By Dennis Crouch
VirtualAgility Inc., v. Salesforce.com, Dell, Dr. Pepper, et al. (Fed. Cir. 2014)
The America-Invents-Act (AIA) created set of new and powerful administrative proceedings that allow third parties to challenge issued patents. These include post-grant review (PGR), covered business method review (CBM), and inter partes review (IPR). Congress maintained the less-powerful but still important third-party requested ex parte reexamination. In the coming months, the Federal Circuit will be challenged with reviewing various aspects of the new proceedings. Perhaps most importantly, the court will be challenged with determining how much deference and leeway to give the USPTO in developing its own procedures and interpretation of the law.
Apart from the agency deference issue, a second major issue whose steam continues to build involves the rising number of conflicts between federal courts and the patent office. Traditionally, post-issuance challenges have been handled by the courts, but the new procedures have shifted the balance of power. It turns out that most patents involved in post-issuance administrative challenges are also involved in parallel challenges in federal district court. These parallel proceedings will often have somewhat different results, and many remain confused over the potential result of such a conflict. In the extreme, the issue raises constitutional questions of separation of powers between the executive (the PTO) and the courts.
One solution to the conflict is to have the decision-makers take turns and apply principles of estoppel, preclusion, and comity to resolve the delayed process in a way that avoids conflict with the first-decided case. The PTO has generally refused to stay its proceedings and many district court judges have difficulty ordering stays – especially in cases such as this where the review request is filed several months after the infringement lawsuit. It is important to recognize that post-issuance review requests are limited by law to only challenge issues that can also be challenged in court. Thus, for a judge, the post-issuance review request serves as a transparent statement that the defendant does not trust the judge or jury to make the call.
The Timeline Here: In January 2013, VA sued the defendants in the Eastern District of Texas, alleging infringement of its U.S. Patent No. 8,095,413. Five months later (May 2013) one of the defendants (Salesforce.Com) filed a covered business method review (CBM) petition alleging that that the claim of the patent were all invalid under Sections 101, 102, and 103 of the Patent Act. In November 2013, the PTAB partially granted the CBM petition and ordered review of the claims under Sections 101 and 102 (but not 103) and setting a July 2014 PTAB trial date with a final decision expected by November 2014. At that point, the district court was made-aware of the PTAB’s late-start but rapid progress. However, the district court refused to stay the litigation pending outcome of the PTAB case and continued moving forward with claim construction hearing set for April 2014 and trial also set for November 2014.
One aspect of the new CBM process is that the statute allows for interlocutory appeal of a district court’s decision to grant or deny a stay of litigation pending CBM review. Thus, after the district court refused to grant the stay, Salesforce appealed. The Federal Circuit quickly granted a stay of the district court litigation pending appeal and has now ordered that the district court to stay its proceedings pending the CBM review. The majority decision here is written by Judge Moore and joined by Judge Chen. Judge Newman wrote in dissent arguing that the decision here removes the discretion given to district courts.
The statute provides four factors that a district court must consider when determining whether or not to grant a stay of a late-filed CBM review.
[T]he court shall decide whether to enter a stay based on—
(A) whether a stay, or the denial thereof, will simplify the issues in question and streamline the trial;
(B) whether discovery is complete and whether a trial date has been set;
(C) whether a stay, or the denial thereof, would unduly prejudice the nonmoving party or present a clear tactical advantage for the moving party; and
(D) whether a stay, or the denial thereof, will reduce the burden of litigation on the parties and on the court.
AIA §18(b)(1). Regarding appeals, the statute indicates that the Federal Circuit’s “shall review the district court’s decision to ensure consistent application of established precedent, and such review may be de novo.” AIA §18(b)(2). Thus, Judge Newman’s call for deference is likely misplaced. For its part, the majority refused to determine whether any deference is required and instead held that reversal was warranted even under an abuse of discretion standard.
The result here provides a strong suggestion to district courts that they should stay litigation once the PTAB has indicated that it will review the identical claims being litigated in court.