Supreme Court to Hear Another IPR Case — SAS Institute v. Lee

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in another inter partes review dispute, this time in SAS Institute v. Lee.  The Court will decide whether the PTAB may properly institute partial review (i.e., institute review on less than all claims in a challenged patent).  The PTAB’s rules—particularly 37 C.F.R. § 42.108(a)—allow the Board to “authorize the review to proceed on all or some of the challenged claims and on all or some of the grounds of unpatentability asserted for each claim.”  However, the statute—particularly 35 U.S.C. § 318(a)—requires that, if review is instituted, then the “Board shall issue a final written decision with respect to the patentability of any patent claim challenged by the petitioner….”  The question for the Supreme Court is whether the Board’s partial review option is allowed by this statutory provision.

The Court’s decision will impact the application of IPR estoppel, because estoppel only attaches after review is instituted, and—under the current law—does not apply to claims for which review is not instituted.  If the PTAB is required to issue a final written decision for all claims after review is instituted, then estoppel would affect more claims than under the current state of the law.

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Cuozzo Case

8345487_sWe should soon find out whether the Federal Circuit will again face reversal at the hands of the Supreme Court in a patent case. Today, the Court heard oral arguments in the case of In re Cuozzo, the first IPR decision to reach the highest court. The transcript of the proceeding can be found HERE. Reading the reaction of judges in oral argument can be a very dangerous game, but a few key observations can be noted:

First, while there were two issues on appeal, the issue of whether the Broadest Reasonable Interpretation claim construction standard is appropriate in IPR proceedings garnered almost all of the attention of the Court. Only Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor briefly touched upon the second issue of whether the Board’s decision to institute can be reviewed by an appellate court.

Second, Chief Justice Roberts seemed troubled by the use of BRI in PTO proceedings. More specifically, Chief Justice Roberts was particularly concerned that the PTAB and a district court could come to different conclusions regarding the meaning of a claim limitation. Among his questions that indicated his seeming posture against BRI include: “It’s a very extraordinary animal in legal culture to have two different proceedings addressing the same question that lead to different results” and “It just seems to me that that’s a bizarre way to…decide a legal question.” Also, after the Solicitor explained how a district court and the PTAB may come to different conclusions, the Chief Justice asked: “And this is under a statute designed to make the patent system more reasonable and more expeditious in reaching judgments?” If an opinion comes out against BRI, we would expect the Chief Justice to author it.

Third, Justices Kennedy and Breyer seemed more favorable to BRI, framing the issue as the PTO taking a second look at questionable patents that should not have issued in the first place. As such, BRI might be appropriate for this second look in IPR. For example, Justice Kennedy asked “Well, if the patent is invalid under its broadest, reasonable interpretation, doesn’t that mean the PTO should never have issued the patent in the first place, and doesn’t that give very significant meaning and structure to this process?” Relatedly, Justice Breyer commented that “what we’re trying to do with this process is to tell the Office, you’ve been doing too much too fast. Go back and let people who are hurt by this come in and get rid of those patents that shouldn’t have issued.” These questions were less clear on their intent than Chief Justice Roberts’ questions, but indicated an understanding of why BRI had been adopted.

Fourth, regarding the issue of judicial review of PTAB decisions to institute, Justice Ginsburg indicated agreement with the Federal Circuit’s reading of 35 USC 314(d), while Justice Sotomayor seemed skeptical. Justice Ginsburg asked about the purpose of that statute if not to prevent all review of the Board’s decisions. Petitioner argued that it was to preclude mandamus and prevent review of the denial to such a hearing. At the end of the hearing, Justice Sotomayor returned to this issue, and asked why Congress would tell the PTO not to institute trial except in limited circumstances “but nobody’s going to ever watch you to make sure that’s what you’re doing.” This latter exchange was more involved and left the listener with the distinct impression that Justice Sotomayor was troubled by the lack of judicial oversight of the PTO’s decisions to institute.

Lastly, seven of the eight sitting justices asked at least one question. As is typical in such arguments, Justice Thomas did not question counsel for either Petitioner or the Solicitor.

 

Supreme Court to Review Two Key IPR Issues

8345487_sThe Supreme Court granted certiorari today on Cuozzo Speed Technology’s petition to review In re Cuozzo Speed Tech., 793 F.3d 1268 (Fed. Cir. 2015). Cuozzo presented two questions, and the Court has accepted both of them:

(1)   Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that, in IPR proceedings, the board may construe claims in an issued patent according to their broadest reasonable interpretation rather than their plain and ordinary meaning.

(2)   Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that, even if the board exceeds its statutory authority in instituting an IPR proceeding, the board’s decision whether to institute an IPR proceeding is judicially unreviewable.

If the Supreme Court reverses the Federal Circuit’s decision on either of those two grounds, the impacts on future IPR proceedings could be huge. Although there are certainly patent claims that are invalid regardless of whether the “broadest reasonable interpretation” (“BRI”) or the plain and ordinary meaning (the so-called “Philips” construction) is used, there are also claims where the choice of standard is itself outcome determinative. There are, therefore, numerous patentees who should prefer Philips, and potential challengers who should prefer BRI.

Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is the possibility of a reversal on the second question presented: whether the decision to institute is so completely unreviewable as the Federal Circuit has held in (e.g.)Cuozzo or more recently Achates Pub’g. v. Apple Inc., 803 F.3d 652 (Fed. Cir. 2015). Although the AIA lists a variety of situations in which IPR, PGR, and CBM are not available (35 U.S.C. §§ 315 and 325), the Federal Circuit has effectively insulated the PTAB’s decision to institute a trial from review. As such, even if the PTAB explicitly violates these statutory prohibitions, there is no mechanism by which the procedural defect can be remedied. A decision by the Supreme Court that 35 U.S.C. § 314(d) does not shield IPR institution decisions from review would dramatically shift the relative power balance between challengers and patentees in these AIA trial procedures. This blog will continue to follow this story as it develops.