Inter Partes Review (IPR) Trials have become an effective tool for cancelling invalid patent claims that lack novelty or fail the nonobviousness test. The IPR process has two main stages: Institution and Trial. At the institution stage, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) must determine whether the third-party challenge is sufficient enough to warrant a full trial on the merits of the challenge. The institution test outlined by the statute is a “reasonable likelihood that the petitioner would prevail with respect to at least 1 of the claims challenged in the petition.”
One design choice for IPRs is whether the judges who decide to institute the IPR should be kept-on to decide the ultimate merits of the trial. In its initial design of the process, the PTO determined that keeping the same judges provided for both efficiency and internal consistency. Thus, under the current rules, the same three APJs who decide whether to institute a trial also conduct the trial and ultimately decide the trial outcome.
A number of losing-patentees have argued that the process creates an improper bias or implicit presumption against the patentee during the trial stage. The basic idea is that a judge who sides with the challenger at the institution stage will be mentally locked-in to supporting the petitioner’s case and at trial will improperly give the presumption to the challenger rather.
The USPTO is now requesting comments on a proposed pilot program that would address these concerns. In particular, the PTO’s proposal is that the institution decision would be made by a single judge. If that judge decides to institute then the trial would be held before that single judge along with two additional APJs added to the panel who were not previously involved in the decision to institute.
The statute requires the two-step process and also requires a set of three APJs to decide the trial, but gives the USPTO authority to determine additional process elements. There are a host of alternative designs and structures available, such as an entirely new panel.
The PTO’s proposal benefits the PTO by requiring only one judge at the institution stage – likely allowing it to handle more cases. Right now, the PTO is looking for comments on the proposal. If those seem favorable, the PTO is likely to move ahead with a pilot program. Comments to PTABTrialPilot@uspto.gov by October 26, 2015.
I am personally concerned about the initiation decision by a single APJ. Generally, you might think that three-judge panels would offer more consistent decisions because more eccentric judges would be outvoted. However, there are team-project problems that can arise with panel decision making– often one or more panel member can check-out mentally and simply rely upon the decisions by a single judge. I do not know which of these (if either) is more likely with PTAB judges.