paint­ing of his late father.

Even early on, the Postal Ser­vice ex­pressed in­ter­est in Re­turn Mail’s in­ven­tion, Mr. Hunger­piller said. By 2006, the gov­ern­ment and Re­turn Mail were talk­ing about li­cens­ing op­tions and a for­mal pi­lot pro­gram.

Part­ner­ing with the Postal Ser­vice, Mr. Hunger­piller said, would have “changed my life.”

But the Postal Ser­vice ul­ti­mately de­vel­oped its own, sim­i­lar sys­tem for pro­cess­ing re­turned and un­de­liv­er­able mail, an­nounc­ing its launch in 2006.

“I was crushed. I got a dag­ger in my back,” Mr. Hunger­piller said.

And his busi­ness suf­fered. “Bot­tom line is that we had to lay off em­ploy­ees,” he said, adding that it “suf­fo­cated the busi­ness.”

The Postal Ser­vice soon went fur­ther. It tried to get Re­turn Mail’s pa­tent in­val­i­dated but failed. Re­turn Mail sued the Postal Ser­vice, ar­gu­ing that the gov­ern­ment should pay for us­ing Re­turn Mail’s in­ven­tion without per­mis­sion.

A spokesman for the Postal Ser­vice de­clined to com­ment on the case be­cause it is on­go­ing.

Just as Mr. Hunger­piller thought his com­pany might be gain­ing the up­per hand, the Postal Ser­vice switched tac­tics, suc­cess­fully us­ing a 2011 pa­tent law over­haul law to in­val­i­date Re­turn Mail’s pa­tent.

Now, at the Supreme Court, Re­turn Mail’s lawyers are ar­gu­ing that the Postal Ser­vice can’t use that law, the LeahySmith Amer­ica In­vents Act, to chal­lenge Re­turn Mail’s pa­tent.

The law says that a “per­son who is not the owner of a pa­tent” can file a pa­tent chal­lenge us­ing the law. The Postal Ser­vice doesn’t count as a “per­son,” Re­turn Mail’s lawyers say. The gov­ern­ment dis­agrees. The Supreme Court will de­cide who is right.


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