PTAB Abandons its Practice of Broadly Interpreting Claims of Challenged Patents in favor of Phillips Standard of “Ordinary and Customary Meaning”

By Tom Engellenner
In a final rule published in the Federal Register on October 11, 2018, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) took a remarkable step of acknowledging unfairness in the way its Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) has been conducting trials for the past six years. The rule change will apply to all of the new administrative patent challenge proceedings (inter partes reviews, covered business method patent reviews, and post-grant reviews) established by the 2011 America Invents Act (AIA).  The new claim construction rule will be applied to all AIA petitions filed on or after November 13, 2018.

The comments accompanying the USPTO’s Federal Register notice of rule change state:

[R]ecent studies . . . support the concerns expressed by stakeholders regarding the unfairness of using a different claim construction standard in AIA proceedings than that used by the district courts.

At issue is how claims are interpreted when new prior art references are cited by petitioners seeking to invalidate issued U.S. Patents. If a claim term is broadly interpreted, it is more likely that the prior art will be considered anticipatory or render the claim obvious.  (Novelty and non-obviousness are fundamental requirements for patent validity.)

From the very beginning, when inter partes review (IPR) proceedings under the AIA began in 2012, the USPTO adopted a claim construction rule known as broadest reasonable interpretation, i.e., claim terms are given their broadest reasonable interpretation in view of the specification to one having ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention without importing limitations into the claims from the specification. This so-called BRI standard had long been the standard applied by the USPTO during pre-issuance examination of patent applications.

While BRI standard may be appropriate when patent applications are undergoing examination – where the applicant can amend the claims if the examiner adopt too broad an interpretation – getting the PTAB judges to consider claim amendments in AIA proceedings has proven to be extraordinarily difficult.

The new standard to be applied going forward (for petitions filed on or after November 13, 2018) is the “Phillips standard,” named for the the Federal Circuit’s 2005 ruling in Phillips v. AWH Corp. 415 F.3d 1303, 1313 (Fed. Cir. 2005). Under the Phillips standard, claims are to be given their “ordinary and customary meaning” – not their broadest meaning.  This is the standard applied by all federal district courts and the International Trade Commission when hearing patent cases.  The rule-making comments note  that “the scope of an issued patent should not depend on the happenstance of which court or governmental agency interprets it, at least as far as the objective rules go ” and further notes:

Employing the same standard for AIA proceedings and district courts improves uniformity and predictability as it allows the different fora to use the same standards in interpreting claims.

The new rule further states that any prior claim construction decision in a civil action “will be considered if that determination is timely filed in the record” at the PTAB.

While the PTAB judges are not explicitly required to accept prior claim constructions from federal district courts, the new rule certainly does appear to encourage conformity in interpreting patent claims.

USPTO Proposes Change In Claim Construction Standard For Post-Grant Proceedings

By Reza Mollaaghababa
On May 9, 2018, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued a notice of proposed rule for changing the standard for construing claims in unexpired patents in inter partes review (IPR), post-grant review (PGR), and transitional covered business method (CBM) proceedings from current broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) to the same claim construction standard that is utilized in the federal courts, i.e., the so-called Phillips standard.

Under the Phillips standard, the words of a claim are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning. In contrast, in post-grant review proceedings, the more expansive BRI standard is employed, which expands the scope of prior art that can be applied to invalidate the challenged claims.  The BRI standard  has been in fact outcome determinative in many of the proceedings.

The notice of proposed rule indicates that the U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed the PTO’s ability to choose an approach to claim construction for AIA proceedings. It also indicates that the proposed change in the claim construction standard could lead to greater uniformity and predictability between the claim constructions adopted by the PTAB and the federal courts.  This change will also harmonize the standard used for patentability and infringement, which could otherwise lead to unfair results.  For example, under BRI, it is possible for a patent claim to be invalidated based on a prior art reference although the construction of the same claim in an issued patent under the Phillips standard would not lead to a conclusion of infringement.  Moreover, there have been cases of a patent being found valid and infringed in a district court action but subsequently being found invalid by the PTO under the BRI standard.

The proposed change applies not only to the claims of an unexpired patent but also to claims presented in a motion to amend. “Under the proposed approach, the PTAB would construe patent claims based on the record of the IPR, PGR, or CBM proceeding taking into account the claim language itself, specification, and prosecution history pertaining to the patent.”  Further, consistent with the Phillips standard, extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony and dictionaries, may be useful in determining what a person of ordinary skill would understand the claim terms to mean; however, extrinsic evidence is viewed as less reliable than intrinsic evidence.

Further, consistent with the Phillips standard, “the doctrine of construing claims to preserve their validity would apply to AIA trials.”  The notice, however, cautions that the doctrine of construing claims to preserve their validity has been limited to cases in which “the court concludes, after applying all the available tools of claim construction, that the claim in ambiguous.”  Further, the Federal Circuit “repeatedly and consistently has recognized that the courts may not redraft claims, whether to make them operable or to sustain their validity.”

The PTO intends that any proposed rule changes adopted in a final rule would be applied to all pending IPR, PGR, and CBM proceedings before the PTAB. The Office is presently soliciting comments on the proposed change, where written comments must be received by July 9, 2018 to ensure consideration.

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”