Therasense: Encouraging Intentional Deception?

Patent2011053Powell v. Home Depot (Fed. Cir. 2011).

Michael Powell’s invention is fairly simple –  it covers a guard for a circular saw on an arm.  In 2004, Mr. Powell developed the guard and provided several prototypes to Home Depot for the company to use in its in-store saws for cutting raw lumber to customer specifications.  Rather than having Powell manufacture the guards, Home Depot turned to another company for its 2,000 stores.  Powell obtained a patent then sued Home Depot.  After a three-week trial, a Florida jury awarded Powell $15 million in damages.  The district court also awarded enhanced damages, attorney fees, and pre-judgment interest — bringing the total to $24 million.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed claim construction, infringement, willfulness, inequitable conduct, and damages. Dissenting-in-part, Judge Dyk argued only that the finding of willful infringement was incorrect because Powell did not prove that Home Depot’s non-infringement defense was objectively unreasonable as is required under the objective prong of the willfulness inquiry.

Inequitable Conduct: One interesting element of the appeal involved inequitable conduct.  During prosecution, Powell had filed a Petition to Make Special on grounds that he was obligated to manufacture and supply devices embodying the claims sought. MPEP 708.02.  That original petition was roughly correct based upon ongoing manufacturing negotiations with Home Depot. Although negotiations with Home Depot fell-through before the PTO granted the petition, Powell never informed the PTO that he no longer qualified for the Special designation under the prospective manufacture prong and actively encouraged the PTO to decide the petition.

In a pre-Therasense decision, the district court held that the failure to inform the  PTO was done with intent to deceive the PTO, but that the intentional omission was not material because (1) the timing was not related to patentability and (2) Powell could have instead filed a petition to make special based upon ongoing infringement of the applied-for claims.  Under Therasense, inequitable conduct will not normally be found based upon an applicant’s improper omission unless the omission is the but-for cause of the patent being issued.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed — holding that:

Where, as here, the patent applicant fails to update the record to inform the PTO that the circumstances which support a Petition to Make Special no longer exist—that conduct does not constitute inequitable conduct. That is so because Mr. Powell’s conduct obviously fails the but-for materiality standard [of Therasense] and is not the type of unequivocal act, “such as the filing of an unmistakably false affidavit,” that would rise to the level of “affirmative egregious misconduct. Id.

This case creates further difficulty for patent attorneys by giving a free-pass to patent applicants who intentionally deceive the PTO in order to benefit their case.  Although participating in such activity violates the rules of conduct for patent law professionals under 37 C.F.R. 10.22, patent owners apparently will not face consequences.  Adding to the incentive for bad behaviour is the PTO’s lax enforcement through the Office of Enrollment and Discipline; the new statute of limitations on attorney misconduct charges; and the new supplemental examination procedures that allows patentees to whitewash patents obtained through inequitable conduct.  For some this may not be intuitive, but the primary solution is not increased enforcement but instead for the PTO to avoid relying upon attorney statements.

Judge Moore Weighs In on Vacatur of Invalidity Opinions

By Jason Rantanen

The Ohio Willow Wood Company v. Thermo-Ply, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Order 2011)
Panel: Rader (author), Newman (additional views), Moore (concurrence)

When a patentee is faced with an judgment of invalidity or inequitable conduct, it is a relatively common tactic to settle with the accused infringer who, as a condition of the settlement agreement, then joins the patentee in a joint motion for vacatur of the adverse decision.  Although vacatur requires exceptional circumstances, it is sometimes granted by the district court.  See e.g., Gracenote, Inc. v. MusicMatch, Inc.; Block Financial v. LendingTree; New Medium v. Barco.

The situation becomes more complex, however, when settlement occurs while the case is on appeal. Willow Wood involves an appeal of an Eastern District of Texas judgment invalidating the asserted claims of Patent No. 7,291,182.  While the appeal was pending, the parties settled and filed a motion for remand to the district court for consideration of a motion for vacatur.  In July 2010, the CAFC issued an order pointing out the high standard for vacatur and ordered the parties to explain what extraordinary circumstances would be presented to the district court that would justify vacatur.  Ohio Willow Wood Co. v. Thermo-Ply, Inc., (Fed. Cir. Order July 29, 2010) (nonprecedential). 

After considering the parties' response, along with an intervention request by a third party also being sued for infringement of the patent, the panel granted the request for "the limited purpose of the district court's consideration of the parties' motion for vacatur."  Ohio Willow Wood Co. v. Thermo-Play, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Order 2011) (Willow Wood II). The CAFC retained jurisdiction, however, "so that any of the parties may seek appellate review by notifying the Clerk of the Court within thirty days of entry of the district court’s decision on remand."  Id. at 3.

Concerned about the remand's potential imprimatur on the joint vacatur motion, Judge Moore, writing in concurrence, expressed the opinion that vacatur of existing invalidity opinions should be a rare and disfavored event, particularly in the patent context.  Citing U.S. Bancorp Mortgate Co. v. Bonner Mall Partnership, 513 U.S. 18, 29 (1994), the judge reiterated the high threshold for justifying vacatur following settlement: "[o]nly in 'exceptional circumstances' should a district court grant vacatur at the request of the litigants."  Willow Wood II concurrence at 2.  This is particularly true with respect to patents:

In this case, for example, the patentee has already sued another party on the patent in question. If the decision that invalidated the patent at issue is not vacated, then the patentee will be collaterally estopped from asserting this patent in this and other suits, thereby saving courts and litigants the time and money it takes to proceed with patent litigation. Patent litigations are among the longest, most time-consuming types of civil actions. As of 2009, 384 patent cases had been pending in the district courts for three years or more. 2009 Admin. Off. U.S. Cts. Ann. Rep., at Table S-11. Moreover, the costs of patent litigation are enormous with an average patent case costing upwards of $3 million for each side. See American Intellectual Property Law Association, Report of the Economic Survey 2009 I-129 (2009). If the district court vacates its invalidity judgment then other defendants and other district courts will be forced to proceed with infringement suits, as there would likely be no collateral estoppel. Even if there were no other suits pending, these concerns should still weigh heavily against vacatur, as the only reason the patentee would want an invalidity judgment vacated is to potentially enforce the patent against others.

Concurrence at 3-4.

Judge Moore's decision to weigh in on the merits of the vacatur issue was criticized by Judge Newman, however, who wrote separately "to point out that the views of our colleague in separate concurrence are not the court’s remand order." Willow Wood II, additional views at 2.  Although favoring the remand on the basis that the district court is in the better position to rule on the issue of vacatur, Judge Newman declined to endorse Judge Moore's proffer of judicial advice, commenting that "[o]ur remand should be unencumbered by even the appearance of prejudgment or of the weight to be given to various considerations. Indeed, the issues on which our colleague in concurrence offers judicial advice are more complex than is here recognized."  Id.

Research Corp. v. Microsoft: Section 101 and Process Claims

By Jason Rantanen

There are three articulated exceptions to the scope of patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101: laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas.  Research Corp. v. Microsoft places a high hurdle in front of challengers who seek to invalidate process patents on the third ground. 

Research Corp. Technologies v. Microsoft Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2010)
Panel: Rader (author), Newman, and Plager

Research Corporation ("RCT") owns several patents relating to digital image halftoning, which is the process of generating electronic display and print images using only a small number of pixel colors (ex.: red, blue and green in the case of color displays) while appearing to present many more colors and shades than were actually used.  Four related patents are relevant to this summary: Nos. 5,111,310, 5,341,228, 5,477,305, and 5,726,772.  The applications for the '310 and '228 patents (a continuation-in-part of the '310 patent) were filed before December 4, 1991; the remaining patents are continuations of the '228 patent and claim priority to the earlier filing dates. 

RCT brought an infringement action against Microsoft based on these patents; in response, Microsoft asserted, and the district court initially concluded, that the patents were unenforceable due to inequitable conduct, invalid and not infringed.  The Federal Circuit reversed that determination in 2008.  Microsoft subsequently sought summary judgment against the '310 and '228 patents on Section 101 patentable subject matter grounds, and asserted that the claims of the '772 patent were not entitled to the earlier priority date, thus rendering them anticipated.  The district court granted Microsoft's motions, and subsequently held that the only remaining claim, claim 29 of the '305 patent, also lacked entitlement to the earlier priority date.  Based on these ruling, the parties stipulated to a dismissal of the suit and RCT appealed.

Section 101 and Process Claims
In reversing the district court's ruling that the '310 and '228 patents failed to satisfy Section 101, the Federal Circuit identified a set of considerations that can be applied when assessing the question of abstractness.  Drawing upon the Supreme Court's precedent in this area, including its recent decision In re Bilski, the opinion first reiterates that there are only three articulated exceptions to subject matter eligibility: "laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas." 

Focusing on the category of abstract ideas, the court noted the Supreme Court's admonition in Bilski not to provide a rigid formula or definition for abstractness.  Rather, "the Supreme Court invited this court to develop 'other limiting criteria that further the purpose of the Patent Act and are not inconsistent with its text.'" Slip Op. at 14.  With that guidance, the panel concluded that it perceived nothing abstract in the subject matter of the processes claimed in the '310 and '228 patents.  Specifically, the court observed that:

  • "The invention presents functional and palpable applications in the field of computer technology";
  • Some claims in the patents require physical components;
  • "[I]nventions with specific applications or improvements to technologies in the marketplace are not likely to be so abstract that they override the statutory language and framework of the Patent Act"; and
  • The incorporation of algorithms and formulas does not prevent patent eligibility.

Nevertheless, while finding these factors met in the instant case, the panel further noted that its analysis was limited to the context of Section 101, which provides only a coarse filter.  Abstractness challenges can also be brought against specific claims under Section 112 even if the requirements of Section 101 are met.

Comment: The court's discussion of Section 101 suggests that the issue of patentable subject matter should be analyzed with respect to the patent as a whole; in contrast, Section 112 challenges are analyzed on a per-claim basis.

Burden of Proof for Establishing Priority
In addressing the district court's ruling that the asserted claims of the '772 and '305 patents were not entitled to claim priority to the '310 and '228 filing dates, the opinion reinforced the court's prior ruling that the patent holder bears the burden of establishing priority.  As the court held, although a patent challenger has the burden of going forward with invalidating prior art, once it has done so the burden shifts to the patent holder.  Thus, in an instance where the patent holder attempts to defeat the assertion of invalidity by claiming priority to an earlier application, the patent holder bears the burden of proving the entitlement to priority – including that the claims of the earlier patent are supported by the written description of the earlier specification.

Note: The '772 and '305 patents shared the same specification as the earlier '305 and '228 patents.  If the relevant claims had been contained in the '305 or '228 patents, Microsoft would have had the burden of proving lack of written description, as opposed to the burden resting with RCT.  Thus, the fact that the claims were part of a continuation was highly significant with respect to the allocation of the burden.

Comment: A related issue is who bears the burden of proof in the context of claims to a pre-filing conception or reduction to practice date. Although not mandated by the text of the opinion, which specifically refers to the burden to establish "an earlier filing date," the court's analysis could be read to support the conclusion that the patent holder bears the burden of proof in this situation as well.

After dispensing with RCT's challenge to the district court's allocation of burden, the panel proceeded to address the priority claims on the merits.  With respect to the '772 claims, the panel agreed with the district court, concluding that they were unsupported by the prior disclosure.  The panel did reverse on the '305 claim, however, ruling that to satisfy the written description requirement for apparatus claims, the patent need not disclose every method of making the apparatus. 

Cancer Research Technology v. Barr Laboratories: Prosecution Laches and Inequitable Conduct

By Jason Rantanen

Cancer Research Technology Ltd. v. Barr Laboratories, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2010)
Panel: Newman, Lourie (author), Prost (dissenting)

Although overshadowed by the en banc Federal Circuit arguments in TheraSense v. Becton Dickinson this morning, Cancer Research Technology v. Barr Laboratories may provide a preview of what the opinions in TheraSense could look like – although it doesn't necessarily indicate which view of inequitable conduct will ultimately prevail.  In Cancer Research, Judges Lourie and Newman reversed a district court finding of prosecution laches and inequitable conduct, while dissenting Judge Prost would have reached the opposite result.

The patent at issue (the '291 patent) involved a set of thirteen tetrazine derivatives that the original 1982 specification identified as possessing anticancer activities based on animal studies.  During the first nine years of prosecution, the examiner repeatedly rejected the claims due to lack of utility; rather than file a response to the office actions, the applicant instead filed continuation after continuation.  In 1991, Cancer Research obtained ownership of the patent application and shortly thereafter responded to the examiner's arguments.  The patent issued in 1993 and expires in 2014. 

Following Cancer Research's clinical testing, the FDA approved one of the compounds covered by the '291 patent (marketed as TEMODAR) for the treatment of one type of cancer in 1999 and a second in 2005.  In 2007, Barr Laboratories filed an Abbreviated New Drug Application ("ANDA") for a generic form of TEMODAR.  Cancer Research sued Barr for infringement four months later.  During the district court proceedings, the parties stipulated to validity and infringement and, after a bench trial, the court found that the patent was unenforceable due to prosecution laches and inequitable conduct. 

Prosecution Laches
Given the nearly ten-year delay before any meaningful response to the examiner's rejection was filed, Barr contended that the patent was unenforceable due to prosecution laches.  The district agreed, concluding that the delay in prosecution was unreasonable and unexplained.

On appeal, the majority reversed the finding of prosecution laches, holding that the doctrine requires not just unreasonable delay, but also a showing of prejudice.  The majority further held that "to establish prejudice, an accused infringer must show evidence of intervening rights, i.e., that either the accused infringer or others invested in, worked on, or used the claimed technology during the period of delay."  (Slip Op. at 9).  Here, there was no evidence of intervening rights during the prosecution period, such as evidence showing that someone other than the patent holder attempted to develop the claimed compounds.  Even Barr itself waited until 2007 – four years later than required – before filing its ANDA.  The majority also noted that there was no public harm: in the absence of the patent, Cancer Research likely would not have been incentivized to develop TEMODAR at all. 

Writing in dissent, Judge Prost rejected the notion that prosecution laches requires prejudice, let alone intervening rights; rather, under her reading of the precedent such a requirement is not part of the laches determination.  Furthermore, in her opinion, both Barr and the public were harmed by Barr's inability to market a generic version of TEMODOR.

Comment: I'm unconvinced by Judge Prost's argument on this point.  If she is correct, then the '291 patent was never enforceable – be it in 2007, when Barr filed its ANDA, or 1993, when it issued.  Yet without an enforceable patent, Cancer Research would never have developed TEMODOR, let alone engaged in the expensive Phase III clinical studies necessary to demonstrate its safety and efficacy.  Thus, the "harm" to the public would been greater in the absence of the '291 patent, not less.

Inequitable Conduct
The majority also rejected the district court's finding of inequitable conduct, while the dissent reached the opposite conclusion.  Both opinions focused on the subject of intent to deceive. 

The inequitable conduct issue in this case revolved around an extensive series of articles by an inventor on the '291 patent that presented data from post-application clinical trials of the claimed compounds.  These articles included conclusions indicating that some of the claimed compounds demonstrated high toxicity and low anticancer activity, which the district court found to be highly material to the patent claims because it directly contradicted statements in the '291 patent regarding the compounds' utility in treating cancers, as well as the patentability of a broadly written claim.

The majority, following the "intent cannot be inferred from materiality" line of thought, concluded that the district court's only basis for finding intent was its determination that the withheld articles were highly material.  "Because the district court did not rely on any other evidence to support its finding of deceptive intent beyond that used to find the withheld data material, the court in effect relied solely on its materiality finding to infer intent to deceive."  Slip Op. at 17.  The majority also concluded that the inference of deceptive drawn by the district court about the inventor's publication of data was not the only reasonable inference; rather, the broad publication of this data in multiple articles is inconsistent with an inference of intent to deceive.  Thus, an equally reasonable inference is that the inventor did not appreciate the potential importance of the published data to the patentability of the patent claims.

Judge Prost, again writing in dissent, would have affirmed the district court's determinations.  In contrast to the majority, which required independent evidence of intent, her view of inequitable conduct is that it does not require separate evidentiary bases for materiality and intent; rather it is appropriate to cite to the same evidence for materiality and intent.  Furthermore, here there was additional evidence of intent in the form of the district court's credibility findings, "which are virtually unreviewable by this court."  Thus, under her approach to intent in inequitable conduct, "[w]e should not draw inference that the district court has already excluded based on its own credibility findings."

Comment: The majority and dissent's views on intent can be partially reconciled under the position that, although an intent to deceive may be partially based on evidence of materiality, materiality cannot be the sole basis for the finding of intent to deceive.  Here, in the majority's opinion, the finding of materiality was the sole basis for the intent to deceive determination, because the only additional factor – the credibility determination – was based on an erroneous inference.  On the other hand, in the dissent's view credibility determinations are unreviewable and are sufficient to provide the "beyond the materiality" support for an intent to deceive finding.

The Federal Circuit and Inequitable Conduct: Part III

By Jason Rantanen

Yesterday, I discussed our conclusion that the Federal Circuit applies a stricter standard than the lower tribunals it reviews and that this preference for patentee success manifests through the intent to deceive component of the inequitable conduct analysis.   In this post, I raise some broad ideas about inequitable conduct jurisprudence.  The paper raises others as well, but the ones that follow offer a good perspective into what we believe may be going on. 

The first idea is that the Federal Circuit might be applying a standard for intent to deceive that is higher than that required by its own caselaw.  In other words, the Federal Circuit’s articulated standard – intent greater than gross negligence – might be lower then the court’s normative perspectives on inequitable conduct.  At least some circuit judges might be applying a requirement more akin to knowledge or purpose.  This idea finds some support in the empirical evidence.  Our data indicate that patentee win rates can vary dramatically (from 40% to 100%) depending on the judge authoring the opinion, as the below graph of 14 judges who sat on the bench during the past decade illustrates. 

Fig 11Following closely from this first idea, and also suggested by the Figure, is the notion that when it comes to inequitable conduct the Federal Circuit might be having trouble communicating its standard – particularly with respect to intent – because it is not speaking with one voice.  If the mental state standard applied at the appellate level differs between judges, lower tribunals might have a difficult time “locking on” to the Federal Circuit’s standard.  This problem could be amplified by the fact that, as we have shown, the Federal Circuit does not seem to have balancing jurisprudence, which theoretically would address mental state standards above the threshold.  Thus, rather than having a single standard for intent to deceive that is further refined through the balancing inquiry, Federal Circuit jurisprudence might have at least two distinct (and somewhat bipolar) mental state requirements, one higher than the other.  This state of affairs might produce jurisprudential variation (and perhaps confusion among district courts), and might concentrate (as we have observed) inequitable conduct’s focus on intent to deceive.

Another idea the paper raises is that uncertainty around the standard might reflect jurisprudential design (albeit, probably unintentional jurisprudential design).  For example, perhaps the Federal Circuit believes inequitable conduct doctrine is necessary to protect the integrity of the patent system, but is strongly biased against successful (for the patent challenger) inequitable conduct claims.  Thus, the court might desire to maintain the threat of inequitable conduct so as to encourage patent applicants to take appropriate care in dealing with the public.  Yet allowing too many findings of inequitable conduct might be equally bad, as it could lead the public to question the validity of the patent system altogether, and moreover might invite the “plague” of overasserting inequitable conduct so frequently warned about.  An obfuscated standard for intent to deceive might be just right for balancing these concerns, because it provides a structural context that allows the Federal Circuit to maintain the threat of inequitable conduct – and keep the patent bar in line – but rarely find inequitable conduct.  In effect, this structure encourages patentees to police themselves, and also creates a mechanism by which private parties are responsible for ensuring that patent applicants do not misbehave towards the government, i.e., the law sets up a system that mostly enforces itself. 

The entire paper, which also includes additional observations, ideas, and recommendations, can be downloaded here, and we welcome all comments.  In addition to responding below, comments can be sent to us directly at prm.icpaper@gmail.com.  If the download link does not work for you, and you would like a copy of the paper, please email the above address and I will be happy to send you a PDF.

The Federal Circuit and Inequitable Conduct: Part II

By Jason Rantanen

Part II of this series describes the methodology used in our working paper The Federal Circuit and Inequitable Conduct: An Empirical Analysis, and summarizes some of the key findings.  You can download the entire paper here.  In addition to responding below, comments can be sent either directly to us or to prm.icpaper@gmail.com.

Methodology
The study uses the technique of “content analysis,” which permits researchers to systematically read and empirically analyze the text of judicial opinions.  In broad terms, we first screened all Federal Circuit opinions that contained the term “inequitable conduct” to identify cases that analyzed the issue.  We read all of these cases, coding pertinent information from each independent analysis of inequitable conduct.1  Overall, we coded information from 361 inequitable conduct analyses between the years 1983 and 2010.  The coded information constitutes the empirical data, and the paper reports these data using a variety of statistical presentations and arguments. 

Results
We first examined patent applicants’ success before the Federal Circuit as opposed to lower tribunals.   Our analysis reveals that patentees are quite likely to succeed before the Federal Circuit, winning 76% of the time, a rate of success higher than that observed in the lower tribunal judgments the court is analyzing.  Overall, the Federal Circuit affirms lower tribunal findings of no inequitable conduct 91% of the time, but affirms findings of inequitable conduct only 45% of the time, as illustrated by the below graphs.  This suggests to us that the Federal Circuit is applying a stricter standard than in the lower tribunal opinions it reviews.

Fig 3
Fig 4
 
We next looked at the analytical structure of the inequitable conduct doctrine, which consists of three components: a materiality inquiry, an intent to deceive inquiry, and a discretionary judicial balancing of materiality and intent undertaken with a view toward deciding whether a patent applicant acted inequitably toward the public. 

Examining the data in this light revealed two key findings.  First, when the Federal Circuit gives a single reason for patentee success, that reason is nearly two and a half times more likely to be lack of intent to deceive than it is to be lack of materiality.  Second, balancing is expressly discussed only 8% of the time and forms the basis for a reversal only 2% of the time.  We think this means that the balancing inquiry does not play much of a substantive role in Federal Circuit inequitable conduct jurisprudence.  To be clear, while it looks like lower tribunals need to engage in this step of the analysis, the Federal Circuit does not seem to have any jurisprudence that guides or constrains how lower tribunals actually apply this step.  Instead, balancing at the Federal Circuit looks like a formality, such as checking a box or touching a base, as opposed to a meaningful guide to determining whether a patent applicant engaged in equitable conduct.

* * *

1In other words, if a case involved a claim that four patents were procured by inequitable conduct and the court’s analysis addressed all of the patents in a single textual analysis or rationale, then a single record entry was made in the dataset.  By contrast, if the court used one textual analysis or rationale to find, perhaps, that one of the patents was procured inequitably, and then used a single textual analysis or rationale to find that the other three were not, then two record entries were made in the dataset.

The Federal Circuit and Inequitable Conduct: Part I

By Jason Rantanen

Professor Lee Petherbridge, Ali Mojibi and myself are circulating a draft of our paper Inequitable Conduct and the Federal Circuit: An Empirical Analysis for comment.  The underlying study examines the content of the entire body of Federal Circuit inequitable conduct jurisprudence, and the paper offers several interpretations of the reported data.

Among the most interesting are: that the Federal Circuit seems to apply a stricter standard for inequitable conduct than a substantial number of the tribunals it reviews; that the Federal Circuit’s inequitable conduct standard is applied primarily through the intent to deceive component of the analysis; and that while the apparent lack of clarity in the inequitable conduct standard may be a result of judicial variation on the court, it may also represent a preference by the Federal Circuit to effect a jurisprudential design, the purpose of which is to encourage good faith behavior on the part of patent applicants while only rarely finding inequitable conduct. 

The abstract reads as follows:

Inequitable conduct is unique judicially created doctrine designed to punish patent applicants who behave inequitably toward the public in the course of patent acquisition.  Its name alone strikes fear into the hearts of patent prosecutors, and justly so – for when successfully asserted, inequitable conduct can have devastating consequences that reach far beyond a patentee’s case.  The need for a systematic empirical study of inequitable conduct jurisprudence has become especially pressing now that the Federal Circuit is reviewing inequitable conduct en banc – in terms so broad as to be unprecedented in the history of the doctrine.  This Article reports such a study. 

The study reported here provides evidence, inter alia, that the Federal Circuit applies an inequitable conduct standard stricter than that applied by a substantial number of the tribunals it reviews.  The Federal Circuit’s stricter standard manifests primarily through the intent to deceive component of inequitable conduct doctrine.  For all intents and purposes the Federal Circuit has no substantive jurisprudence around the balancing component, and the materiality component is comparatively less impactful then intent to deceive.  The court appears to have trouble communicating its stricter standard to lower tribunals.  We offer some explanations for why this might be so, and offer some modest suggestions that might advance inequitable conduct doctrine.

The complete Article can be downloaded here.   As this is a work in progress, we are particularly interested in any comments, including alternate explanations for the results we discuss.  In addition to responding below, comments can be sent to us directly or to prm.icpaper@gmail.com.

Best Mode: District Court Improperly Invalidated Patent that Mis-Identified Best Mode

Green Edge Ent. LLC v. Rubber Mulch Etc. LLC (Fed. Cir. 2010)

You might guess from the names of the parties that the subject matter of the dispute is rubber mulch. Green Edge's patent covers a synthetic rubber mulch that is shaped and colored to imitate a natural mulch. In its patent application, Green Edge indicated that a variety of systems could be used to add color to the rubber, but the application also spelled out one particular "VISICHROME" system by Futura Coatings as being the "most preferred" system. It turns out that Futura Coatings never made or sold system under the name of VISICHROME. Rather, the product Green Edge should have identified was "Product Code 24009." The name VISICHROME apparently came from a sales letter from a Futura Vice President who had referred to a VISICHROME system.

Best Mode: During the infringement litigation, the Eastern District of Missouri court held the patent invalid for failure to disclose the best mode under 35 USC § 112 – finding that VISICHROME did not exist and "that Green Edge had concealed the best mode by disclosing 'a misleading, non-existent name instead of the number' when no similar product was available on the market."

Section 112 of the patent act requires that the patent specification "set forth the best mode contemplated by the inventor of carrying out his invention." Federal Circuit precedent has held that such a "best mode" need only be described if the inventors subjectively possessed a best mode on the filing date of the application. Even then, the question is whether the inventor "concealed" the preferred mode from the public.

The second prong asks whether the inventor has disclosed the best mode and whether the disclosure is adequate to enable one of ordinary skill in the art to practice the best mode of the invention. The second inquiry is objective; it depends upon the scope of the claimed invention and the level of skill in the relevant art.

Although not suggested by the statute, the best mode requirement is generally examined on an element-by-element basis. Here, Green Edge clearly had a preferred approach for coloring the rubber pieces and thus was required to disclose that "best mode."

On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed – holding that the best mode had not been objectively concealed. The court's reasoning was that a competitor looking for "VISICHROME" might have been able to find it around the time of the invention since at least one Futura Coatings executive had been using that name in sales letters.

The disclosure might have, at the time the application was filed, been specific enough to describe the colorant so as to enable a person of ordinary skill in the art to make the claimed product using Futura's 24009 product. The application for the '514 patent was filed in October 1997, and [the Futura VP's] letter describing Futura's "Visichrome" colorant system was written in July 1997. Thus, despite [the VP's] inability to remember why he used the term "Visichrome" in his letter, it is at least possible, even likely, that in October 1997, at the time of filing, someone contacting Futura to obtain the "Visichrome" colorant system would have received a response similar to Jarboe's letter of that July.

In the end, the court held that summary judgment was inappropriate. On remand, a jury could still find the patent invalid on best mode.

Examiners Ignore Applicant-Submitted Prior Art

Professors Mark Lemley, Chris Cotropia, and Bhaven Sampat recently released a draft of their new article titled “Do Applicant Patent Citations Matter? Implications for the Presumption of Validity.” [Download Here.]

For the article, the trio analyzed the file histories of 1,500+ utility patents issued in 2007 and compared references used in office action rejections with the list of references cited on the patent cover-pages.  The objective was to figure-out the role of applicant-cited prior-art in the examination process.

Findings: Patent examiners rarely rely on applicant-submitted prior-art when making rejections.  Only 13% of the prior art used in office action rejections was applicant-submitted (despite the fact that 74% of cited references are applicant-submitted). Generally, the study found that examiners “effectively ignored” applicant-submitted prior art regardless of how few or how many references were cited; regardless of the timing of the IDS filing; and regardless of whether the submission included an EPO search reports identifying the references as “X-references.”

Implications: The authors suggest several implications of their findings: (1) That it likely does not make sense to find inequitable conduct when an applicant withholds prior art (since the art would not have been used in a rejection anyway); (2) That the presumption of validity associated with patents may be too strong; and (3) That studies based on patent citations likely lack merit.

Notes: I have privately e-mailed Professor Lemley with several comments on the article. Patent prosecutors will not likely be surprised that US examiners tend to rely on their own search results. However, I was surprised at the extent to which they found that this occurs.  As a matter of patent office policy, I would think that some minor changes could alter these results. For instance, examiners should be given a tool for performing text-searches that are limited to submitted (and identified) prior art references.  The office may also want to educate examiners on how to read European search/examination reports.

There are several rational reasons for examiners to cite their own prior art. Because of the backlog, PCTs, and provisional applications, US examination often begins several years after the application was originally filed.  During that interim, many references become available that were not known at filing.  Thus, it is not surprising that applicants rarely cite 102(e) prior art, but examiners cite loads of it.  There is some reason to think that this “newer” prior art is probably better because of technological developments.  It may also be true that the applicant and examiner references are cited for different purposes — namely, applicants cite references that are generally relevant to the invention while examiners are looking for references that teach each particular element in the filed claims.  A third issue is that applicants tend to modify their claims during prosecution. That modification may make their originally cited art less relevant. 

In the words of Lawrence Solum: Download it while its hot.

NO JOINT INFRINGEMENT despite Strategic Partnership, Joint Distribution Agreement, and Packaged Sales

PatentLawPic1052By Dennis Crouch

Golden Hour Data Systems, Inc. v. emsCharts, Inc. and Softtech (Fed. Cir. 2010)

Opinion by Judge Dyk and joined by Judge Friedman. Dissent by Judge Newman.

After trial, Judge Ward (E.D.Tx.) rejected the jury verdict of infringement and granted JMOL for the defendants — holding that no single party had infringed each element of the asserted claims.  The lower court also held the asserted patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during prosecution.

Joint Infringement: EMS delivers web-based medical charting.  Softtech’s software coordinates air-flight information.  The two companies formed a “strategic partnership” and signed a distribution agreement that would allow their two products to combine as a package.  The products were then sold as a package.

Patent law doctrine allows a finding of direct infringement only when a single entity is responsible for practicing each element (or step) of a claimed invention. Federal Circuit law holds that two or more entities can avoid liability for infringement so long as (1) each entity is responsible for practicing only a subset of the claimed elements and (2) no single entity exercises “control or direction” over the entire infringing process. Here, as in other Federal Circuit cases, such as Muniauction v. Thomson and BMC v. Paymentech, the Federal Circuit continued this doctrinal line — holding that the claim against emsCharts must fail because the plaintiff presented insufficient evidence for the “jury to infer control or direction.”

In BMC, Judge Rader acknowledged that strict adherence to the “control or direction” requirement highlighted an easy avenue for avoiding infringement. “This court acknowledges that the standard requiring control or  direction for a finding of joint infringement may in some circumstances allow parties to enter into arms-length agreements to avoid infringement. Nonetheless, this concern does not outweigh concerns over expanding the rules governing direct infringement.”

Dissenting from this opinion, Judge Newman argued that, despite Muniauction and BMC, the law of joint infringement does not strictly require that a single entity have control of the operation. Rather, a “collaborative effort as here . . . is not immune from infringement simply because the participating entities have a separate corporate status.”  Here, the two companies “combined their procedures into an integrated system that met all of the limitations of claims 1, 6-8, and 15-22, thus finding joint infringement and inducement to infringe these claims. The panel majority acknowledges that the defendants in collaboration infringed the claims, but without discussion overturns the jury verdict.”

Inequitable Conduct: The court also addressed inequitable conduct. Golden Hour had failed to submit an un-dated brochure that included undisclosed information that contradicted statements made by the applicant regarding a prior art AeroMed system.

Golden Hour first suggested that it had no duty to disclose the brochure because it was not clearly prior art. The Federal Circuit rejected that argument because the duty of disclosure is not limited to prior art. As stated in the MPEP, “[t]here is no requirement that the [submitted] information must be prior art references in order to be considered by the examiner.” MPEP § 609 (2008).

On materiality, the court held that the brochure was clearly material because it contradicted a statement made by the applicant in the specification. In finding the contradiction, the court looked to English grammar.  The specification stated that the AeroMed system “does not” provide comprehensive integration. According to the court, the present-tense representation indicates the applicant’s contention that the AeroMed system will not provide comprehensive integration at any time “throughout the pendency of the application.”  (DDC Says: What is Judge Dyk thinking?).

On intent to deceive the PTO, the court held that intent could be inferred if there was evidence that either of the prosecuting attorneys actually read the brochure (but if they did not read the reference then they would only be guilty of gross negligence).  Here, the court did not find evidence that the attorneys actually read the reference and therefore vacated the inequitable conduct decision for lack of intent to deceive.  (The appellate court suggests that inequitable conduct will likely be found again on remand.).

In Dissent, Judge Newman wrote:

As for materiality, I do not share the conclusion that the undated AeroMed brochure, obtained at a trade show (the Association of Aeromedical Services) a few weeks after this patent application was filed, and found not to be invalidating prior art, was so clearly and convincingly “material to patentability” that failure to provide a copy of the brochure while quoting its front page, invalidates the patent that was found valid over the entire content of the brochure. The record does not show that the brochure was published before the Golden Hour patent application was filed. The defendants provided no documentary evidence of any publication date, and the district court did not find the brochure to be prior art; their only evidence was the “uh-huh’s” of the brochure’s author, quoted at footnote 1 of the majority opinion. 

The record showed that when the brochure came into Golden Hour’s possession at the trade show, it was given to Golden Hour’s patent attorney, who referred to it in the Invention Disclosure Statement filed with the PTO, including quotation of the cover page but not the inner page. At the trial, the full brochure was in evidence, and stressed by the defendants, and the jury found that it was not invalidating. In view of the majority’s ruling that deceptive intent was not established in the district court, and the jury’s verdict of validity despite the brochure, the charge of inequitable conduct should be laid to rest.  

 

TheraSense v. BD: Briefs on the Merits

By Dennis Crouch

Briefing continues in the en banc appeal of TheraSense (Abbott) v. BD and Bayer. That case stems from a district court finding that the TheraSense patent was unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during prosecution of the patent. The Federal Circuit is taking the case as a vehicle for re-evaluating the judge-made-law of inequitable conduct. I have collected the majority of merits briefs filed thus far in the en banc rehearing.  Becton Dickinson & Bayer’s opposing brief is due October 8, 2010.  Amici-briefs in support of BD/Bayer are due the following week. Oral arguments are scheduled for November 9, 2010 in Washington DC.  (This post merely provides briefs. Analysis to follow.)

Court Decisions:

Party Briefs:

Amicus Brief filed in Support of TheraSense

Amici Briefs filed in Support of Neither Party

Ring Plus v. Cingular Wireless

By Jason Rantanen

Although the court ultimately reversed the determination of inequitable conduct based on a lack of intent, its discussion of materiality is significant because the misrepresentation at issue occurred in the patent itself, in the form of statements about a prior art reference.  Prosecutors may want to take special note of this opinion in crafting their Background of the Invention sections. 

Ring Plus, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless Corp. (Fed. Cir., August 6, 2010)
Panel: Lourie, Gajarsa and Moore (author)

Ring Plus is the assignee of Patent No. 7,006,608 (the '608 patent), which relates to a software based algorithm and method for generating and delivering messages over a phone line that replace or overlay a ring-back signal.

After granting summary judgment of noninfringement, the district court held a bench trial on the unenforceability of the '608 patent.  Following the bench trial, the district court concluded that the '608 patent was unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.  Ring Plus appealed both determinations, along with the denial of its motion to disqualify Cingular's counsel. 

Inequitable conduct: Materiality but no Intent
The district court's inequitable conduct determination was based on two alleged misrepresentations concerning the substance of two prior art references, Strietzel and Sleevi.  The district court found that the first misrepresentation was in the Background of the Invention section of the '608 patent, which asserted that both references proposed hardware based systems but no software to operate those systems.  Contrary to this assertion, the district court found, one of skill in the art would have understood the references to disclose software-based algorithms.1 

The panel agreed that this was a material misrepresentation.  Although neither reference explicitly disclosed software, the panel could not say that the district court clearly erred in finding that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have understood the references to disclose software-based algorithms. 

In arriving at the conclusion that the statement about the contents of the prior art constituted a misrepresentation, the panel rejected the contention that it was merely attorney argument.  The court did not address this issue in any depth, merely stating that because the statement was a misrepresentation, it "was outside the boundas of permissible attorney argument."  Slip Op. at 9.

Comment: I am a troubled by the court's cursory statement on this point because of the ambiguity it creates.  These types of sweeping assertions, made without addressing the substance of the argument or citing relevant authorities, are the kinds of things that are likely to tie attorneys and judges in knots.  Indeed, the court's quotation from Rothman is particularly perplexing, as Rothman reached the opposite conclusion on similar facts.  At a minimum, one would expect the court to explain why Rothman does not apply.

Ultimately, however, the panel concluded that Cingular had failed to present clear and convincing evidence of intent to deceive.  In arriving at this conclusion the court noted that the references were ambiguous as to operating software, and the prosecuting attorney's testimony gave rise to the inference that the applicants believed that the two references did not disclose software for operating a telephone system.  Because this inference was as reasonable as the district court's inference of deceptive intent, the district erred in its finding of deceptive intent.

Other holdings
The panel also addressed Ring Plus's challenge to the district court's construction of two claim terms, which formed the basis of the noninfringement ruling.  The court affirmed the district court's construction, relating to the sequence of steps in the '608 patent.  In addition, the court rejected Ring Plus's argument that Cingular's counsel should have been disqualified for ex parte contact with a Ring Plus director and officer.  The court concluded that there was no evidence of impropriety under Fifth Circuit law.

1The district court also found that the applicants made a misrepresentation about these references during prosecution; the panel concluded that this statement was not a misrepresentation.

Changing the Law of Inequitable Conduct: Abbot Briefs its Case

TheraSense, Inc. (Abbott Labs.) v. Becton, Dickinson and Co. (Fed. Cir. 2010)(En Banc Rehearing)

In TheraSense v. BD, an en banc Federal Circuit is reconsidering the doctrinal structure that it has created to handle allegations of inequitable conduct. Abbott (the patent holder) has filed its opening merits brief arguing that the current law of inequitable conduct over-extends its proper bounds.  In an eloquent opening statement, Abbott writes:

The question in this case is not whether to reform the doctrine of inequitable conduct, but whether to restore it—to its origins in Supreme Court precedent; to the confines Congress intended in the 1952 Patent Act; to the standards this Court articulated en banc in Kingsdown Medical Consultants v. Hollister, Inc., 863 F.2d 867 (Fed. Cir. 1988); and to the standards that govern in other areas of law. This Court has expanded the inequitable conduct doctrine well beyond those boundaries, and the result has been an “ongoing pandemic” of inequitable conduct charges. Taltech Ltd. v. Esquel Enters. Ltd., 604 F.3d 1324, 1335 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (Gajarsa, J., dissenting). The expansion has rendered valuable patents unenforceable based on minor omissions far afield from the doctrine’s purposes. And it has converted the federal courts into roving commissions to enforce standards of conduct before the PTO without regard to whether the alleged infractions had any impact. . . .

Supreme Court precedent and the legal principles embodied in the Patent Act reserve those extreme consequences for the most egregious circumstances—cases where a party “obtained its patent by fraud.” Walker Process Equip., Inc. v. Food Mach. & Chem. Corp., 382 U.S. 172, 175, 176 (1965). As this Court has recognized, the Supreme Court has held patents unenforceable “only in cases of ‘fraud on the Patent Office.’” Star Scientific, 537 F.3d at 1365-66 (quoting Hazel–Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford-Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 250-51 (1944)); see Larson Mfg. Co. of S.D., Inc. v. Aluminart Prods. Ltd., 559 F.3d 1317, 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (Linn, J., concurring). A party seeking to invalidate a trademark or copyright based on misconduct before the agency must prove it was the product of fraud. The standard should be no less stringent here.

Briefs Filed Thus Far:

Avid ID v. Crystal Import: En Banc Request Denied On Issue of Inequitable Conduct by Non-Inventor CEO

By Dennis Crouch

In Avid ID, the Federal Circuit denied Avid's motion for en banc rehearing on the issue of whether inequitable conduct exists when the non-inventor, non-attorney CEO of a company applying for a patent failed to submit information to the USPTO about pre-filing but non-invalidating trade-show exhibit of a prior version of the patented product. Judge Newman dissented.   

* * *

Avid Identification Systems v. Crystal Import Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2010).

In its original decision in this case, the Federal Circuit held that the president of Avid ID Systems was "substantially involved" with the prosecution of the asserted patent and therefore was subject to the duty of disclosure. The court went on to find that the president had failed that duty by failing to advise the PTO of a trade-show demonstration that occurred more than one-year before the patent application was filed. The inequitable conduct decision was important to the case because the trade-show demonstration of a prior product did not leave the patent invalid under the statutory bar of 102(b)/103(a).   

Avid requested rehearing en banc and that its case join with the pending TheraSense en banc case or, in the alternative, to stay the rehearing decision until after Therasense is decided. The Federal Circuit has denied Avid's motion for rehearing en banc.

Judge Newman dissented from the rehearing denial and would have stayed the case to await changes in the law of inequitable conduct:

The law as applied in Avid is subject to conflicting precedent, a conflict whose resolution is reasonably likely to alter the result. Thus it is prudent, and just, to hold Avid’s petition while the law is clarified. The court today has declined to do so, rendering the subject patent permanently unenforceable, although the patent was found valid on the same prior art that is the basis for its unenforceability.

. . .

This court held that Dr. Stoddard’s demonstration during the Livestock Committee trade show of what the panel calls “some of Avid’s technology,” and Avid calls a “precursor product,” was material to patentability and that Dr. Stoddard was required to assure that the patent examiner was informed. According to the panel opinion, the district court “found that the precursor product, while not invalidating, reflected the closest prior art, and thus was highly material to patentability.” Avid Identification Sys., Inc. v. Crystal Import Corp., 603 F.3d 967, 973 (Fed. Cir. 2010)(“Avid II”). While “closest prior art” has been discussed in the context of whether certain information is cumulative of that already presented to an examiner, see, e.g., AstraZeneca Pharms. LP v. Teva Pharms. USA, 583 F.3d 766, 773-75 (Fed. Cir. 2009), it has never been the law that information is “highly material” simply because it is “closest.” It is not disputed that whatever was demonstrated was not an invalidating disclosure of the patented invention, and not a sale or offer to sell the patented invention, for the jury found that the demonstration at the Livestock Committee was not invalidating. See Avid I, 2007 WL 2901415, at *1.

Dr. Stoddard, who is the president of Avid, is a veterinarian whose principal occupation is running an animal hospital; he is not an electronics engineer and not a chip designer and not an inventor of the patented device and not a lawyer. See Avid II, 603 F.3d at 970. On the undisputed fact that the challenged information is not invalidating, the court’s holding of inequitable conduct is sufficiently questionable to warrant a stay until this court resolves the larger issues before us, including the en banc Order’s query: “Should a finding of materiality require that but for the alleged misconduct, one or more claims would not have issued?” Order, 2010 WL 1655391, at *1. It is at least possible that the court will answer this question in the affirmative. Although I do not venture to guess how Therasense will fare overall, it is not unreasonable to expect that it may affect the Avid decision.

The Avid panel applied the former Rule 56 standard of materiality as stated in J.P. Stevens & Co. v. Lex Tex Ltd., 747 F.2d 1553, 1559 (Fed. Cir. 1984), although this standard was abandoned by the PTO in 1992. The information here criticized does not appear to violate the current Rule 56 standard, and Dr. Stoddard is not within the cadre upon whom is placed the obligation of understanding the patent law, as Judge Linn explained in his dissent. I must, respectfully, dissent from the court’s refusal to stay this appeal in view of the en banc proceeding in Therasense.

Documents:

Advanced Magnetic Closures v. Rome Fastener

By Jason Rantanen

Early this week, I wrote about Leviton, former Chief Judge Michel's last opinion on inequitable conduct before leaving the bench.  Advanced Magnetic Closures brings another perspective on the issue – this time in the form of a comment from the new Chief Judge about issuing inequitable conduct opinions while Therasense v. Becton, Dickinson is pending en banc.

* * * *

Fastener Advanced Magnetic Closures, Inc. v. Rome Fastener Corp. (Fed. Cir., June 11, 2010)

In Advanced Magnetic Closures, the court reviewed a district court determination that U.S. Patent No. 5,572,773 is unenforceable due to inequitable conduct by the alleged inventor.  The panel also reviewed the district court’s entry of attorney fees against both the patent holder (AMC) and its attorney. 

Inequitable conduct: The focus of the inequitable conduct determination was on the district court’s finding that the alleged inventor falsely claimed to the PTO that he was the inventor of the claimed magnetic fastener when, in fact, he was not.  Applying the Star Scientific standard, the panel concluded that the district court did not err by finding that “the single most reasonable inference able to be drawn from the evidence is that [the alleged inventor] intended to deceive the PTO.”  Slip Op. at 19 (internal quotations omitted). 

Attorney’s Fees: After concluding that the exceptional case determination was appropriate on the basis of both inequitable conduct and litigation misconduct (an issue that the appellant waived by failing to include it in its briefs), the court addressed the attorney sanctions entered against AMC’s attorney under 28 US.C. § 1927.  Applying Second Circuit law, the Federal Circuit concluded that the district court abused its discretion by sanctioning the attorney.  The court noted that attorney sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 require a finding of bad faith, as opposed to objective unreasonableness, and concluded that the district court’s single statement that the attorney “should have been aware” of the deficiency of AMC’s patent infringement claim was insufficient to rise to this level.  

Chief Judge Rader’s Concurrence: The most notable aspect of the opinion comes at the end, in the form of the new Chief Judge’s concurrence.  While Judge Rader agreed with the outcome of the appeal, he wrote separately to stress that “absent extreme facts such as those found in the present case, this court should refrain from resolving inequitable conduct cases until it addresses the issue en banc.”  He also provided the following interesting comment regarding Therasense:

“In Therasense, this court has been asked to address the transformation of inequitable conduct from the rare exceptional cases of egregious fraud that results in the grant of a patent that would not otherwise issue to a rather automatic assertion in every infringement case. The exception has become the rule. Generally, I would hold inequitable conduct cases until after this court reexamines whether to put the doctrine back into the exception category.”

Although no Federal Circuit decisions involving inequitable conduct have issued since Advanced Magnetic Closures, only a short time has passed.  It remains to be seen whether the Chief Judge’s proposed policy on inequitable conduct determinations will be followed for the coming months.

* * * *

For the sake of full disclosure, I note that I previously represented Abbott Laboratories in connection with the Therasense litigation.  I no longer represent clients, including Abbott.

Leviton Manufacturing v. Universal Security Instruments

By Jason Rantanen

In Leviton, Chief Judge Michel issued his last words as a judge on the subject of inequitable conduct, while Judge Prost provided some hints as to her views on the questions pending before the court in Therasense v. Becton Dickinson.

* * * * *

Leviton Manufacturing Company, Inc. v. Universal Security Instruments, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2010) (Case No. 2009-1421)

The district court's inequitable conduct determination in this case arose from two patent applications Leviton filed in 2003 and 2004.  The applications contained virtually identical claims, but listed completely different inventors.  The first application (the "Germain application") was filed in October 2003 and claimed priority to a February 2003 provisional application; the second, which led to the '766 patent (the patent in suit), was filed in 2004 as a continuation of an application filed on August 20, 1999.  The prosecuting attorneys did not disclose the Germain application during the prosecution of the '766 patent.

After granting Leviton's mid-litigation motion to dismiss, the district court concluded that the case was exceptional based on inequitable conduct and vexatious litigation, resulting in an award of attorneys' fees.

  • Note: The majority treated the district court's inequitable conduct finding as a summary judgment, as there was no evidentiary hearing.  The dissent would have reviewed the factual findings under the clear error standard because they arose in the context of an exceptional case determination. 

Majority: Factual Issues Relating to Intent Precluded Summary Judgment of Inequitable Conduct
The majority, written by then Chief Judge Michel and joined by Judge Moore, concluded that summary judgment of inequitable conduct should be reversed.  With respect to materiality, they agreed with the district court that the Germain application constituted undisclosed material information.  Although the copying of the claims was not per se material under 37 C.F.R. § 10.23(c)(7) (which relates to the interference context), it was relevant to double patenting and inventorship.  They also agreed that the failure to disclose litigation involving the '766 patent's parents was material. 

On intent, however, the majority concluded that the district court's inference of deceptive intent was not the only reasonable one based on the record.  In particular, they noted that the explanation given by Leviton's litigation counsel was not unreasonable as a matter of law, thus precluding a grant of summary judgment.  Rather, it could only be found implausible following an evidentiary hearing.

Dissent: Summary Judgment Should Be Affirmed

In her lengthy dissent, Judge Prost indicated that she would reach the opposite conclusion on intent.  Particularly informative are her views on inferring intent.  First, she explicitly adopted the Larson Manufacturing requirement that an inference of intent "must be the single most reasonable inference able to be drawn from the evidence."  Dissent at 11.  Second, she gave her thoughts on plausible explanations, reasoning that the prosecuting attorney's explanation (that he did not believe the Germain application was material because it was not prior art) was implausible because a veteran patent prosecutor would know that prior art is not the only type of information that is material to the examiner.  Thus, she would "allow the district court to reject [the explanation] as "unreasonable" and "implausible" and therefore insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact."  Dissent at 17.

  • Comment: Judge Prost's logic would appear to be applicable to any situation in which the prosecuting attorney's explanation was incorrect – which generally necessarily follows once materiality has been found.  All one needs to do is to point out that the attorney must necessarily have known better, and the explanation would be rendered implausible.

About Jason: After spending several years in practice as a patent litigator, Jason is now looking at law from the academic side and is currently a Visiting Researcher at UC Hastings. Although he does not currently represent clients, for the sake of full disclosure he notes that he has represented clients on both sides of inequitable conduct issues, including Abbott Laboratories in connection with the Therasense litigation.

Statutory Guidelines for Inequitable Conduct

In TheraSense, the en banc Federal Circuit is looking to rewrite the rules of inequitable conduct. By both its name and historic precedent, inequitable conduct appears to stem from non-statutory doctrines of equity. However, as with other equitable doctrines (such as injunctive relief), inequitable conduct could be somewhat tamed by the language of the Patent Act. In his TheraSense amicus brief, Professor Hricik is taking a useful approach by focusing on the statutory basis for holding claims unenforceable.

Two provisions of the Patent Act come to mind. One is general and the other specific. The general statute is 35 USC 282(1). That portion of Section 282 identifies "unenforceability" as a defense to patent infringement. In TheraSense, the court's first goal should be to interpret the meaning of unenforceability as found in that statute.

The more specific provision is Section 288. It is Section 288 that allows a patentee to assert infringement of remaining claims even after some of the claims are found invalid. Section 288 sets a specific limit on this separability principle. Namely, separability of claims does not apply when an invalidated claim was obtained through deceptive intent.

Whenever, without deceptive intention, a claim of a patent is invalid, an action may be maintained for the infringement of a claim of the patent which may be valid. 35 U.S.C. §288.

Section 288 is not exhaustive in its approach. Rather, the statute is only explicit that the remaining claims of a patent can be asserted even after one of the claims was found invalid, so long as that invalid claim was not obtained with deceptive intent. The statute does not explicitly indicate the result when an invalid claim was obtained with deceptive intent or, for that matter, when a valid claim was obtained with deceptive intent. In his brief, however, Professor Hricik concludes that these statutes should be read to – at times – limit the Court’s ability to automatically render all claims of a patent unenforceable after a finding of inequitable conduct.

Contact Professor Hricik if you (or your firm / company) are interested in joining the brief.

Proof of Actual Fraud on the Patent Office

US v. Reid, 09-cr-00320-CMH (E.D. Va. 2009)

Michael Reid has pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud with a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment after being caught stealing almost $500,000 from the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). Reid has agreed to cooperate in the investigation of his former USPTO employee accomplice – known in the pleadings as Ms. K.L.P. and identified as a financial analyst in charge of the customer deposit funds. K.L.P. has apparently not yet been charged.

According to the stipulated facts, the pair raided dormant PTO deposit accounts of customers who had not responded to PTO inquiries.

K.L.P. engaged in 32 fraudulent transfers, 27 in which the defendant received funds. The total amount of the 32 transactions was $534,338.55. The total amount for the 27 transactions involving the defendant was $451,252.17.

The fraudulent transfers apparently occurred from 1998 through September 2005 when K.L.P. left the PTO. Reed is the minister of music at a Maryland church. The court has not yet scheduled sentencing.

Notes:

   

Dickson Industries: Inequitable Conduct Holding Vacated

Dickson Industries, Inc. v. Patent Enforcement Team, L.L.Cpic-34.jpg . (Fed. Cir. 2009) (nonprecedential) 08-1372.pdf

Application of inequitable conduct jurisprudence continues to divide the Federal Circuit. Judge Rader has perhaps been the most outspoken critic of the current over-use of inequitable conduct allegations. In this case, Judge Rader was joined by Judges Mayer and Posner (by designation) in vacating a lower court finding of inequitable conduct.

The PET patent covers an apparatus for making drainage grooves at the edge of a roadway. Prior to litigation, PET had argued that the machines for making rumble strips at the side of the road also violate the patent rights. Subsequently, Dickson sued for declaratory relief.

The jury found the patent invalid and found the patent holder liable for $1.5 million for tortiously interfering with with Dickson’s business relationships. The court then also (1) found the patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during reexamination for failure to disclose material information and (2) awarded attorney fees to Dickson.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the anticipation decision, but vacated the decision on inequitable conduct.

The case largely centered around one prior art reference – “Spangler” – which discloses an apparatus to make rumble strips. PET knew about Spangler during reexamination of its patent, but did not disclose that reference to the PTO.

Agreeing with the Jury, the Federal Circuit found substantial evidence indicating that Spangler discloses all the elements of PET’s patent – rendering the patent invalid.

Ordinarily, after finding the patent invalid, the court would not need to decide issues of inequitable conduct. Here, however, the appellate panel addressed inequitable conduct because that conduct served as the basis for the lower court’s award of exceptional case attorney fees.

Amending Pleadings to Add Inequitable Conduct Charges: Allegations of inequitable conduct are parallel to charges of fraud and ordinarily must be pled with specificity. Thus, in most cases the accused infringer does not have sufficient evidence to allege inequitable conduct in the initial filing of defenses. Here, the court initially denied Dickson’s motion to amend its complaint to add IC charges. However, at trial the court changed its mind and allowed the issue to be presented.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit found that PET was “prejudiced” by the inconsistent orders and was thus denied “the opportunity to adequately defend against the allegation of inequitable conduct at trial. For instance, PET was denied the opportunity to introduce evidence of good faith, which militates against a finding of deceptive intent.”

The district court’s contradicting positions undermine the legitimacy of its ruling on inequitable conduct. This court cannot say with confidence that the record regarding inequitable conduct is not incomplete. Thus, this court vacates the district’s decision on the issue of inequitable conduct and remands to provide an opportunity to fully develop the record regarding inequitable conduct. Further, this Court vacates the award of attorney fees premised on inequitable conduct as premature.

In a warning to the lower court, Judge Rader again raised the notion that inequitable conduct litigation “has become an absolute plague.”

Given the severe consequences of unenforceability when it is imposed on a patent, it is paramount that the district court exercise necessary caution to ensure that the patent owner met its burden of proof with respect to both the materiality and deceptive intent.

Vacated-in-part.

Notes:

  • Judges Mayer and Posner (sitting by designation) participated in the panel.
  • Update: I have fixed an important typographical error. Judge Rader indicated that inequitable conduct litigation is the problem (not inequitable conduct itself).

Inequitable Conduct Based on Failure to Submit Rejection in Co-Pending Case

Larson Mfg. Co. v. Aluminart Products Ltd. (Fed. Cir. 2009)pic-15.jpg

In an earlier post, I discussed the concurring opinion in this case where Judge Linn argued for a restatement of the law of inequitable conduct that makes it more difficult to allege inequitable conduct absent evidence of fraud. This post covers the majority opinion.

Larson sued Aluminart for infringement of two claims of its patent covering a storm door with a moving glass panel. Without reaching the merits of the infringement argument, the district court found the patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during prosecution. The district court found that the patentee had improperly withheld documents from the examiners during reexamination of the patent. (The reexamination had been requested by Aluminart). The Federal Circuit provided the following description of the lower court holding:

The [district] court found that Larson failed to disclose to the Reexamination Panel three items of prior art and two office actions issued in the prosecution of a continuation application that grew out of the application that resulted in the ’998 patent [the patent being reexamined]. The court rejected Larson’s argument that the three items of prior art were cumulative of prior art which already was before the Reexamination Panel and therefore were not material, as well as its argument that the office actions were not material because all of the critical references noted in them already had been disclosed to the Reexamination Panel. After finding that Larson intended to deceive the Reexamination Panel, the court balanced its findings of materiality and intent and found inequitable conduct.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated the holding and remanded for a potential new trial on inequitable conduct.

The inequitable conduct charges stem from the PTO's parallel examination of both the reexam of the patent in suit and a continuation application. During the reexam, Larson's patent attorney submitted hundreds of references, district court proceedings, and disclosed the co-pending continuation. However, the patent attorney did not cross-cite two office action rejections from the continuation or one of the prior art references from the continuation (although every other reference from the continuation was cited). In addition, the attorney did not cite two marketing configuration sheets that were later uncovered during discovery.

Law of Inequitable Conduct: Inequitable Conduct requires clear and convincing evidence of at least a threshold level of evidence that the applicant both (1) "made an affirmative misrepresentation of material fact, failed to disclose material information, or submitted false material information" and (2) by that act "intended to deceive the PTO." The materiality of the action is determined based on a reasonable examiner standard – what would a reasonable examiner "consider important in deciding whether to allow the application to issue as a patent?" If an unsubmitted reference is cumulative to information already on hand, then it will not be seen as material. Proof of intent to withhold a reference is not sufficient. Rather, the evidence must show intent to deceive the PTO. That said, intent may be proven by circumstantial evidence. After finding both threshold materiality and intent, the court must determine if the proof is sufficient to find inequitable conduct and consequently hold the patent unenforceable.

What is Cumulative?: After reviewing the submitted and unsubmitted prior art references in detail, the Federal Circuit found that the lower court had clearly erred in finding the art non-cumulative. Notably, the only features found in the non-submitted art that were not in the submitted art were "irrelevant to the claim limitations at issue and therefore could not support a finding of materiality and non-cumulativeness." Although the unsubmitted prior art included a different embodiment than the submitted reference, that difference was not important because the claims were broadly drafted in a way that cover both embodiments.

Disclosure of Office Actions in Related Cases: The examiner of the co-pending continuation filed four office action rejections. The first was used as the basis for the reexamination request. The second was used as a basis for an initial rejection in the reexamination. However, the patentee did not submit the third or fourth office action for consideration. The Federal Circuit agreed with the lower court that the office actions should have been submitted because the rejections contained "adverse decisions about substantially similar claims" that were "not cumulative" to materials already submitted to the examiner.

Because the Third and Fourth Office Actions contained another examiner’s adverse decisions about substantially similar claims, and because the Third and Fourth Office Actions are not cumulative to the First and Second Office Actions, the district court correctly found the withheld Office Actions material.

In its analysis, the Federal Circuit reviewed Dayco Products where it found the patentee had wrongly withheld rejections from co-pending applications.

In Dayco Products, the patentee failed to disclose rejections in a copending application of claims “that were substantially similar in content and scope to claims pending in the applications that issued as the patents-in-suit.” 329 F.3d at 1367. We held “that a contrary decision of another examiner reviewing a substantially similar claim” was material. Id. at 1368. We further explained that, because a “rejection of a substantially similar claim refutes, or is inconsistent with the position that those claims are patentable, [the] adverse decision by another examiner . . . meets the materiality standard.” Id.   

Thus, on remand, the district court must determine whether the patentee failure to submit the two office actions was done with sufficient intent to deceive the PTO. Although seemingly dicta, the Federal Circuit provided four points of explicit guidance to the lower court. First, the district court need not accept any additional evidence; Second, the court should remember that "material does not presume intent, and nondisclosure, by itself, cannot satisfy the deceptive intent element." Rather, if intent is inferred, it must be "the single most reasonable inference able to be drawn from the evidence." Further, intent cannot be inferred based on a decision to withhold if the patentee has plausible legitimate reasons for withholding. Third, good faith on behalf of the applicant must be considered as it "militates against a finding of deceptive intent." One element of good faith here, may be that the patentee notified the examiners of the co-pending application. Finally, although the Federal Circuit agreed that the office actions were material, the court did not opine on how material. Thus, if the lower court does find clear and convincing evidence of a threshold intent to deceive, the court must again determine whether the combined intent and materiality are sufficient to warrant a holding of inequitable conduct.

Notes:

  • This case is rather silly because the defendant Aluminart was closely following the reexamination. I can almost guarantee that Aluminart realized that the documents had not been submitted even before the reexamination certificate was issued. Certainly, the company could have brought the omission Larson's attention if it truly was material.