By Tom Engellenner
Earlier this month, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) added two decisions to its list of “precedential” opinions for the USPTO’s new proceedings for challenging patents under the America Invents Act. The list (which now consists of three decisions out of the over 1000 opinions that have been rendered) is intended to bring to public’s attention cases that the PTAB has concluded settle aspects of the evolving law governing inter partes review (IPR), covered business method (CBM) review, supplemental examination and post grant review (PRG) proceedings.
With over 200 administrative patent judges and over 2000 pending proceedings being handled by a myriad of different panels of judges, precedential decisions are intended to resolve conflicts. However, the process for designating an opinion as “precedential” is quite cumbersome. The process starts by nomination of an opinion by a PTAB judge (or a member of the public within 60 days of the rendering of the opinion). The Chief Judge of the PTAB then circulates the opinion to all members of the PTAB with an invitation to comment (typically within 10 days) and then vote on whether the opinion should be designated as precedential. If a majority of the PTAB judges agrees, the Chief Judge notifies the Director of the Patent Office, who can concur or reject the recommended designation. If the Director concurs, then the opinion labeled as precedential and publishes as such on the USPTO website (http://www.uspto.gov/patents-application-process/appealing-patent-decisions/decisions-and-opinions/precedential).
In the first new precedential opinion, LG Electronics, Inc. v. Mondis Tech Ltd., IPR2015-00937, Paper 8 (PTAB Sept. 17, 2015), the PTAB found LG’s petition for inter partes review was barred by 35 U.S.C. § 315(b), even though LG had filed its petition within one year of being served with an infringement complaint in 2014. The opinion concluded that the one-year bar of section 315(b) applies because petitioner had also been served with an earlier infringement complaint in 2008 on the same patent. There’s a certain irony in this decision because IPR proceedings did not come into existence until 2012 – so LG could never have petitioned for IPR the first time around. The effect of this decision apparently is that anyone sued more than a year before the AIA proceedings became available is effectively barred from petitioning for inter partes (or CBM) review.
The LG opinion notes but does not necessarily endorse an earlier PTAB decision (Oracle Corp. v. Click-to-Call Techs., LP, Case IPR2013-00312, Paper 40 (PTAB Dec. 18, 2013) ) in which a panel held that the 315(b) bar is not triggered by an earlier complaint – more than one-year before the petition – if the action is dismissed without prejudice. The panel in the LG case distinguished the Oracle decision because in the present case the dismissal of Mondis’s 2008 complaint was dismissed partial with prejudice and partially without prejudice.
In the second decision designated as precedential on January 12, 2016, Westlake Services, LLC v. Credit Acceptance Corp., (CBM2014-00176, Paper 28 (PTAB May 14, 2015) the Board interpreted the estoppel provision of 35 U.S.C. § 325(e)(1), ruling that the estoppel that prevents a petitioner from bringing a second CBM or PGR proceeding following “a final written decision” in the statute refers only to a decision on the specific claims on which the proceeding was instituted. Westlake was thus not estopped from bringing a second petition and challenging different claims.
The third (and only other) precedential opinion was designated as such in 2014. The opinion in SecureBuy LLC v. CardinalCommerce Corporation, CBM 2014-00035, Paper 12 (April 25, 2014) involved another estoppel provision, 35 U.S.C. § 325(a)(1), which bars a party that has already brought a declaratory judgment action in a federal district court from litigating the same issues in a post grant review proceeding. The fact that SecureBuy had already brought a DJ action was not in dispute. The opinion turned on whether this estoppel provision applied to CBM reviews. The opinion concluded that it does indeed even if the estoppel in questions didn’t explicitly refer to CBM reviews. The SecureBuy opinion held that CBM proceedings “shall employ all the statutory standards and procedures of a post-grant review [PGR] (i.e., 35 U.S.C. §§ 321–29) except for those expressly excluded (i.e., 35 U.S.C. §§ 321(c); 325(b), (e)(2), (f)).” Therefore, CBMs were deemed to be subject to the same statutory bars as PGRs.