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.

Federal Circuit Requires Standing To Appeal An IPR Decision

By Reza Mollaaghababa
In the case of Phygenix, Inc. v. ImmunoGen, Inc., the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) held that the petitioner (Phygenix) that had unsuccessfully challenged certain claims of ImmunoGen’s U.S. Patent No. 8,337,856 (“the ‘856 patent”) in an inter partes review (IPR) lacked standing to appeal a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) decision that affirmed the validity of the challenged claims because Phigenix had “not offered sufficient proof establishing that it has suffered an injury in fact…”  Although the Federal Circuit has required appellants to demonstrate standing in other proceedings, the Phygenix case is the first time this doctrine has been applied to bar an appeal of a final written decision in an IPR proceeding.

ImmunoGen owns the ‘856 patent, which is directed to an antibody-maytansinoid conjugate that is purportedly useful in combating a variety of cancers. Genentech has a worldwide exclusive license to the ‘856 patent for producing the drug Kadcyla®. Phigenix in turn owns U.S. Patent No. 8,080,534 (“the ‘534 patent”). Phigenix alleged that the ‘534 patent covers Genentech’s activities relating to Kadcyla and hence the subject matter claimed in the ‘856 patent.

The America Invents Act (AIA) provides that “a person who is not the owner of a patent may file with the Office a petition to institute an inter partes review of the patent.” 35 U.S.C. 311(a). The AIA does not impose a standing requirement for a challenger to request the institution of an inter partes review (IPR) of a patent.  However, the patent appellate court recently held that an IPR petitioner must have standing in order seek the appellate review of a PTAB’s final decision.

Phigenix sought inter partes review of the claims of the ‘856 patent based on an obviousness challenge.  The PTAB initiated a trial but ultimately found the challenged claims to be nonobvious.  Following the final written decision, Phigenix appealed the PTAB’s decision to the CAFC.  In response, ImmunoGen filed a motion to dismiss arguing that Phigenix lacked standing to appeal the PTAB’s decision.  A single judge of the CAFC denied ImmunoGen’s motion but requested that the parties file briefs addressing the standing issue. 

Phigenix provided declarations in support of its standing to appeal the PTAB’s decision and argued that ImmunoGen’s ‘856 patent increases competition between itself and ImmunoGen and increased competition represents a cognizable injury.  In particular, Phigenix argued that “[t]he existence of ImmunoGen’s ‘856 patent has … encumber[ed] Phigenix’s licensing efforts while ImmunoGen receives millions of dollars in licensing revenue.” Phigenix did not, however, contend that it faced the risk of infringing the ‘856 patent, or that it was an actual or prospective licensee of the ‘856 patent, or that it planned to take any action that would implicate the ‘856 patent.

The CAFC emphasized that a party’s standing to sue is a doctrine that is rooted in the case or controversy requirement of Article III of the U.S. constitution. In particular, in order to have standing, an appellant “must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the [appellee], (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.”  Further, the CAFC stressed that although Article III standing is not necessarily a requirement to appear before an administrative agency, “an appellant must nonetheless supply the requisite proof of an injury in fact when it seeks review of an agency’s final action in a federal court.”  Continue reading “Federal Circuit Requires Standing To Appeal An IPR Decision”

Despite PTAB “Sweet Talk” Federal Circuit Reverses Invalidity Of Deicing Patent

By Tom Engellenner
The Federal Circuit reversed a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) invalidity decision last week that had found a patent for a molasses-based, road deicing agent obvious over earlier patents on sugar-related inventions.  The Federal Circuit panel of Judges Pauline Newman, Raymond C. Clevenger and Kathleen M. O’Malley concluded that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) finding of invalidity during reexamination proceedings was faulty because the USPTO had failed to set forth a prima facie case explaining why a person of ordinary skill in the art would have been motivated to combine references from disparate technological fields.  In Re Natural Alternatives, LLC (Fed. Cir. No. 2015-1911, August 31, 2016).

Univar, Inc., a licensee of U.S. Patent No. 6,080,330 owned by Natural Alternatives, LLC., filed three reexamination requests in 2011, seeking review of the licensed patent. The reexamination proceedings were consolidated, and the examiner found the claims drawn to a deicing composition comprising 25-99% desugared sugar beet molasses obvious in light of an earlier Polish patent combined with certain secondary prior art references.  Natural Alternatives appealed the reexamination decision to the PTAB but the board affirmed the examiner’s position, and the patent owner then appealed to the Court of  Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

In a decision handed down on August 31, 2016, the Federal Circuit disagreed with the PTAB’s reasoning.  First, the panel found the PTAB’s reliance on a 1990 Polish Patent No. PL 164018 to Zdzislaw (“Zdzislaw”) was misplaced because it did not teach the use of “desugared” molasses.  The process described in the Polish patent retained approximately 50% of the sugar in the molasses, while the patent at issue described processes for removal of most of the sugar.  Second, the Federal Circuit panel found one of the secondary references to be so far afield of the invention that a skilled artisan would not have motivated to combine it with Zdzislaw.  Finally, the panel found the examiner and the PTAB had improperly ignored the patent owner’s evidence of commercial success.

In particular, the decision criticized the PTAB’s reliance on U.S. Patent No. 5,639,319 to Daly (“Daly”); alone or together with a journal article titled “Winter is Hell,” published July 1997 in Public Works (“Public Works”).  The Daly patent was directed to the use of desugared sugar beet molasses (DSBM) as tire ballast, which served the unrelated purpose of stabilizing and balancing tires.  The Federal Circuit panel agreed with the patent owner that a person having ordinary skill in the art would not have found Daly to be reasonably pertinent to the problem of deicing road surfaces. Continue reading “Despite PTAB “Sweet Talk” Federal Circuit Reverses Invalidity Of Deicing Patent”