by Dennis Crouch
In this post, I discuss the process that the PTO follows in investigating allegations of attorney or agent misconduct. In addition, I review two recent disciplinary decisions. Both involve the submission of information disclosure statement. In one case, the attorney improperly submitted documents subject to a litigation protective order. In the other case, the attorney improperly submitted prior art documents without properly reading and reviewing the documents.
In the recent proposed rule on the statute of limitations for USPTO disciplinary proceedings, new Office of Enrollment and Discipline director William Covey provided a nice summary of the process that his office uses to investigate allegations of improper conduct by registered patent practitioners.
Generally speaking, there are four steps taken by the OED Director prior to the filing of a Sec. 11.32 disciplinary complaint against a practitioner:
- Preliminary screening of the allegations made against the practitioner, see Sec. 11.22(d);
- requesting of information from the practitioner about his or her alleged conduct, see Sec. 11.22(f)(1)(ii);
- conducting a thorough investigation after providing the practitioner an opportunity to respond to the allegations, see Sec. 11.22(a); and
- submitting the investigated case to the Committee on Discipline for a determination of whether there is probable cause to bring charges against the practitioner, see Sec. 11.32.
The first step is the preliminary screening of allegations to evaluate whether they merit providing the practitioner the opportunity to address them. Allegations are often incomplete and do not provide the OED Director with a full picture of what may have transpired. In other words, mere allegations do not necessarily provide the OED Director with a reasonable basis for automatically seeking information from the practitioner regarding a possible ethical violation; therefore, the OED Director always conducts an initial review of the allegations. Moreover, the OED Director recognizes that issuing a request for information to the practitioner–the second step–typically triggers anxiety for the practitioner, may interfere with the practitioner's practice, and may cause the practitioner to incur legal expenses in responding to investigative inquiries by OED. For this reason also, OED does not contact the practitioner automatically upon receipt of information alleging a practitioner committed an ethical violation. In short, the OED Director seeks the practitioner's side of the story, if at all, only after the OED Director preliminarily screens the information and determines that possible grounds for discipline exist. See 37 CFR 11.22(d).
During the preliminary screening process, an OED staff attorney reviews the allegations to determine whether they implicate any of the Disciplinary Rules of the USPTO Code of Professional Responsibility. To this end, the attorney may seek out additional evidence (review Office records, request additional information from the person making the allegations or from third persons, etc.) to ensure that the matter is disciplinary in nature and the allegations are supported by objective evidence.
The OED's preliminary screening may obviate the need to seek information from the practitioner because the screening often reveals that the allegations do not present a basis for filing a Sec. 11.32 disciplinary action against the practitioner. Under such circumstances, the OED Director closes the case without contacting the practitioner. Hence, the preliminary screening helps ensure that a practitioner is not subjected to a premature request for information or its attendant stress, turmoil, and cost. The screening also ensures that the Office does not expend its limited resources seeking information from a practitioner unnecessarily.
After the preliminary screening, if the OED Director determines that the allegations establish possible grounds for discipline, the OED Director seeks the practitioner's side of the story–the second step prior to filing a Sec. 11.32 action. Specifically, the OED Director requests information or evidence from the practitioner pursuant to Sec. 11.22(f)(1)(ii). The practitioner will then have an opportunity to respond to the allegations levied against him or her. Typically, the OED Director does not and cannot have sufficient information to complete a thorough investigation–the third step–before the practitioner has had the opportunity to present his or her side of the story.
Based on current caseload and staffing levels, the OED Director has set a goal to complete the preliminary screening and issue a Sec. 11.22(f)(1)(ii) request, when warranted, to the practitioner under investigation within 60 calendar days of the initial receipt by the OED Director of information suggesting possible misconduct. OED will allow the practitioner 30 calendar days to provide a complete, written response and, as discussed below, may grant a reasonable request for an extension of time to respond.
A complete response to an initial Sec. 11.22(f) request frequently raises factual issues that require further investigation before the OED Director can determine whether actual grounds for discipline exist. Hence, after the OED Director receives the practitioner's response to the Sec. 11.22(f)(1)(ii) request, the OED Director moves to the third step: conducting a thorough investigation of the allegations to uncover all relevant incriminating and exculpating evidence. The third step is time-consuming because it involves the OED Director undertaking a thorough fact-finding (e.g., reviewing issues raised for the first time by the practitioner, obtaining information from any person who may be reasonably expected to provide information or evidence in connection with the investigation pursuant to Sec. 11.22(f)(iii) and from non-grieving clients pursuant to Sec. 11.22(f)(2)) and performing legal analyses of issues. It is in the interests of the public as well as the practitioner under investigation that OED conduct a thorough investigation prior to determining whether the matter should be submitted to the Committee on Discipline pursuant to Sec. 11.32. Hence, such additional follow-up investigative and legal work can take several months to complete.
After completing an investigation of the allegations against a practitioner, the OED Director has the authority to close the investigation without pursuing disciplinary action, issue a warning to the practitioner, enter into a proposed settlement agreement with the practitioner, or convene the Committee on Discipline to determine whether there is probable cause to file a Sec. 11.32 action against the practitioner. See 37 CFR 11.22(h). Based on current caseload and staffing levels, the OED Director has set a goal to submit a matter to the Committee on Discipline for a probable cause determination–the fourth step–within 10 months of the initial receipt by the OED Director of the allegations that a practitioner engaged in misconduct.
Over the past year, the USPTO OED has issued 38 Disciplinary Orders. Most of the disciplinary problems come from mishandling of client funds, failure to communicate with clients, unauthorized practice of trademark law (for patent agents), and criminal convictions. However, two recent disciplinary orders relate directly to patent practice decisions relating to difficult issues that regularly arise for patent practitioners. Neither case involves any morality judgment, but both resulted in the (stipulated) finding of a violation of the USPTO's code of conduct.
Conflict created by Parallel Litigation and Reexamination: One recent order involves a "public reprimand" of John Janka. Janka was put a tough position because his client's patent was being simultaneously litigated and reexamined (inter partes). Janka prepared and caused-to-be-filed an IDS in the reexamination that contained material subject to a protective order in the litigation. In addition, Janka sent the confidential documents to another patent practitioner (and asked him to file the IDS) without first obtaining guidance from the district court regarding the protective order. The district court later ruled that these actions violated the protective order. As part of a settlement, Janka agreed with the USPTO that these actions show a violation of 37 C.F.R. § 10.77(b) (handling a legal matter without preparation adequate in the circumstances).
This is a tough case because Janka is obviously under conflicting duties—to both obey the district court's protective order and to disclose material information to the USPTO. The best course of action in this situation would have been to ask the court to lift the protective order regarding the material information. If the court refuses, the patent attorney may have to withdraw from the case. (As an aside, the patentee won both the litigation and the reexamination).
Submitting IDS without reading documents: In a related OED settlement, William Bollman agreed to a 24-month probationary period. Bollman – himself a very experienced patent prosecutor – was the attorney who actually filed the IDS for Mr. Janka. Bollman admitted that he did not actually read, review, or inspect the six boxes of documents that he received from Janka and filed at the PTO. The order includes the following statement:
Pursuant to 37 C.F.R. § 11.18(b)(2)(i), a registered practitioner who presents a paper to the Office [implicitly] certifies to the best of his or her knowledge, information, and belief formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances that, inter alia, the paper is not being presented for any improper purpose. A practitioner who submits an information disclosure statement without inspecting the submitted documents -i.e., merely acts as a conduit for another person – is considered to have made a false certification to the Office.
This rule follows former OED director Harry Moatz's 2008 statements regarding the submission of papers without proper inspection by the patent law professional responsible for the filing.
Have you submitted an IDS without reading and reviewing the submitted documents?
The text of of the rule is provided below.
37 C.F.R. § 11.18(b). By presenting to the Office … any paper, the party presenting such paper, whether a practitioner or non-practitioner, is certifying that—
(1) All statements made therein of the party's own knowledge are true, all statements made therein on information and belief are believed to be true, and all statements made therein are made with the knowledge that whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the Office, knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact, or knowingly and willfully makes any false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements or representations, or knowingly and willfully makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry, shall be subject to the penalties set forth under 18 U.S.C. 1001 and any other applicable criminal statute, and violations of the provisions of this section may jeopardize the probative value of the paper; and
(2) To the best of the party's knowledge, information and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,
(i) The paper is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass someone or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of any proceeding before the Office;
(ii) The other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law;
(iii) The allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and
(iv) The denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence, or if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.