By Dennis Crouch
The Supreme Court has upheld the AIA provision barring challenges to the Patent Office’s decision to institute inter partes review. 35 U. S. C. §314(d). In addition, Justice Breyer’s majority opinion approved of the Patent Office’s approach of applying the broadest reasonable construction (BRI) standard to interpret patent claims – finding it a “reasonable exercise of the rulemaking authority that Congress delegated to the Patent Office.”
The Court was unanimous as to the BRI standard however, Justices Alito and Sotomayor dissented from the no-appeal ruling – they would have interpreted the statute as limiting interlocutory appeals but still allowing review of the decision to institute within the context of an appellate review of the PTO’s final decision on the merits.
Cuozzo Speed Technologies, LLC v. Lee, 579 U. S. ____ (2016).
No Appeal: The court began with the express language of the statute which expressly states that the decision of “whether to institute an inter partes review . . . shall be final and non-appealable.” The provision is plain on its face and indicates congressional purpose of delegating authority to the Patent Office. The dissenting opinion offered by Justice Alito offered to limit the statute as preventing only interlocutory appeals, but the majority rejected that interpretation as lacking textual support and being ‘unnecessary’ since the APA “already limits review to final agency decisions.” The Supreme Court also analogized the PTO’s initiation decision to that of a grand jury – which is likewise unreviewable. “The grand jury gets to say— without any review, oversight, or second-guessing— whether probable cause exists to think that a person committed a crime” (quoting Kaley v. United States, 571 U. S. ___ (2014)).
If you remember, Cuozzo did not present a Constitutional challenge to the AIA regime and the majority opinion offered a glimmer of limitation in that regard. Notably, the Court suggested that challenges to the decision to institute might be appealable if based upon a Constitutional issue or some other issue outside “well beyond” the post issuance review proceeding statutory provisions.
We conclude that the first provision, though it may not bar consideration of a constitutional question, for example, does bar judicial review of the kind of mine-run claim at issue here, involving the Patent Office’s decision to institute inter partes review.
The opinion here includes a number of nuances that will be interesting to tease-out, but the bottom line is that IPR remains a powerful tool for challenging patents.
Claim Construction during Inter Partes Review: Regarding the Broadest-Reasonable-Interpretation being applied to patent claims, the court was unanimous in siding with the USPTO. The court began by noting that Congress granted rulemaking authority to the USPTO to create regulations governing inter partes review and that this authority empowered the USPTO to enact rules both substantive and procedural that are reasonable in light of the statutory text. Since the statute was “not unambiguous” as to the appropriate claim construction standard, and therefore that the USPTO must be given leeway in determining its administrative approach.
Cuozzo had argued that IPR proceedings were like trials in many ways and therefore the claim construction should be parallel to that of trial proceedings. The Supreme Court rejected that analogy – finding that IPR proceedings serve a purpose much broader than merely “helping resolve concrete patent-related disputes among parties.”
[I]nter partes review helps protect the public’s “paramount interest in seeing that patent monopolies . . . are kept within their legitimate scope.” Precision Instrument Mfg. Co. v. Automotive Maintenance Machinery Co., 324 U. S. 806 (1945); see H. R. Rep., at 39–40 (Inter partes review is an “efficient system for challenging patents that should not have issued”).
In finding BRI reasonable, the court followed this public-interest pathway and found that BRI helps to provide stronger bounds on patent scope:
We conclude that the regulation represents a reasonable exercise of the rulemaking authority that Congress delegated to the Patent Office. For one thing, construing a patent claim according to its broadest reasonable construction helps to protect the public. A reasonable, yet unlawfully broad claim might discourage the use of the invention by a member of the public. Because an examiner’s (or reexaminer’s) use of the broadest reasonable construction standard increases the possibility that the examiner will find the claim too broad (and deny it), use of that standard encourages the applicant to draft narrowly. This helps ensure precision while avoiding overly broad claims, and thereby helps prevent a patent from tying up too much knowledge, while helping members of the public draw useful information from the disclosed invention and better understand the lawful limits of the claim. See §112(a); Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 572 U. S. ___ (2014).
Most of the IPR-related petitions for writ of certiorari that are still pending are likely to fall-away at this point. However, the major caveats in the majority opinion (noted above) offer some light for both Cooper v. Lee and MCM v. HP since those petitions challeng the system on US Constitutional grounds.
USPTO Director Michelle Lee offered the following statement in reaction to the Cuozzo decision:
The USPTO appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision which will allow the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) to maintain its vital mission of effectively and efficiently resolving patentability disputes while providing faster, less expensive alternatives to district court litigation.
Director Lee will likely step-down as the Obama Administration moves out. A portion of her legacy will remain as the named respondent.
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 5 U. S. C. §704