Allergan’s Mohawk Gambit May Be Doomed – PTAB Rethinks the Scope of Sovereign Immunity

By Tom Engellenner
A few months ago, the Irish drug company Allergan moved to shield its key patents on its dry-eye drug Restasis from challenge at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) of the U.S. Patent Office by assigning these patents to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in return for a commitment by the tribe, as new owner of the patents, to invoke “sovereign immunity” and request that the PTAB dismiss pending administrative challenges.

However, a recent decision in an unrelated case before the PTAB casts doubt on the viability of this strategy.  In Ericsson v. Regents of the University of Minnesota, IPR2017-01186 (Paper 16 PTAB Dec. 19, 2017), an expanded panel of seven PTAB judges denied the University of Minnesota’s motion to dismiss an inter partes review (IPR) proceeding on the basis of sovereign immunity.  According to the PTAB panel, by filing a patent infringement suit that asserted the challenged patent, the University had waived its immunity at least with respect to the defendants.  One of defendants in that suit, Ericsson, Inc., had initiated the IPR proceeding.

The Ericsson decision involved the questionable practice of “panel-packing” by the PTAB’s chief judge, David Ruschke.  In this instance, the Chief Judge added himself and three of his deputies to the original three judges assigned to the case for the purpose of deciding the University’s motion to dismiss, ostensibly to address the “exceptional nature of the issues presented.”

Two prior PTAB decisions by different panels of judges involving University-owned patents have upheld the sovereign immunity principle.  In Covidien LP v. Univ. of Fla. Research Found., Inc., Case IPR2016-01274 (PTAB Jan. 25, 2017) and NeoChord, Inc. v. Univ. of Md., Balt., Case IPR2016-00208 (PTAB May 23, 2017), prior panels of PTAB judges faced with this issue had found that an IPR proceeding was an adjudicatory proceeding of a federal agency from which state entities are immune.

Judge Ruschke’s opinion on behalf of the enlarged panel confirmed that the sovereign immunity defense was generally available to state universities (and, by implication, other sovereigns like native American tribes) but the immunity was not absolute.  By suing in federal court, Ruschke reasoned that University of Minnesota had waivered this immunity.  He distinguished the prior PTAB panel decisions dismissing IPR petitions on sovereign immunity grounds because they did not involve “a State that filed an action in federal court alleging infringement of the same patent.”  (The Covidien v. Florida case arose out of a licensing dispute in which the university had sued to enforce a patent license agreement and the disgruntled licensee then challenged the patent via an IPR petition.  The Neochord v. Maryland case likewise involved a licensing dispute.)

Nonetheless, Judge Ruschke’s opinion has a logical weakness.  The panel’s finding of a waiver appears to turn on the fact that an invalidity challenge to a patent in a federal infringement case is a compulsory counterclaim.  Because the invalidity challenge must be brought or “be forever barred from doing so, it is not unreasonable to view the state as having consented to such counterclaims.”  The opinion fails to explain why the counterclaim inherent in an infringement suit (i.e. a trial of the invalidity issue in the federal court) is not sufficient in and of itself or why the compulsory nature of the counterclaim should spawn a right to raise this issue in an alternative forum with significantly different (challenger-friendly) rules.  Continue reading

Posted in America Invents Act, Court of Appeals Fed Circuit, Covered Business Methods, Enlarged PTAB Panels, Federal Circuit, Final PTAB Decision, Instittion Decision, Inter Partes Review, Motion to Dimiss, Post Grant Review, PTAB Procedure, Sovereign Immunity, Trial Tactics, USPTO | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

PTAB Issues Guidelines for Motions to Amend

By Reza Mollaaghababa
An en banc panel of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) in the case of Aqua Products, Inc. v. Matal recently held that in an inter-partes (IPR) proceeding, the burden of persuasion rests with the challenger to persuade the PATB that substitute claims proposed by a patent owner in a motion to amend are unpatentable.  This is a significant shift from the Board’s practice that had required the patent owner to demonstrate that proposed substitute claims are patentable over the art cited by the challenger and the art known to the patent owner.

The PTAB has issued guidelines regarding motions to amend in light of the Aqua Products decision. The guidelines indicate that consistent with the Aqua Products decision, the Board will not place the burden of persuasion on the patent owner with regard to the patentability of substitute claims presented in a motion to amend.  If the patent owner presents a reasonable number of substitute claims that do not enlarge the scope of the original claims and do not introduce new matter, “the Board will proceed to determine whether the substitute claims are unpatentable by a preponderance of the evidence based on the entirety of the record, including any opposition made by the petitioner.”  In particular, “if the entirety of the evidence of record before the Board is in equipoise as to the unpatentability of one or more substitute claims, the Board will grant the motion to amend with respect to such claims, and the Office will issue a certificate incorporating those claims into the patent at issue.”

The guidelines, however, indicate that a motion to amend must still set forth “written description” support and support for the benefit of a filing date in relation to each substitute claim, and respond to grounds of unpatentability involved in the trial.” The guidelines further emphasize that all parties have a duty of candor and in particular the patent owner has a duty “to disclose to the Board information that the patent owner is aware of that is material to the patentability of substitute claims, if such information is not already of record in the case.”  The rules regarding the types, timing and page limits of briefs remain unchanged.  Further, the patent owner must still confer with the Board before filing a motion to amend.

The recognition that the burden for proving unpatentability rests with the challenger even when the patent owner presents substitute claims can potentially result in more motions to amend to be granted. Nonetheless, a patent owner seeking to amend challenged claims may still consider other venues for presenting such amendments. For example, such a patent owner can present amended claims in an ex-parte reexamination or a reissue proceeding. One advantage of such alternative venues for presenting claims amendments is that, unlike in an IPR proceeding, a third party cannot argue against amendments presented in an ex-parte reexamination or a reissue proceeding initiated by a patent owner.

Posted in Amendments before the PTAB, America Invents Act, BRI Standard, Broadest Reasonable Interpretation, Claim Construction, Covered Business Methods, Inter Partes Review, Post Grant Review, PTAB Procedure, Trial Tactics, USPTO | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Federal Circuit Slams PTAB Amendment Policy

By Tom Engellenner
On October 4, 2017, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, overruled an earlier panel decision and found that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) had been impermissibly placing the burden of proving the patentability of amended claims on the Patent Owner, rather than the Petitioner.   See, Aqua Products v. Matel, 2015-1177.

In four separate opinions spanning 148 pages, the eleven judges expressed their views on the PTAB amendment practice. Despite differing rationales, it is clear that a majority of the Federal Circuit judges were exasperated by the way the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has been considering claim amendments in the new administrative trial procedures provided by the America Invents Act (AIA).

As Judge O’Malley noted in the plurality opinion, the PTAB had granted only 6 amendments in inter partes review (IPR) proceedings as of February, 2017 – a period of almost five years since the inauguration of IPR proceedings during which over 6500 petitions were filed.

A great deal of the Aqua Products opinion was devoted to the so-called Chevron standard of review.  Under Chevron and Aura v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), a court reviewing a federal agency’s construction of a statute must first determine whether the statute is at all ambiguous.  If the statute is not ambiguous, the agency’s interpretation is entitled to no weight.  On the other hand, if the statute is ambiguous, the agency’s interpretation is reviewed under a “clearly erroneous” standard.  To complicate things further, the Chevron standard of review is only applicable if the agency has reached its interpretation via a formal rule-making process, i.e. by notice in the Federal Register and taking public comments into account.

Judge O’Malley, joined by four other judges, concluded that the pertinent sections of the AIA (35 U.S.C. 316(d) and 316(e)) were not ambiguous and Congress clearly intended to give Patent Owners a right to amend their claims in AIA proceedings and that the burden of proving invalidity of the amended claims lay with the Petitioner. Judges Reyna and Dyk concluded that the statute was ambiguous on this point but the USPTO had not engaged in formal rule-making and, hence, no Chevron deference was warranted and the most reasonable interpretation of the statute was that Congress intended that the Petitioner should have the burden of proving amended claims were not patentable.  The remaining four judges would have given the USPTO Chevron deference and upheld the PTAB policy of placing the burden of persuasion on the patentability of amended claims with the Patent Owner.

For some patent owners (e.g., plaintiffs in patent infringement suits), the Aqua Products decision may not be of strategic importance.  Roughly 85 percent of IPR petitions are filed by defendants who have been sued for patent infringement.  Since amending claims in a post-grant review proceeding can extinguish a plaintiff’s right to past infringement damages in an underlying federal court litigation, many patent owners may still be reluctant to amend their claims.

However for other patent owners, Aqua Products may change the calculus of how a patent owner responds to a challenge to its patent.  One thing for sure, the ability to amend a patent should put to the test the USPTO oft-repeated position that the PTAB’s use of the broadest reasonable interpretation almost never affects the outcome of an AIA proceeding.  Patent owners faced with what they consider to be an unreasonably broad interpretation of a claim element will now have an ability to correct the record – and defend their patents on their own terms.

Posted in Amendments before the PTAB, America Invents Act, BRI Standard, Broadest Reasonable Interpretation, Claim Construction, Court of Appeals Fed Circuit, Covered Business Methods, Federal Circuit, Final PTAB Decision, Inter Partes Review, Post Grant Review, Trial Tactics, USPTO | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mohawks To The Rescue? Can You Immunize Patents From PTAB Review By Assigning To A Native American Tribe?

By Tom Engellenner
In an unusual move to combat the perceived bias in favor of patent challengers at the U.S. Patent Office’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), the Irish drug company Allergan has decided to warehouse its key patents on the dry-eye drug Restasis with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York.  Allergan generates over a billion dollars in revenue annually from sales of Restasis worldwide.  By assigning ownership to the Mohawks, the company believes its patents will be exempt from PTAB review on the grounds of “sovereign immunity.”

Under the deal announced last week, Allergan will pay the tribe $13.75 million.  In exchange, the tribe will claim sovereign immunity should the patents be challenged at the PTAB.  The tribe will also exclusively license the patents back to Allergen and be eligible to receive $15 million in annual royalties for the remaining life of the patents.  According to Mr. Dale White, the general counsel for the 13,000 member tribe, the deal will further the tribe’s goal of being self-reliant.  The New York Times has reported that Mr. White was approached in April by a Dallas law firm that pitch the idea and that the tribe has taken ownership of patent portfolios for other companies as well.

The defense of sovereign immunity has already been accepted by the PTAB in cases where the owner of the patent is a state university. The leading cases are Covidien LP v. University of Florida Research Foundation Inc., IPR 2016-01274; -01275, and -01276 (PTAB January 25, 2017). and Neochord, Inc. v. University of Maryland, IPR2016-00208 (PTAB May 23, 2017). (See our analysis of the Covidien case here.)  In both cases the PTAB dismissed IPR proceedings against the universities based upon their claims of sovereign immunity – in particular, the Eleventh Amendment – that bars the proceedings unless the state-entity that owns the patent consents to jurisdiction.

The Eleventh Amendment provides that the “judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects for any foreign State.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the Eleventh Amendment as a grant of immunity to the States against certain adjudicative proceedings brought against them by private parties.

The broader doctrine of “Sovereign Immunity” is rooted in common law and likewise prohibits actions against foreign states in federal courts and administrative tribunals. Although somewhat murky, the Supreme Court has held, as recently as 2014 in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, 572 U.S. 12-515, that native American tribes retain inherent sovereign authority and tribal immunity as “domestic dependent nations” and that such immunity extends beyond reservation land to commercial cases in the absence of Congressional action to the contrary.

The Times also reported on an interview last week with Brent Saunders, the chief executive of Allergan, during which he explained that the company made the move to avoid the “double jeopardy” of having the same issue heard in two venues (e.g., a federal district court and the U.S. Patent Office). “We did this to really make sure that we can defend these patents in only one forum,” he reportedly said.

Posted in America Invents Act, Covered Business Methods, Inter Partes Review, Post Grant Review, Sovereign Immunity, Trial Tactics, USPTO | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Federal Circuit Criticizes PTAB for Failing to Properly Weigh Objective Evidence of Non-Obviousness

By Tom Engellenner
The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals again vacated a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) panel decision for failing to properly evaluate “objective evidence of non-obviousness” and remanded the case for determinations consistent with its opinion. Specifically, the Fed. Cir. panel faulted the PTAB’s analysis Patent Owner’s objective evidence of unexpected results and further found that Board had applied a “legally erroneous” standard by placing the burden on the patent owner to show that one skilled in the art would have expected “failure.”  (See, Honeywell International v. Mexichem Amanco (Fed. Cir.  No. 2016-1996, August 1, 2017).

The case involved an appeal to the PTAB of one of the last inter partes re-examinations to be rendered before the new America Invents Act (AIA) went into effect and provided new proceedings for challenging patents.  Nonetheless, the standards for evaluation of objective evidence of non-obviousness are equally applicable to inter partes review (IPR) and post grant review (PGR) proceedings.  And this case can be seem as yet another volley in the Federal Circuit’s ongoing criticism of how the PTAB has treated objective evidence of non-obviousness in many of its decisions.

The patents at issues involved a novel combination of an environmentally-friendly HFO hydroflurocarbon: 1,1,1,12-tetrafluorpropene (HFO-1234yf) and a polyalkylene glycol (PAG). The Patent Owner, Honeywell International, had argued that HFO compounds were known to be reactive and unstable and, hence, were considered a disfavored class of refrigerants.  Similarly, PAGs were known to hygroscopic and likewise unstable.  Honeywell submitted evidence showing that one of ordinary skill in the art would have expected the combination to result in peroxide formation and degradation of the refrigerant.  Honeywell further showed that the combination did not degrade and was in fact superior to similar refrigerants combined with PAG.

The Federal Circuit panel appeared particularly vexed by the logic of the PTAB reasoning on the obviousness issue:

[T]he Board erred in dismissing Honeywell’s evidence of unpredictability in the art when it stated that one of ordinary skill would no more have expected failure than success in combining the references. The Board made what amounts to a finding that one of ordinary skill would not have had a reasonable expectation of success in combining HFO-1234yf with PAG lubricants, but then seemed to make a burden-shifting argument that Honeywell did not persuasively establish that one of ordinary skill would have expected failure. . . . . The Board rejected Honeywell’s evidence, concluding that, because there would have been no reasonable expectation of success, one of ordinary skill would have arrived at the claimed combination by mere “routine testing.” . . . Thus, the Board seems to have determined that, because stability in the art was entirely unpredictable, one of ordinary skill would have made no predictions at all, but rather would have expected to undertake efforts to find an optimal combination and thus that “routine testing” would have led the skilled artisan to the claimed combination. Id.

In an inter partes reexamination involving obviousness, the standard is not whether the patent owner can persuasively show that one of ordinary skill would have expected failure. Rather, the burden is on the Examiner to show that one of ordinary skill would have had a motivation to combine the references with a reasonable expectation.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has now criticized the PTAB several times now for not properly evaluating objective evidence of non-obviousness in inter partes review and/or reexamination proceedings.  For example, In PPC Broadband v. Corning Optical (Fed. Cir. 2015-1364) the Federal Circuit found that the PTAB erred in rejecting the Patent Owner’s commercial success evidence.  The Petitioner had failed to argue that the successful product did not embody the claimed invention and the Board erred in reaching that conclusion on its own.

In ClassCo v. Apple, Fed. Cir. 2015-1853 (September 2016), the Fed. Cir. nixed a stringent “nexus” requirement erected by early PTAB decisions. (These early decisions had suggested that it was not enough that a commercial product embodying the invention be successful, the Patent Owner had to prove that the success was due exclusively to the patented feature.)  In a precedential decision in the ClassCo class, the Federal Circuit made it clear that a nexus exists between the claimed invention and the objective evidence whenever the evidence is reasonably commensurate with the scope of the claims.  “[W]e have consistently held that a patent applicant ‘need not sell every conceivable embodiment of the claims in order to rely upon evidence of [objective indicia of nonobviousness].”

Posted in America Invents Act, Anticipation/Obvious, Court of Appeals Fed Circuit, Final PTAB Decision, Inter Partes Review, Post Grant Review, PTAB Procedure, Reexamination, USPTO | Tagged , , , , ,