In 2011, Congress created a series of novel proceedings for private parties to challenge issued patents before the newly formed Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). While the PTAB proceedings are immensely popular, they have also been controversial. A series of legal challenges to these new adjudicatory proceedings are working their way through the federal judiciary and up to the Supreme Court, and the latter is deciding this Term the constitutionality of PTAB adjudication. Yet to date, there has been no sustained comparison of these new adjudicatory proceedings with other agency adjudications. This comparison could be provide numerous payoffs, including highlighting the unique facets of PTAB adjudication that may serve for successful legal challenges as well as providing opportunities for improving the decisional processes of adjudicatory boards.
In The New World of Agency Adjudication, we seek to begin this endeavor by situating PTAB adjudication in the modern administrate state. Every administrative law student learns the basics of “formal” adjudication under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The paradigmatic APA-governed formal adjudication involves an evidentiary hearing held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) wherein parties are entitled to oral arguments, rebuttal, and cross-examination of witnesses. The ALJ’s decision is then reviewable by the agency head, who typically can reverse the decision for largely any reason. Thus, the critical difference between APA formal adjudication—also known as Type A adjudication—and the judicial model is that the agency head has final decision-making authority.
The vast majority of agency adjudications today, however, do not take the form of APA-governed formal adjudication. The new world of agency adjudication comprises agency actions that are adjudicated by non-ALJ agency personnel that have diverse titles, such as administrative judge, administrative appeals judge, hearing officer, immigration judge—just to name a few. These non-ALJ judges have less independence and protections than ALJs. A substantial portion of these proceedings are known as Type B adjudications which still require evidentiary hearings, and hence are relatively formal. In contrast to APA governed formal adjudication, however, the APA imposes virtually no requirements on these proceedings including agency head review. Yet similar to Type A adjudication, a common feature of Type B adjudication is that the agency head has final decision-making authority.
How do the PTAB proceedings fit within this modern world of agency adjudication? Although the new PTAB proceedings have many of the hallmarks of APA formal adjudication, they lack at least two features that suggest they should not receive a Type A classification. Perhaps most saliently, the Patent Act requires these proceedings to be presided over by administrative patent judges, not administrative law judges. The second critical difference is that the Director of the Patent Office does not have final decision-making authority over PTAB determinations. Although an aggrieved party to a PTAB proceeding can file a request for a rehearing by the Board, the Director does not have the authority to review PTAB determinations as a matter of right. As a result, we argue the best understanding of PTAB proceedings is that they are Type B rather than Type A adjudication. The more difficult question is how do the new PTAB proceedings stack up to its Type B adjudication peers? We conclude quite favorably. Drawing on a recent ACUS study that focuses on identifying the best practices of Type B adjudications, we find that PTAB meets the majority of these recommendations and scores as well as most Type B proceedings.
Our Article concludes by exploring one critical difference between PTAB proceedings and most Type B adjudications: the lack of agency-head review of PTAB determinations. The standard administrative model vests final decision-making authority with the agency head for a number of reasons, including providing the agency head with policy control and the ability to bring consistency to the adjudicatory board decisions. While the Director does not have the authority to directly review PTAB determinations, she does have the ability to influence PTAB outcomes. More specifically, the Director can assign APJs to a panel that share her policy views in hopes that they will vote in accordance with her preferences. This “panel-stacking” often occurs once a rehearing and an expanded panel has been granted, so that the expanded, stacked panel reverses the original three-member decision.
Although we conclude that the Director’s designation procedures are statutorily authorized, we argue this procedure raises a colorable due process violation. Case law on permissible agency-head designation procedures is relatively sparse. One exception is the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Utica Packing Co. v. Block, in which the Secretary of Agriculture replaced an agency adjudicator with another when the initial adjudicator failed to rule as she wished. The appellate court refused to accept the argument that the Secretary, having delegated to the agency adjudicator the original authority to resolve certain matters, could reappropriate that power at will based on disagreement with the adjudicator’s conclusions. Instead, the court held, “[t]here is no guarantee of fairness when the one who appoints a judge has the power to remove the judge before the end of proceedings for rendering a decision which displeases the appointer.”
Under the reasoning set forth in Utica, there is at least a colorable argument that the Director’s designation procedures raise substantial due process violations. Similar to the Secretary of Agriculture in Utica, the Director in effect removes the original panel before the end of the proceedings when she designates an expanded panel that she hopes will arrive at a different substantive outcome. Although the Director does not technically replace any judge, the practical effect of adding a sufficient number of new members to reverse the original panel decision is functionally equivalent to the Secretary of Agriculture’s removal of the judicial officer in Utica.
Given this colorable due process concern, our Article concludes by examining alternative mechanisms the Director of the Patent Office could utilize to ensure that PTAB consistently applies the agency’s policy preferences. While a congressional grant of agency head review would be the most straightforward way to proceed, our Article also urges the Patent Office to consider an increased reliance on rulemaking and precedential PTAB decisions. With respect to the latter, our Article encourages the Patent Office to consider streamlining the process by which it designates PTAB decisions as precedential to provide the Director with more unilateral authority in making this determination.
The current draft of our article is available on SSRN here. It’s forthcoming in the California Law Review in 2019, so there’s plenty of time for us to incorporate any comments you may have.