by Dennis Crouch
In the non-precedential Cutsforth v. MotivePower decision, the Federal Circuit has vacated a PTAB inter partes review (IPR) final decision — holding that “the Board did not adequately describe its reasoning for finding the claims obvious.”
The patent at issue is directed to a brush-assembly used to maintain an electric current with a rotating mechanism. US Patent No. 7,990,018.
The Federal Circuit requires that the PTAB “articulate articulate its reasoning for making its decision.” See In re Sang-Su Lee, 277 F.3d 1338 (Fed. Cir. 2002). Along these lines, the board must explain the factual bases for its findings and must go well beyond “conclusory statements.” Most PTAB decisions are related to the question of obviousness and the Federal Circuit particularly requires the Board to “explain why a person of ordinary skill in the art would modify the prior art references to create the claimed invention.” See In re Kotzab, 217 F.3d 1365, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2000) and In re Rouffet, 149 F.3d 1350 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
Here, the Board apparently recited the challenger’s (MotivePower’s) arguments and the ultimate conclusion of obviousness, but did not “formally” adopt the arguments as its own conclusions. See MotivePower, Inc. v. Cutsforth, Inc., IPR2013-00274. On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected this approach. Some key quotes:
The Board’s decision appears to assume this combination is obvious. It offers no explanation for why a person of ordinary skill in the art would adjust Bissett and Kartman to create the claimed mounting block of the ’018 patent. The Board only states that MotivePower argued it was obvious to do so. Merely reciting MotivePower’s argument does not satisfy the Board’s responsibility to explain its own reasoning. The decision must explain why a person of ordinary skill in the art would find it obvious. The Board gives no such explanation. . . .
For claim 5, which requires that the mounting block include a spring, the Board explains that the placement of the spring on the mounting block is simply a design choice. . . . This statement alone is not enough to explain why the Board found claim 5 obvious. Merely stating that a particular placement of an element is a design choice does not make it obvious. The Board must offer a reason for why a person of ordinary skill in the art would have made the specific design choice to locate the spring on the mounting block. Here, it does not.
On remand, I expect that the Board will simply rewrite its 33-page decision – better explaining its holdings – but we shall see. [PTAB Final Decision: final decision-31].
To be clear, although the PTAB is held to this high standard, patent examiners are not. Rather, examiners are only required to provide notice of their rejection/objection rather than a full-bodied explanation. Update: I just looked at the comment section and note that a number of folks raise the important point that my off-the-cuff statement an examiner’s notice burden is limited to the introductory rejection and establishing a prima facie case as the Federal Circuit explained in Packard. Once a prima facie case is established, the patent applicant has the opportunity to rebut that case. And, once rebutted, the examiner’s burden is then raised actually prove the case if possible.