By Dennis Crouch
St. Jude Medical v. Volcano Corp. (PTAB 2013)
This PTAB decision is important for a number of reasons. First, as a rule of substantive law, the decision announces a new interpretation of the statute-of-limitations for filing an IPR under 35 U.S.C. § 315(b). Second, the decision highlights (without directly addressing) the need for a better understanding of the role of precedent within PTAB decisions for cases such as this where a second PTAB panel rejects the legal analysis of a first PTAB panel. Finally, the case is important because it highlights problems with the statutory rule that the PTAB's determination "whether to institute an inter partes review [is] final and nonappealable." 35 U.S.C. § 314(d).
The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) continues to see a growing docket of inter partes reviews (IPR) and post-grant reviews of covered-business-method patents (PGR-CBM). Of importance, the PTAB appears to be scrutinizing review requests and has denied several – finding that the requester had failed to meet the "reasonable likelihood" standard of 35 U.S.C. § 315 or the "more likely than not" standard of 35 U.S.C. § 324.
Here, however, an expanded panel of five administrative patent judges has denied St. Jude's IPR petition based upon the one-year statute of limitations triggered by service of "a complaint alleging infringement" under 35 U.S.C. § 315(b). That statute provides:
An inter partes review may not be instituted if the petition requesting the proceeding is filed more than 1 year after the date on which the petitioner, real party in interest, or privy of the petitioner is served with a complaint alleging infringement of the patent.
This is seemingly a pretty straightforward and easy to adjudicate rule. However, St. Jude raised an interesting question of law because it was never served with a complaint per se. Rather, St. Jude sued Volcano for infringement and Volcano served an answer and counterclaim of infringement. The counterclaim was served more than one-year before the IPR request. Leaving the legal question of whether the filing of an answer with a counterclaim alleging infringement counts under the statute as a "complaint alleging infringement." There does not appear to be any direct legislative history from the AIA on point other than the general conception that the deadline is intended to prevent repeated "repeated litigation and administrative attacks." H.R. Rep. No. 112-98 at 48 (2011). As is often true of the Congressional record, that statement is general enough to be read in support of either side. And, certainly a counterclaim is often thought of as more of a defensive tact rather than being offensive harassment.
St. Jude's legal argument stems from Rule 7 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that define pleadings in civil cases as follows:
Only these pleadings are allowed:
(1) a complaint;
(2) an answer to a complaint;
(3) an answer to a counterclaim designated as a counterclaim;
(4) an answer to a crossclaim;
(5) a third-party complaint;
(6) an answer to a third-party complaint; and
(7) if the court orders one, a reply to an answer.
You'll notice from the allowed pleadings that a counterclaim (No. 3) is separately defined from a complaint (No. 1). That listing coupled with the statement indicating that these are the "only" pleadings allowed suggests that the differentiation in the list is also important. Similarly, St. Jude points to FRCP R. 3 that states "A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court." Finally, St. Jude highlights that the statute in question (§315) particularly mentions counterclaims in a different section of the provision and that linguistic distinction suggests that Congress thought that a counterclaim was different from a complaint.
The Board rejected St. Jude's argument – finding instead that a counterclaim is the functional and legal equivalent of a complaint and consequently that the request for IPR was untimely. The Board writes:
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure neither define the term "complaint" in Rule 3 nor use it to refer only to the filing that commences a civil action. Rule 3 states, as amended in 2007: "A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court." The rule specifies merely which filing commences a civil action—a complaint—but does not limit a "complaint" to be that filing and nothing else. Moreover, the term is used elsewhere in the Rules to refer to a pleading that does not commence a civil action. For example, Rule 14(a)(1) states, in pertinent part: "A defending party may, as third-party plaintiff, serve a summons and complaint on a nonparty who is or may be liable to it for all or part of the claim against it." A complaint against a third party does not commence a civil action; rather, it joins the third party to an existing civil action. The Rules, therefore, do not define or use the term "complaint" in the exclusive manner St. Jude argues.
We disagree also with St. Jude's contention that Rule 7 distinguishes a counterclaim from a complaint in a way that is meaningful for our determination. Rule 7 lists pleadings allowed in a civil action. The mere listing of items separately, however, does not, by itself, draw distinctions among the items in the list insofar as their legal equivalence. We discern in Rule 7 no such comparison or distinction between a complaint and a counterclaim.
A complaint and a counterclaim instead bear marked similarities. A counterclaim imposes the same burdens on the parties as does a complaint. A counterclaim alleges a cause of action, just like a complaint; confirming that equivalence, Wright and Miller explains that a counterclaim "basically is a defendant's complaint." 5 FED. PRAC. & PROC. CIV. § 1184 (3d ed.). …
St. Jude argues next that a counterclaim should be distinguished from a complaint in § 315(b) because that distinction is made in § 315(a). Pet. 3. St. Jude observes that 35 U.S.C. § 315(a)(3) excludes a counterclaim challenging validity from constituting a complaint challenging validity in § 315(a)(1). This argument is unpersuasive. Section 315(a)(3) states specifically that the exclusion applies to, and is made for purposes of, subsection § 315(a) only. The inapplicability of such an exclusion to § 315(b) indicates, to the contrary of St. Jude's position, that no similar exclusion exists, or was intended, with regard to a complaint and a counterclaim for infringement in respect of § 315(b). . . .
One interesting element of the decision here is that it differs with a prior decision made by the PTAB in Macauto USA v. Bos GmbH, IPR2012-00004. There, a three-member PTAB board found that the statute-of-limitations was tolled in cases where the complainant then voluntarily dismissed its case with prejudice. Citing Wright, Miller, Kane, and Marcus, 9 Federal Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 2367 (3d. ed.) ("[A]s numerous federal courts have made clear, a voluntary dismissal without prejudice under Rule 41(a) leaves the situation as if the action never had been filed.") It is not surprising that there are no overlapping judges between the St. Jude decision and Macauto.
The general standard operating procedure at the PTAB is that a Board decision is binding precedent "only if the opinion has been made Precedential" under the PTAB's operating procedure. See http://www.uspto.gov/ip/boards/bpai/procedures/sop2.pdf. Thus, at this point, neither opinion is precedential and so the next panel is also open to re-decide the case as it sees fit according to the law.
Certainly, the Federal Circuit would ordinarily be ready-willing-and-able to quickly resolve the split of opinion on the meaning of the law here. However, the statute indicates that this particular decision is both final and nonappealable. 35 U.S.C. § 314(d). Of course, the statute does not indicate that the decision cannot be attacked through a mandamus action or through a separate collateral attack on the final judgment, neither of which are ordinarily considered an appeal.