by John M. Golden, Professor in Law at the University of Texas School of Law
As noted in a Patently-O post of September 18, in Facebook, Inc. v. Windy City Innovations, LLC, Nos. 2018-1400 et al. (Fed. Cir. Aug. 12, 2019), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit requested supplemental briefing on the extent to which it should give deference to the precedential interpretation of a Patent Act joinder provision that the Precedential Opinion Panel (“POP”) of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) adopted in Proppant Express Investments, LLC v. Oren Technologies, LLC, IPR2018-00914 (P.T.A.B. Mar. 13, 2019). As explained in the earlier post, in Proppant, the POP interpreted the language of 35 U.S.C. § 315(c), which permits the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Director, in instituting an inter partes review (IPR), to “join as a party to that inter partes review any person who properly files a petition under section 311 that the Director … determines warrants the institution of an inter partes review under section 314.” This post is not concerned with the substance of the POP’s interpretation but instead the different ways in which the Federal Circuit might resolve or avoid the deference question, which could determine more generally (i.e., in cases involving interpretation of other provisions of the Patent Act) the extent to which the Federal Circuit gives deference to statutory interpretations of the POP. The deference question is relatively easily stated, but arguments about it can become intricate.
For starters, there are two basic forms of deference that the Federal Circuit might apply to the POP’s precedential interpretation. First, the court may determine that the Chevron deference framework applies. See generally Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Under United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218 (2001), the Chevron deference framework applies if two threshold conditions are met: (a) Congress delegated to an agency relevant authority “to make rules carrying the force of law” in relation to a statutory scheme and (b) “the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.” Id. at 226–27; see also Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243, 258–59 (2006). If the Chevron deference framework applies, the court is to defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute if two further conditions are met: (1) the statute is ambiguous after all the traditional tools for statutory interpretation are brought to bear and (2) the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. See, e.g., Cuozzo Speed Techs., LLC v. Lee, 136 S. Ct. 2131, 2142 (2016); Horvath v. United States, 896 F.3d 1317, 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2018). The court’s assessment of whether the statute is ambiguous is often described as Chevron Step One analysis, and the court’s assessment of whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable in light of any found ambiguity is often described as Chevron Step Two analysis. Finally, even if the court determines that the threshold conditions for the Chevron deference framework—sometimes characterized collectively as “Chevron Step Zero,” see, e.g., Cass R. Sunstein, Chevron Step Zero, 92 Va. L. Rev. 187, 191 (2006)—are not satisfied, the court should consider giving substantial, albeit presumably less decisive, weight to the agency’s statutory interpretation in accordance with Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944); see also Mead, 533 U.S. at 234 (“Chevron did nothing to eliminate Skidmore’s holding that an agency’s interpretation may merit some deference whatever its form ….”).
In light of the Chevron and Skidmore frameworks, the Federal Circuit could resolve its deference question in any of various ways:
- The court could duck the question of what deference framework applies by determining that its holding on statutory interpretation will be the same regardless of any potentially applicable deference or lack thereof. For example, the court could conclude that, even without giving any weight to the POP’s statutory interpretation, the Court agrees with and therefore upholds that interpretation. Alternatively, the court could duck the deference-framework question by (a) assuming that the Chevron framework applies (i.e., that Chevron Step Zero is fully satisfied) but (b) determining that the POP’s interpretation nonetheless must be overridden because that interpretation is contrary to unambiguous statutory language (failure at Chevron Step One) or otherwise unreasonable (failure at Chevron Step Two). Because Skidmore deference is generally understood to be weaker than Chevron deference, the court could conclude that the POP’s interpretation likewise fails any potentially applicable deference under Skidmore. Such a decision would resolve the statutory-interpretation question at issue but would leave unanswered questions about the degree of deference, if any, that the POP’s interpretations of the Patent Act might more generally warrant.
- The court could determine that the POP’s precedential statutory interpretation satisfies Chevron Step Zero and thus that the Chevron deference framework applies to the court’s review. The United States argues for such a ruling in its amicus curiae brief and further contends that the POP’s statutory interpretation should be upheld under Chevron because it “is not foreclosed by the text and is ‘reasonable in light of the text, nature, and purposes of the statute’ ” Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae 11–12 [hereinafter “U.S. Brief”] (quoting Cuozzo, 136 S. Ct. at 2142). Even after determining that the Chevron deference framework applies, however, the Federal Circuit could rule against the POP’s statutory interpretation if the court finds this interpretation to be clearly contrary to the statutory language or an unreasonable reading of ambiguous statutory language (i.e., not within a set of alternative interpretations that the ambiguous language reasonably permits). Moreover, the Federal Circuit might limit a holding that the POP’s precedential statutory interpretations may satisfy Chevron Step Zero to apply only for interpretations resolving questions that fall within the ambit of express statutory grants of PTO rulemaking authority. See 35 U.S.C. § 316(a)(4) (“The Director shall prescribe regulations . . . establishing and governing inter partes review. . .”); see also id. §§ 2(b)(2)(A) (“The Office … may establish regulations, not inconsistent with law, which … shall govern the conduct of proceedings in the Office”). By disclaiming an effort to claim Chevron deference for “the POP’s interpretations of patentability provisions of the Patent Act,” U.S. Brief, supra, at 5 n.2, the Government appears to seek only such a limited holding on Chevron Step Zero.
- The court could determine that the POP’s precedential statutory interpretation does not satisfy Chevron Step Zero. The court would then need to determine how much weight to give the POP’s interpretation in accordance with Skidmore as well as what interpretation of the statute ultimately controls. See Mead, 533 U.S. at 234 (“Chevron did nothing to eliminate Skidmore’s holding that an agency’s interpretation may merit some deference whatever its form ….”); Merck & Co. v. Kessler, 80 F.3d 1543, 1550 (Fed. Cir. 1996). The significance of Skidmore deference is sometimes questioned, but Yoav Dotan discusses in a forthcoming article how Skidmore deference may be viewed as a form of deference that is distinct from that of Chevron but still meaningful, Yoav Dotan, Two Concepts of Deference, 71 Admin. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2020); John M. Golden, The USPTO’s Soft Power: Who Needs Chevron Deference?, 66 SMU L. Rev. 541, 549 (2013).
The Federal Circuit’s rulings in Facebook can have significance extending substantially beyond its particular joinder question if the court goes down either routes (2) or (3)—i.e., if the court resolves the question of whether, at least under circumstances like those in Proppant, the POP’s statutory interpretation satisfies Chevron Step Zero. Various Federal Circuit judges opined on related questions in Aqua Products, Inc. v. Matal, 872 F.3d 1290 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (en banc). For example, Judge Moore wrote an opinion, joined by Judges Newman and O’Malley, that explicitly contended that, “where Congress has delegated authority to ‘prescribe regulations,’ ” an agency must generally engage in “regulation” in order to exercise Chevron-level interpretive authority. Id. at 1330–31 (Moore, J.); see also id. at 1316–22 (O’Malley, J.) (indicating a similar view). By “regulation,” Judge Moore apparently meant a rulemaking process conducted separately from adjudication, rather than the issuance of precedential holdings in adjudication. See id. at 1331 (Moore, J.).
The United States’ brief rejects the notion that a specific statutory authorization to issue “regulations” implicitly precludes an agency from “issu[ing] binding [statutory] interpretations through other mechanisms Congress also provided”—in this case, PTAB adjudication. U.S. Brief, supra, at 8. In support of this position, the Government invokes a principle that agencies generally have a choice of policymaking mode—a principle with long-standing resonance in U.S. administrative law, see, e.g., Peter L. Strauss et al., Gellhorn and Byse’s Administrative Law: Cases and Comments 385 (11th ed. 2011). U.S. Brief, supra, at 8–11 & n.4. Alternatively, the United States’ brief might have sought to distinguish Judge Moore’s position in Aqua Products on the narrower ground that this position primarily contemplated substantive “standards,” not “rules on procedure,” which the opinion explicitly noted “are exempt from the notice-and-comment rulemaking requirements of § 553,” 872 F.3d at 1331–32 & n.4. Perhaps the United States declined to rely on this distinction because the Government wishes to avoid having deference questions turn on sometimes tricky classifications of substance and procedure. Joinder rules, for example, might on their face seem fundamentally procedural, cf. Luxliner P.L. Export, Co. v. RDI/Luxliner, Inc., 13 F.3d 69, 71–72 (3d Cir. 1993), but there might be an argument that the IPR joinder provision’s relationship with the statutory time bar for IPR petitions under 35 U.S.C. § 315(b) muddles its status, cf. Joseph v. Athanasopoulos, 648 F.3d 58, 65 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting the New York Court of Appeals’ statement that “the impact of the Statute of Limitations, though often denominated as procedural, in a practical sense may also be said to be substantive,” Smith v. Russell Sage Coll., 429 N.E.2d 746, 750 (N.Y. 1981)).
In any event, given the background principle invoked by the United States, I tend to agree with Judge Hughes’ opinion in Aqua Products that Judge Moore’s opinion relied too much on the Patent Act’s specific use of the word “regulations” in expressly providing for PTO rulemaking. See Aqua Products, 872 F.3d at 1364–67 (Hughes, J., dissenting). The amicus curiae brief from David Boundy shows a way that Judge Moore’s position might be fortified, at least in principle, by reference to such language’s broader statutory context. Although the Patent Act gives the Director power to act through rulemaking, the Patent Act generally assigns adjudication of proceedings such as IPRs to the PTAB. See 35 U.S.C. § 6(b)(4); see also id. § 316(c). Moreover, although the PTO Director can sit as a member of a multi-member PTAB panel such as the POP, the PTAB’s final decisions in such proceedings are not subject to reversal by the Director acting alone, see John M. Golden, Working Without Chevron: The PTO as Prime Mover, 65 Duke L.J. 1657, 1680 (2016), and the PTAB therefore appears to be something other than “a mere alter ego” of the Director, John M. Golden, PTO Panel Stacking: Unblessed by the Federal Circuit and Likely Unlawful, 104 Iowa L. Rev. 2447, 2454 (2019); see also id. at 2456. Consistent with this apparent separation between the Director and the PTAB, Boundy’s brief suggests that the PTAB should be treated as an adjudicative entity that does not share in any Chevron-level interpretive authority that Congress delegated to the Director. Brief of Amicus Curiae David E. Boundy, in Support of Neither Party 1–3 [hereinafter “Boundy Brief”]; cf. Martin v. Occupational Safety & Health Rev. Comm’n, 499 U.S. 144, 154 (1991) (stating that, with respect to “traditional agencies—that is, agencies possessing a unitary structure—the Court had “concluded that agency adjudication is a generally permissible mode of lawmaking and policymaking only because the unitary agencies in question also had been delegated the power to make law and policy through rulemaking” (emphasis in original)).
In the context of Facebook, however, there appears to be a problem for Boundy’s invocation of a lack of “consolidated rulemaking and adjudicatory authority,” Boundy Brief, supra, at 5. Specifically, in contrast to the generality of decisions in an IPR that occur after institution, the Patent Act expressly assigns to the Director the authority to decide on IPR institution and joinder. See 35 U.S.C. §§ 314–15. In combination with the Director’s express power to issue regulations, this original assignment to the Director of case-by-case determination of institution and joinder issues indicates that, from the statutory standpoint, there is “consolidated rulemaking and adjudicatory authority” over these issues. In deciding institution and joinder issues, the PTAB’s POP apparently exercises authority delegated downward to it by the Director, rather than laterally vested in the PTAB by Congress directly. Thus, in deciding questions of institution and joinder, the PTAB generally and the POP specifically might be viewed as acting in a manner relatively analogous to that of an adjudicatory body within a more traditionally unitary agency structure—for example, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an adjudicative body that decides matters based on authority delegated to it by the Attorney General and whose decisions, the Supreme Court has held, may merit Chevron deference. See Golden, Working Without Chevron, supra, at 1687–89. In short, even if the Federal Circuit is impressed by the consolidated-authority point, it might still find that the statutory interpretation in Proppant satisfies Chevron Step Zero but at the same time limit the significance of this finding by holding only that the POP’s precedential statutory interpretations are eligible for Chevron deference when those interpretations involve an issue with respect to which the Patent Act has vested both relevant rulemaking and relevant case-by-case decision-making authority in the Director—perhaps, in some circumstances, through an express grant of power to “[t]he Office,” 35 U.S.C. § 2(b)(2), whose “powers and duties” are in turn “vested in” the Director, id. § 3(a)(1).
The intricacies of the above arguments suggest that the Federal Circuit could do the patent community a substantial service by engaging with the question of what deference framework applies to a POP statutory interpretation such as that in Proppant—i.e., by pursuing path (2) or (3) in the three bullets above. Of course, if the Federal Circuit does answer such a question of general significance, that could increase Supreme Court interest in reviewing the decision. Several Justices have already signaled interest in reconsidering the reach and validity of the Chevron deference framework. This past June, five Justices went out of their way to indicate a belief that the framework’s validity is an open question. See Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400, 2425 (2019) (Roberts, C.J., concurring in part); id. at 2446 n.114 (Gorsuch, J., concurring in the judgment); id. at 2449 (Kavanaugh, J., concurring in the judgment). Could Facebook be yet another patent case taken up by the Supreme Court?