PTAB Provides Another Estoppel Datapoint — No Estoppel for Petitioner Using Its Own Documents

In Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceedings, the estoppel provision of 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(1) prevents the petitioner from challenging the validity of a patent in an IPR on any “ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised” in an earlier IPR that resulted in a final written decision.  When deciding estoppel issues under 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(1), the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and courts analyze whether “a skilled searcher conducting a diligent search reasonably could have been expected to discover” the prior art in question.

Recently, in Johns Manville Corp. v. Knauf Insulation, Inc., IPR2016-00130, (P.T.A.B., May 8, 2017) (non-precedential), the PTAB considered an estoppel issue involving the petitioner’s own prior art: two of John Manville’s (JM) marketing brochures.  The patent owner, Knauf, raised the issue of estoppel because JM did not include the marketing brochures as grounds in an earlier IPR, Johns Manville Corp. v. Knauf Insulation, Inc., IPR2015-01453, (P.T.A.B., Jan. 11, 2017) (non-precedential), which resulted in a final written decision and involved the same patent.

This case presents an interesting estoppel question because one might expect the PTAB to place more scrutiny on the petitioner when the prior art at issue is from the petitioner instead of a third party; however, the PTAB Panel in IPR2016-00130 did not change the approach for analyzing IPR estoppel just because the prior art was from JM instead of a third party.

Knauf argued that a reasonable search should have found JM’s marketing brochures before filing IPR2015-01453 because thousands of copies of the marketing brochures had been distributed, and one of JM’s employees, Mr. Mota, had hard copies of the marketing brochures before IPR2015-01453 was filed.  Also, Knauf argued that a skilled searcher should have interviewed Mr. Mota and researched historic versions of the accused products before IPR2015-01453 was filed.

However, JM’s arguments persuaded the PTAB that a skilled and diligent searcher could not have been expected to discover the marketing brochures before JM filed IPR2015-01453.  JM explained the professional searcher it hired to search Internet archives did not find the marketing brochures because the brochures were never posted on-line.   Also, Mr. Mota’s possession of the marketing brochures violated JM’s 7-year document retention policy.  JM also argued that Mr. Mota’s records were disorganized and in hardcopy binders so a skilled searcher could not reasonably have been expected to locate them.

Additionally, JM persuaded the PTAB that a skilled and diligent search would not necessarily include interviewing Mr. Mota before filing IPR2015-01453.  Because Mr. Mota did not work in a division that made the product accused of infringing Knauf’s patent, JM’s counsel argued that it would not have made sense to interview Mr. Mota before filing IPR2015-01453.  JM’s explanation for interviewing Mr. Mota after filing IPR2015-01453 was because Mr. Mota by that time had switched to a division that made the allegedly-infringing product.

In the PTAB’s view, Knauf’s arguments would have extended 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(1) estoppel to all references that JM “reasonably should have known” about, based on imputing the knowledge and document possession of Mr. Mota to the entire JM organization.  The PTAB was unwilling to extend the scope of estoppel that far because the PTAB determined the “reasonably could have discovered” language in 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(1), and legislative history of 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(1), suggested a narrower interpretation of IPR estoppel.   

Even though the Knauf did not get its way on the estoppel issue, Knauf still prevailed on the bigger issue: the PTAB upheld the validity of Knauf’s patent in IPR2016-00130.  This case is useful for showing the approach the PTAB may take when deciding whether IPR estoppel applies to the petitioner’s own documents.