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 Fails at the PTAB

By Tom Engellenner
The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) has not taken kindly to a move by the Irish drug company Allergan to shield its key patents on its dry-eye drug Restasis from challenge at 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.”  In a decision rendered last Friday (February 23, 2017), the PTAB panel handling these cases rejected the Tribe’s claim to immunity and denied the new patent owner’s motion to terminate.

However, the PTAB panel decision denying the motion to terminate in these IPR cases (Mylan Pharmaceuticals, et al. v. Allergan, Inc., PR2016-01127, etc.) is surprising because the panel declined to take the easy way out, that being to follow the reasoning of a recent PTAB ruling in another sovereign immunity case, Ericsson Inc. v. Regents of the University of Minnesota, IPR2017-01186.

The enlarged PTAB panel in the Ericsson case (which included the PTAB’s Chief Judge and three other additional panel members selected by the Chief Judge) found that sovereign immunity was waived when a Patent Owner chose to enforce its patent rights in a federal district court action.  The easiest resolution would have been to extend the Ericsson reasoning to find a waiver of immunity equally applies to sovereign assignees of patents already in litigation.

Instead, the panel in the Mylan cases chose a frontal assault on tribal immunity.  The Mylan panel held that the AIA was an act of Congress of general applicability and “general acts of Congress apply to Indians . . . in the absence of clear expression to the contrary.”  The panel also appears to have adopted the position that IPR trials are in rem proceedings, not exercises of personal jurisdiction over private entities holding private property rights – a theory that has not been embraced in any of the previous IPR decisions involving sovereign immunity claims asserted by state university patent owners.

The Mylan panel also found that, even assuming arguendo that the Mohawk Tribe was entitled to assert immunity, the proceedings can continue without the tribe’s participation because the Mohawks had granted essentially all rights under the patent back to the original owner, Allergan.  The Mylan panel stopped short of concluding that the transaction was a sham transaction, but essentially found that none of the rights retained by the Tribe following its exclusive license back to Allergan amounted to anything substantial and that the Tribe was not an indispensable party because “Allergan has at least an identical interest to the Tribe.”

Estoppel Does Not Attach When Petitioner’s Grounds Are Denied As Redundant

By Reza Mollaaghababa
Under 35 U.S.C. 315(e)(1), a petitioner in an inter partes review of a claim in a patent that has resulted in a final written decision by the Board may not request or maintain a proceeding before the Patent Office with respect to that claim on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review. Nor can such a petitioner raise that ground against that claim in a civil action or in a proceeding before the International Trade Commission. 35 U.S.C. 315(e)(2). In Shaw Industries Group, Inc. v. Automated Creel Systems, Inc., the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) recently held that the estoppel provisions of 315(e) do not apply to any ground in an IPR petition that the Board deems as redundant to other ground(s) and thus for which no trial is instituted.

In February 2012, ACS sued Shaw for the infringement of its U.S. Patent No. 7,806,360. Within one year of the service of the complaint, Shaw filed an IPR petition challenging claims 1-20 of the ‘360 patent in which it raised multiple grounds of invalidity. The Board instituted a trial on all challenged claims except for claim 4. With respect to the claims on which a trial was instituted, the Board found certain grounds as redundant relative to others and hence refused to consider those grounds. Subsequently, Shaw filed another IPR petition to challenge claim 4 of the patent based on six new obviousness grounds. The Board instituted a trial based on two of the six grounds and denied the other grounds as redundant. The Board consolidated the two IPRs and issued one final written decision.

In appealing the Board’s decision, Shaw requested that CAFC review the Board’s decision to deny certain grounds as redundant and argued that CAFC had jurisdiction to do so. In particular, Shaw argued that Section 314(d), which indicates that the Board lacks jurisdiction to review the Board’s institution or denial decisions, is not applicable because Shaw was not seeking review of the Board’s institution decision. Rather, it was asking the court “to review the Board’s authority, and correctness in exercising the same, in deeming a subset of asserted grounds redundant of instituted grounds.”

The CAFC disagreed and emphasized that the PTO had the right to exercise its authority in instituting IPR on only some of the grounds. The court explained that there is benefit in the “PTO having the ability to institute IPR on only some of the claims and only some of the proposed grounds, particularly given the Board’s statutory obligation to complete proceedings in a timely and efficient manner.”

The CAFC next addressed Shaw’s request that it issue a writ of mandamus instructing the PTO to reevaluate its redundancy decision and to institute IPR on the redundant grounds. In support of its request for the writ of mandamus, Shaw argued that it may be estopped from raising the redundant grounds in future proceedings.

The CAFC was not persuaded and held that Shaw was not estopped from raising the redundant grounds either in the USPTO or in the courts. The CAFC explained that an “IPR does not begin until it is instituted.” As such, the arguments regarding the redundant claims were not raised during the IPR proceeding and hence are not subject to the estoppel provisions of Section 315 (e).