SAS Institute Decision Causes Turmoil At The PTAB

By Tom Engellenner
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week in SAS Institute v. Iancu has upended a major provision of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) regulations for inter partes and post grant review proceedings conducted by its Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).  By concluding in a 5-4 decision that the agency lacks the authority to render partial judgments on petitions that challenge issued patents, the PTO may be forced to overhaul its rules and regulations for implementing a key component of the 2011 patent reforms. (See, SAS Institute v. Iancu No. 16-969, Sup. Ct. April 24, 2018.)

The PTO’s initial reaction has been to issue a Memorandum on April 26, 2018, acknowledging that, going forward, “the PTAB will institute as to all claims or none.” For trials in progress, the memorandum suggests that the PTAB panels may issue supplemental orders and will expect the parties to “work cooperatively amongst themselves to resolve disputes and propose reasonable modifications to trial schedules.”  The memo further commits the PTAB to address all challenged claims in its final written decisions.

The 2011 America Invents Act (AIA) created several new administrative procedures to challenge or revise U.S. patents after they have been issued. The most commonly used procedure, Inter Partes Review (IPR) can be brought against any patent issued for more than nine months.  The AIA requires the USPTO to conduct IPR proceedings with “dispatch” and, absent extraordinary reasons, a final decision must be rendered within one year of the institution of an IPR.  Nearly two thousand IPR decisions have been rendered on patents so far – with nearly a thousand more trials in progress and roughly a thousand more petitions awaiting an initial decision on whether a trial should be instituted.

The SAS Institute case involved an IPR proceeding brought by SAS against a patent issued to one of its competitors, ComplementSoft.  SAS sought review of all 16 claims of the patent.  Applying the PTO’s existing rules for IPR proceedings, the agency’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board reviewed the petition and concluded that SAS had met the threshold requirement of presenting arguments reasonably likely to succeed as to claims 1 and 3–10 and instituted a trial as to only these claims and declined to review the rest. SAS was ultimately successful in invalidating almost all of the subset of claims on which the trial was conducted but SAS maintained throughout the proceedings that the PTAB had a responsibility to rule on all of the challenged claims, not just the ones that were the subject of the trial.

SAS appealed to the Federal Circuit but the appeals court rejected that SAS’s challenge to the PTAB procedures, setting the stage for Supreme Court Review. In the 5-4 decision handed down this week, the majority opinion written by Justice Gorsuch criticized the PTO for taking liberties when implementing the AIA authorized patent reviews, writing that “whatever its virtues or vices, Congress’ prescribed policy here is clear.”

We find that the plain text of §318(a) supplies a ready answer. It directs that “[i]f an inter partes review is instituted and not dismissed under this chapter, the [Board] shall issue a final written decision with respect to the patentability of any patent claim challenged by the petitioner . . . .” §318(a) (emphasis added). This directive is both mandatory and comprehensive. The word “shall” generally imposes a nondiscretionary duty.

For the Gorsuch majority, the requirement that the final written decision address “any patent claim challenged by the petitioner” clearly meant the decision must address every claim challenged by the petition whether or not it was initially excluded from the trial.

As often the case, the Court split on partisan lines with the four judges appointed by Democratic Presidents dissenting. Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, characterized the majority opinion as a “wooden reading” of the statute. In a second dissenting opinion by Justice Breyer (and also joined by the other dissenters), he concluded that the PTAB’s practice of initiating partial trials was a reasonable exercise of rulemaking authority.

Nonetheless, the majority opinion is now the law of the land and the PTAB has acknowledged that it will abide by it. How the PTAB judges do so, however, remains to be seen. The one-page guidance issued this week offers little in the way of specifics, apart from noting that new trials will be instituted on all claims whether or not the petitioner has met the burden of demonstrating a reasonable likelihood of success as to some of the challenged claims. (One such trial initiation decision was issued yesterday in IPR2018-00082, where a PTAB panel initiated a trial on all claims even though it was not convinced that petitioner, Western Digital, was likely to succeed in its challenge to most of the claims in a patent owned by Spex Technologies.)

If institution as to all challenged claims is inevitable whenever a trial is granted, it is not clear whether the PTAB trial institution decisions will continue to be as comprehensive as is currently the practice with explanations of why some claim challenges fail to pass muster. Moreover, it is also not clear whether there will be more petitions denied in the PTAB’s discretion. As the dissenters in the SAS noted, the Court has previously held that the PTO has essentially unfettered discretion in accepting IPR and PGR petitions and could find some of the claim challenges to be unsupportable and simply reject the entire petition. This could force petitioners to refile (assuming they are not time-barred) with challenges to fewer claims.

With regard to PTAB trials currently underway, it is also not clear whether the Petitioner will have leeway to introduce new evidence or arguments as to the claims that were originally excluded from the proceeding because the PTAB found the petitioner failed to meet the threshold requirement of demonstrating a reasonable likelihood of success. One thing that does appear to be certain, however, is that the petitioner will get a chance to appeal to the Federal Circuit on all claims, not just those that had originally been designated for review at the time the trial commenced.

Finally, the new regime may change the likelihood of federal district court judges granting stays in underlying patent infringement suits. At present, some judges in infringement actions are unwilling to grant a stay pending the outcome of an IPR proceeding if any of the claims asserted in the infringement suit are culled by the PTAB from its review. Since partial review by the PTAB is no longer an option, district courts may be more willing to stay their proceedings until all the dust settles at the PTAB.

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

PTAB Can Rely on New Evidence Introduced by Petitioner in its Reply

By Tom Engellenner
In a decision last month, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit gave petitioners in AIA proceedings yet another weapon to invalidate patents – by affirming a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) decision that relied, at least in part, on new evidence introduced by the petitioner in its reply brief. (Genzyme Therapeutic Products LP v. BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc., Fed. Cir. No. 15-1720).

Writing for a three-judge Fed. Cir. panel, Judge William C. Bryson said it should be expected that petitioners will introduce new evidence during the course of an Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceeding. Judge Bryson dismissed the notion that the record of an IPR is essentially closed following the PTAB’s institution decision.

“There is no requirement either in the board’s regulations, in the [Administrative Procedures Act] or as a matter of due process for the institution decision to anticipate and set forth every legal or factual issue that might arise in the course of the trial,” according to Judge Bryson.

Genzyme had argued that it was impermissible for the PTAB to relied on different evidence than the evidence relied upon in the institution decision.

“Genzyme’s argument that the institution decision must refer to every bit of evidence that is relied on by the board in its final written decision reflects a misunderstanding of the role of the institution decision in inter partes review proceedings before the board,” said the judge.

The opinion draws a distinction between new grounds for invalidity and new evidence that supports the grounds on which the trial was initiated.   According to Judge Bryson, if the PTAB decision is based on the same grounds, due process is satisfied as long as the opposing party is notified and given a chance to respond. Continue reading “PTAB Can Rely on New Evidence Introduced by Petitioner in its Reply”