Federal Circuit to Reconsider Achates Decision en banc

The Federal Circuit is set to reconsider one of its more controversial decisions en banc, when it decides whether the Achates Reference Publishing, Inc. v. Apple Inc. decision was correctly decided. Specifically, in Wi-Fi One, LLC v. Broadcom Corp., the Court requested supplemental briefing on the following issue:

“Should this court overrule Achates Reference Publishing, Inc. v. Apple Inc., 803 F.3d 652 (Fed. Cir. 2015) and hold that judicial review is available for a patent owner to challenge the PTO’s determination that the petitioner satisfied the timeliness requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 315(b) governing the filing of petitions for inter partes review?”

There have been several justices who have suggested that the Achates decision should be revisited by the entire bench, especially in view of the Supreme Court’s Cuozzo decision. We’ll have an answer soon on whether the broad discretion that has been afforded the PTAB regarding issues related to a decision to institute will continue, or whether the Federal Circuit will allow itself more leeway to consider foundational IPR issues.

Federal Circuit Broadly Affirms PTAB’s Determinations on Analogous Art, Motivation to Combine References, and Obviousness of Claims

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The level of deference the Federal Circuit gives to the Board’s IPR decisions has been surprising to many practitioners, considering the Court’s reputation for reversing district court decisions.  The trend of deference to the Board continues, as illustrated in Unwired Planet, LLC v. Google Inc., 2015-1810, -1811, Nov. 15, 2016.

Unwired involved one patent, U.S. 7,024,205.  The Board nullified the patent twice over, finding the claims obvious in an IPR, and lacking written description in a CBM proceeding.  Unwired involved a consolidated appeal of both.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s obviousness finding, and thus did not reach the CBM decision.

The ‘205 patent involved a system and method for providing cell phone users with prioritized search results based either on the user’s location, or based on other criteria chosen by the network administrator (the point of the latter is to allow search providers to prioritize results based on whether, for example, a restaurant has paid to be listed).  More particularly, the patent claims a scheme wherein the search results list a further-away provider before listing a different, closer provider (called “farther-over-nearer ordering” in the opinion).

Google presented a variety of prior art including basic references on providing search results in an electronic setting and also a 1997 book by Galitz discussing principles for interface design, including various techniques for ordering text information and menus.  On appeal, Unwired presented 3 arguments:  (1) Galitz was non-analogous art; (2) the prior art does not teach farther-over-nearer ordering; and (3) there was inadequate motivation to combine Galitz with the other art.

The Federal Circuit rejected all three arguments.  As to non-analogous art, the Court first noted that the field of endeavor of a patent is not limited to the point of novelty, the narrowest conception of the field, or the particular focus within a given field.  Because both Galitz and the patent dealt, broadly speaking, with the field of interface design, the Court determined a person of ordinary skill would have looked to Galitz.

Second, as to the prior art’s alleged lack of teaching, the evidence was clear that the prior art sometimes would have returned results with farther-over-nearing ordering, even though that wasn’t necessarily the goal of that prior art.  Nonetheless, that was legally sufficient:  “We reject this argument because combinations of prior art that sometimes meet the claim elements are sufficient to show obviousness.”  Lastly, the Court found sufficient evidence (including in the form of expert testimony) to believe that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have combined the references.  Here too, the Court presented a relatively broad (and challenger-friendly) reading of the law:  “Google also argues that it does not need to show that there was a known problem with the prior art system in order to articulate the required rational underpinning for the proposed combination.  We agree.”  This final point is consistent with KSR, as the opposite position (that the problem need to have been known) would seem perilously close to the TSM test rejected in KSR.

The Federal Circuit’s deference to the Board, and challenger-friendly reading of the law, in IPR appeals continues to encourage parties to pursue their positions through IPR petitions.

In re NuVasive Brings the Administrative Procedure Act to IPRs

45686244_sNuVasive owns US 8,187,334, which claims certain spinal implants. Medtronic filed a petition challenging various claims of the ‘334 patent as obviousness over US 2002/0165550 (Frey) in view of US 5,860,973 (Michelson). Medtronic also filed a second petition challenging other claims over a promotional brochure for the Synthes Vertebral Spacer-PR (SVS-PR) in view of Michelson. Medtronic specifically mentioned Michelson figure 18 in its argument for obviousness over Frey, but not in its argument about obviousness over SVS-PR. The PTAB instituted two separate IPR proceedings on these two petitions. The proceedings were not consolidated, but there was a single oral hearing held for both proceedings.

In its patent owner response, NuVasive argued that its claimed implant was long and narrow, but that the cited art taught long and wide implants, for larger surface area to stabilize. Medtronic responded by noting that Michelson’s figure 18 shows a long and narrow implant. NuVasive attempted to have Medtronic’s response stricken as a new ground of rejection not present in the petition, or alternatively to be allowed to file a surreply. The PTAB denied both requests, and cut NuVasive off when it tried to make arguments on this point during the oral hearing.

Both IPRs ended with a determination that all challenged claims but one were unpatentable. Both final decisions relied on Michelson figure 18 to establish prima facie obviousness.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit (CAFC) affirmed the first IPR (in which figure 18 was cited in the petition). However, the CAFC vacated the second IPR, and remanded for the PTAB to give NuVasive a chance to respond to Medtronic’s argument about figure 18. The CAFC concluded that this result was compelled by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which requires (5 U.S.C. § 706) that a reviewing court “set aside agency action… not in accordance with law [or]… without observance of procedure required by law.” This case constitutes only the second time (after Dell Inc. v. Acceleron LLC, 818 F.3d 1293 (Fed. Cir. 2016)) that an IPR appellant has successfully challenged a PTAB defeat on APA grounds.

There are a few points to pause and notice about this outcome. First, the argument here is not about introducing a new reference into the mix, but rather about whether NuVasive was sufficiently on notice about one figure in Michelson. Second, there is no question that NuVasive actually knew about Michelson figure 18 at the time that it was writing its response to the argument about SVS-PR, because figure 18 was cited in the Frey petition. In other words, the APA failure here lay in not calling out figure 18 in the other of the pair of IPR petitions. It requires a very rigorous application of the APA to find reversible error in this argument about figure 18.

Other appellants have made APA arguments after a PTAB loss, and the NuVasive court was careful to distinguish from the cases in which APA arguments failed. In particular, the NuVasive court distinguished Genzyme Therapeutic Prods. v. Biomarin Pharm., 825 F.3d 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2016) and Belden Inc. v. Berk-Tek LLC, 805 F.3d 1064 (Fed. Cir. 2015). While the PTAB decisions in those cases had cited references or portions of references not specifically mentioned in the petition, the “new” material was merely cited as background, but not relied upon for part of the prima facie rejection.

There are a few take-home lessons to learn from this. First, if you are challenging a patent, be careful about citing to any portion of a reference in the challenger’s reply that was not cited in the petition. Similarly, if you are defending a patent, pay careful attention to what is cited in the challenger’s reply, compared to the original petition, and do not be shy about insisting on a right to make additional replies to anything that is cited for the first time in the reply. Finally—and more broadly—this case shows that the APA can provide a successful basis for an appeal from the PTAB.

Federal Circuit Weighs in on Evidentiary Challenge in IPR, Reversing PTAB

34447773_sMore often than not, evidentiary issues in IPR proceedings fail to make headlines because the Board will structure its Final Written Decision to avoid evidentiary challenges. Findings that a party’s motion to exclude is denied as moot are common. That makes the Federal Circuit’s decision in REG Synthetic Fuels, LLC v. Neste Oil Oyj (November 8, 2016) all the more interesting. In that decision, the Court reversed the Board’s decision to exclude certain evidence submitted by Patent Owner during the trial.

More specifically, Patent Owner sought to swear behind one of the prior art references presented in the Petition. Among the evidence provided for this purpose was test data from third parties, communications between the inventor and third parties, and minutes from a meeting that the inventor had attended. Id. at 5. Petitioner moved to exclude this evidence on the basis of lack of authentication, hearsay, or as improper reply evidence. The Board granted the motion to exclude.

On appeal, the Court first clarified that priority issues, including conception and reduction to practice, are questions of law predicated on subsidiary factual findings. Id. at 6. The Court addressed the Board’s finding that two emails between the inventor and a third party (Exhibit 2061 in the case) provided necessary corroboration of the patented invention. Id. at 16. Petitioner argued that the emails were hearsay because they contain out of court statements by a third party. Patent Owner responded by arguing that it did not offer the emails to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The Court agreed with Patent Owner, finding that the emails were offered for the non-hearsay purpose to show that the inventor thought he had achieved a quality claimed in the patent-at-issue. “The act of writing and sending the email is, by itself, probative evidence on whether [the inventor] recognized–at the time that he had written the email–” the claimed property. Id. at 17. In short, the exhibit was legally significant because it showed that the inventor communicated the conception of the invention to the third party.

Because the Board excluded relevant evidence in the trial, the case was remanded for further consideration.

Federal Circuit Rejects Patentee’s Effort to Narrow Claim Scope

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One wrinkle of IPR practice is that patentees are often in the position of advocating a narrower claim scope than the challenger—just the opposite of what is usually seen in district court litigation.  The narrowing strategy is logical—particularly where there is very close prior art, a patentee may need to seek a narrow construction in the IPR to avoid the prior art, and then worry about infringement later.  However, the Federal Circuit decisions that restrict efforts by district court defendants to limit a claim to the preferred embodiment also functions to limit patentees in IPRs.  The Federal Circuit’s November 9, 2016 decision in Schoeller-Bleckmann Oilfield Equipment AG v. Churchill Drilling Tools US, Inc. is a good example of that dynamic.

Schoeller was an appeal from the PTAB’s decision that the challenged claims were anticipated and obvious.  The technology involved drilling apparatuses, and specifically a mechanism for allowing and restricting the flow of liquid through a drill string to activate and deactivate a downhole tool.  The only issue on appeal was whether the Board properly construed “ball-like portion.”  In the claim, that limitation was a part of a “deformable activator” that restricts fluid flow when engaged with a seat.

The issue presented was whether the Board properly construed the term as “a structure with at least one outer curve” (which would encompass a deformable ball), or whether the term was limited to the “deformable ring” shown in the patent’s figures (as advocated by the patentee).

The Federal Circuit affirmed the Board, finding the patentee’s narrowing effort was contrary to the Court’s repeated teaching that claim terms should not be limited to a preferred embodiment without a clear intent to redefine the term or a clear disavowal of claim scope, citing Thorner v. Sony as an example.  Looking particularly to the patent, the Court determined the specification allowed a ball as a species of the “ball-like portion” based on a specification passage stating “the dart can pull the ball downwardly.”  This case serves as a good reminder that a broad specification can actually hurt a patentee in an IPR.

Federal Circuit Demonstrates Willingness to Rein in PTAB’s Onerous Idle Free Rules Regarding Claim Amendments

cafc1Patentees have been generally frustrated with the Board’s unwillingness to grant motions to amend. The Board’s Idle Free case, and its progeny, have added a number of requirements to a motion to amend that are above and beyond the simple requirements set forth in the IPR implementing statute. While the Federal Circuit has, generally, stated that the Board can, via decisions like Idle Free, define the characteristics of IPR proceedings, some of those requirements are beginning to fall by the wayside. Another requirement was knocked down by the Court today in Veritas Techs. v. Veeam Software (August 30, 2016). No longer must a patentee show that added claim elements in a motion to amend are, individually, inventive over the known prior art.  The Federal Circuit’s rebuke of the Board on this point  gives patentees more hope for future amendments.

The Veritas IPR involved a patent covering systems and methods for restoring computer data.  As a first line of defense, the patentee argued for a narrow claim construction in an effort to avoid the prior art.  That argument was rejected by both the Board and the Federal Circuit, with citation to the broadest reasonable construction claim construction standard.  As a second line defense, the patentee presented a conditional motion to amend which explicitly added the patentee’s claim construction argument to the claims.  The Board also rejected that motion, a ruling the Federal Circuit characterized as “based on its insistence that the patent owner discuss whether each newly added feature was separately known in the prior art.”  Specifically, the Board had faulted the patentee for discussing only “the newly added features in combination with other known features.”  The Federal Circuit held that position to be arbitrary and capricious and thus in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Specifically, the Court found several instances in the record where the patentee (or its expert) explained that prior art systems did not contain the newly added features.  The Court could “not see how the Board could reasonably demand more from Veritas,” particularly in light of the “long line of Supreme Court and Federal Circuit cases (including KSR) which note “that novel and nonobvious inventions often are only a combination of known individual features.”  In light of that precedent, the Court “fail[s] to see how describing a combination is meaningfully different from describing what is new about the proposed claims, even in comparison to the unamended claims.”

As a final note, the Court explained the recent grant of en banc rehearing in In re Aqua Products (concerning the allocation of burdens in IPR amendment practice) did not affect the issue in this case.  The Court thus remanded instead of waiting for the decision in Aqua Products.

“Substantial Evidence” Hurdle is Substantially Difficult to Overcome

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One of the less appreciated hurdles to a successful appeal of a Final Written Decision in an IPR proceeding is the “substantial evidence” standard of review the Federal Circuit applies to the Graham factors that underlie a determination of obviousness.  Although the ultimate determination of obviousness is a legal issue subject to de novo review, the underlying Graham factors are questions of fact, which receive the more deferential, substantial evidence standard of review.  In practice, the ultimate legal conclusion rises and falls with the Graham factors—particularly, whether the prior art teaches the claimed limitations (i.e., “the differences between the prior art and the claim at issue”).

The Federal Circuit’s August 9, 2016 opinion in In re: Warsaw Orthopedics illustrates the deferential nature of the substantial evidence standard.  According to the Federal Circuit, “substantial evidence” is “something less than the weight of the evidence more than a mere scintilla.”  In Warsaw, the claim limitation of interest was: “[i]nserting…a non-bone interbody intraspinal implant…, the length of said implant being sized to occupy substantially the full transverse width of the vertebral bodies of the two adjacent vertebrae, the length of said implant being greater than the depth of the disc space,…[and] the length of said implant being greater than the maximum height of said implant.”

The factual question was whether the prior art disclosed these limitations.  The prior art disclosed implants that were recessed within the vertebrae and which were substantially shorter than the full width of the vertebrae.  The PTAB nevertheless found it would have been obvious to one of ordinary skill that the prior art implant would be sized to conform to the disk space.  The Federal Circuit determined this was supported by substantial evidence, despite the fact that no expert testimony was referenced in the Federal Circuit opinion.  In doing so, the Federal Circuit indicates that an obviousness determination does not actually require each claimed limitation be met by the prior art, stating “To the extent that Warsaw argues the PTAB erred because it did not decide whether [the prior art] discloses dimensions that exactly meet the limitation ‘substantially the full transverse width’ in claims 1 and 17 of the ‘’97 patent, Warsaw misunderstands the governing law, see, e.g., Beckson Marine, Inc. v. NFM, Inc., 292 F.3d 718, 727 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (“[O]bviousness does not require the prior art to reach expressly each limitation exactly.”).

The Federal Circuit did, however, throw a bone to the patentee with respect to the PTAB’s cancellation of claim 17.  There, the Court agreed that the PTAB’s following explanation on one limitation did not sufficiently show its reasoning in reaching its decision:  “Jacobsen appears to disclose anchor wires (i.e., ‘elongated portions’) that are positions over adjacent vertebrae.’) (citing Figure 5).”  The reversal as to claim 17 may be a fleeting victory for the patentee, though, because the Federal Circuit remanded for further findings on the issue.

PTAB Reversed–Common Sense Improperly Used to Supply Missing Limitation in Obviousness Inquiry

10311096 - rejected stamp isolated on white backgroundIn a rare rebuke of the PTAB’s discretion, the Federal Circuit has outright reversed a finding of obviousness based on the Board’s misapplication of the law on the permissible use of “common sense” in an obviousness analysis.  The case, Arendi S.A.R.L. v. Apple Inc., Google Inc., and Motorola Mobility LLC (Aug. 10, 2016) involved a patent for providing coordination between a first computer program displaying a document and a second computer program for searching an external information source.  The invention allows a user to access and conduct a search using the second program while remaining in the first program; for example, a user using a data entry program can search a separate database for data in a certain field.  The limitation at issue was:  “performing a search using at least part of the first information as a search term in order to find the second information, of a specific type or types, associated with the search term in an information source external to the document, wherein the specific type or types of second information is dependent at least in part on the type or types of the first information.

The prior art involved a program that recognizes a phone number as a class of text.  The question on appeal was whether the Board erred in finding it would have been “common sense” to a person of ordinary skill in the art to search for the telephone number that is detected when the prior art’s “Add to address book” option is selected.

The Court found there was insufficient evidence to support such a resort to “common sense” here.  In doing so, the Court offered the reminder that when “common sense” is used to supply a missing limitation (as opposed to the more common use of providing a motivation to combine references), “it must…be supported by evidence and a reasoned explanation.”  Id. at 12. According to the Court, this was particularly so where, as here, the subject limitation was an important structural limitation that is not evidently and indisputably within the common knowledge of those skilled in the art.  In doing so, the Court distinguished precedent where “common sense” is used to supply a “peripheral” limitation in a claim.

In Arendi, the Court ultimately determined the challenger’s arguments were not specific enough to explain why the person of ordinary skill in the art would have found the subject limitation obvious.  As a result, the Court reversed the cancellation of the claims.

Federal Circuit Provides Ammunition to Patentees In Magnum Decision

cafc1Patent Owners gained a bit of a reprieve in the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in In Re Magnum Oil Tool Int’l, Ltd.decided on July 25, 2016. In several key respects, Patent Owners regained some footing in the otherwise daunting IPR process.

As an initial matter, in one of its first post-Cuozzo (Supreme Court edition) decisions, the Federal Circuit determined that, for issues that are central to the Board’s Final Written Decision, the Court is not prohibited by § 314(d) from reviewing those decisions just because they were also addressed in the Decision to Institute. The merits of a final written decision is reviewable, even though the issue was initially decided by the Board at the decision to institute stage. Id. at 12. In the context of the Magnum decision, this meant that the Court had jurisdiction to review all of Patent Owner’s arguments regarding the basis for the Board’s ultimate judgment of unpatentability, including rationale to combine references, even though the Board addressed those arguments in the decision to institute.

The key substantive issue in the case was whether the Board’s decision adequately established a prima facie basis of obviousness. Specifically, Patent Owner argued that no adequate motivation to combine the subject references was articulated. The issue stemmed from the fact that, in the petition, Petitioner put forth a detailed obviousness argument on one set of references (“Ground 1”), but took a more abbreviated approach with a second set of references (“Ground 2”), that “incorporated by reference” the motivation to combine from Ground 1.

In response, the PTO argued that when the Board institutes a ground, it necessarily finds that Petitioner has demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success and that this finding operates to shift the burden of producing evidence of nonobviousness to Patent Owner. But, the Court rejected the PTO’s contention and clarified that the burden of persuasion is always on the Petitioner to prove unpatentability by preponderance and that burden never shifts to the patentee. The court reasoned that, due to the significant difference between the standards of proof at institution (likelihood of success) and at trial (preponderance), it is inappropriate to shift the burden to the patentee after institution to prove that the claims are patentable.

As to the ultimate conclusion of obviousness, the court concluded that, in light of Petitioner’s failure to explain why a skilled artisan would combine the Ground 2 references, the Board had no basis for its conclusion that Petitioner had met its burden of proving obviousness by preponderance under KSR.  The court emphasized that to satisfy its burden of proving obviousness, Petitioner cannot employ mere conclusory statements because such statements cannot satisfy Petitioner’s burden. Nonetheless, the PTO argued that the Board did not err in making an obviousness argument on behalf of Petitioner based on the Ground 2 references because this argument “could have been included in a properly drafted petition.” The court flatly rejected the PTO’s contention that the Board is free to adopt arguments on behalf of Petitioners that could have been but were not raised by the Petitioner during an IPR, noting again that Petitioner bears the burden of proof. The court acknowledged that the PTO has broad authority to establish procedures in IPR’s but clarified that the authority is not so broad to allow the PTO to raise, address, and decide patentability theories never presented by the Petitioner and not supported by record evidence. Instead, the court emphasized that the Board must base its decisions on arguments advanced by a party and to which the opposing party was given a chance to respond. Accordingly, the court held that the Board’s obviousness conclusion was not based on sufficient evidence since the Board relied on Petitioner’s conclusory statements and improperly argued on behalf of Petitioner why the Ground 2 references could be combined.

Lastly, the Court addressed the PTO’s argument that Patent Owner should have challenged the Board’s actions in the rehearing request. The court quickly disposed the PTO’s argument, stating that the plain language of 35 USC § 141(c) does not require a party dissatisfied with the Board’s final written decision to first raise the issue in a rehearing request before appealing the issue to the court.

In sum, Magnum is a ray of hope for Patent Owners that have become accustomed to most aspects of IPR practice being construed against them. The Court’s docket contains many upcoming cases that will allow us to learn whether this is an aberration, or a trend.

PTAB Reversed for Failing to Explain “Why” a Person of Skill Would Modify the Prior Art

Judge's BenchIt is no secret that patent owners have, on average, struggled at the PTAB over the last three and a half years.  Some practitioners say that a reason for this result is that the Board many times takes an aggressive approach in the assessment of “obviousness” under Section 103.  Yesterday, the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Black & Decker, Inc. v. Positec USA, Inc., which may signal a change in that tide.

Positec challenged Black & Decker’s US Patent No. 5,544,417, which is directed to a manner of mounting a motor in the housing of a string trimmer.  In particular, the ‘417 patent discloses the use of a “motor mounting plate” supported by the string trimmer’s housing such that the motor does not contact the interior surface of the housing.  The motor is fixedly secured to the motor mounting plate.

The Board upheld the validity of claims 7 and 10 directed to a vegetation string trimmer, but found that claims 16 and 17, directed to a method of assembling an outdoor power tool, were unpatentable under 35 USC Sec. 103 in view of Mack alone.

The Federal Circuit reversed the Board’s finding of obviousness, finding that it “is not sufficient” under Section 103 to merely find that a person skilled in the art “could have” or “would have known” to do something.  The Board must “explain why one of skill in the art would have adapted or replaced Mack’s motor mounting yoke to ensure that the motor did not move relative to the motor mounting structure.  The Board did not do so.”  (emphasis added).  “Our precedent requires that the Board explain a rationale why a person of ordinary skill would have modified Mack’s motor.”  Citing, Ball Aerosol & Specialty Container, Inc. v. Limited Brands, Inc. 555 F.3d 984, 993 (Fed. Cir. 2009).  The Federal Circuit further noted that Positec offered mere attorney argument, not evidence, to explain why a person of ordinary skill would have “fixedly secure[d]” the motor.

Perhaps this case will result in more rigorous analyses of the rationale for proposed combinations and/or modifications to prior art in the context of Section 103 assessments.  In any event, this case is a positive for patent owners.

*By way of disclaimer, Harness Dickey represented Black & Decker in the IPR and the Federal Circuit appeal