by Dennis Crouch
Fitbit, Inc. v. Valencell, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2020)
In this decision, the Federal Circuit makes two important statements going forward relating to inter partes review proceedings:
- A joined party has full rights to appeal a PTAB final decision – even as to claims or grounds not raised by the joined party.
- During an IPR, the PTAB must correct errors in a patent when a certificate of correction would be appropriate and when requested by the parties. (When you read the case, you’ll note that the court doesn’t quite say this, but almost.)
Valencell’s US8923941 covers methods of generating data relating to blood oxygen level, heart rate, and other physical activity. The claimed method includes two primary steps: (1) sensing; and (2) processing. The sensing step requires a single device “attached” to a user that includes a motin sensor (accelerometer) and a pulse-oximeter (photoplethysmography – PPG). The processing step creates a signal that includes heart rate, respiration rate, and a plurality of physical activity parameters.
This setup is now common with many millions of such devices being sold across the country. According to its court filings, Valencell repeatedly approached various major players–including Fitbit and Apple–looking for partnership & licensing opportunities. The companies refused and Valencell eventually filed a set of infringement lawsuits back in 2016. Apple & Fitbit then petitioned for inter partes review.
This case is partically an IPR procedure case and so the following timeline is somewhat important:
- Apple filed its IPR petition on claims 1-13. The Board partially granted the petition in part — only as to claims 1, 2, and 6-13.
- Fitbit then filed its IPR petition on claims 1, 2, and 6-13 and moved for joinder with Apple’s case. The Board granted that motion.
- The Supreme Court then issued SAS — barring the practice of partial institution. As such, the Board issued a new institution decision adding all of the challenged claims (3-5).
- The Board then found the originally granted claims to be unpatentable, but found no problem with claims 3-5 (“not unpatentable.”)
Apple did not appeal, but Fitbit has appealed — arguing that claims 3-5 are also invalid.
Joinder and Right of Appeal: The first question in the case is whether Fitbit has a right to appeal regarding claims that it did not challenge in the first place. Here, the Federal Circuit says yes they do get to appeal — holding that a joined party’s rights apply “to the entirety of the proceedings and includes the right of appeal.” The court here was primarily guided by the right-of-appeal statute that states plainly “Any party to the inter partes review shall have the right to be a party to the appeal.” 35 U.S.C. § 319. And, the joinder provision indicates that the new entity is “join[ed] as a party.” 35 U.S.C. § 315(c).
On the merits of obviousness: I discussed the general scope of claim 1 above. Claims 3-5 are all dependent and add a few additional limitations:
- Claim 3 – the processed data is usable with an application specific interface (abbreviated API)
- Claim 4 – the “the application” generates statistical relationships between the various parameters. [Note – there is no antecedent basis for “the application”]
- Claim 5 – adds further definition to the stats developed, including “Bland-Altman plots.”
Do the Analysis: As to claim 3, the parties had offered competing constructions of the term application-specific-interface. The Board chose the patentee’s narrower construction and ruled the claim not-proven-unpatentable. On appeal, the Federal Circuit ruled that the Board should have completed its analysis and walked through whether the claim was obvious under the narrow construction.
Lack of Antecedent Basis: The limitations of claims 4 & 5 lack antecedent basis. In particular, the claims appear to add limitations to “the application” but that portion of the invention is not previously claimed. The Board didn’t get into its obviousness analysis because of this technical issue with the claims:
Although we agree that the recitation of the term “the application” in claim 4 lacks antecedent basis in claim 1, we declined to speculate as to the intended meaning of the term. Although Petitioner and Patent Owner now seem to agree on the nature of the error in claims 4 and 5 [citing briefs], we find that the nature of the error in claims 4 and 5 is subject to reasonable debate in view of the language of claims 1 and 3–5 and/or that the prosecution history does not demonstrate a single interpretation of the claims.
It turns out that during prosecution, the patent applicant cancelled a dependent claim discussed the Application, and the stray reference was not caught by either the attorney nor the examiner.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit holds that the Board should have fixed the error here.
The preferable agency action is to seek to serve the agency’s assignment under the America Invents Act, and to resolve the merits of patentability. Although the Board does not discuss its authority to correct errors, there is foundation for such authority in the America Invents Act, which assured that the Board has authority to amend claims of issued patents. See 35 U.S.C. § 316(d). . . . The concept of error correction is not new to the Agency, which is authorized to issue Certificates of Correction.
In particular, all the parties agreed that the error was inadvertent and could be corrected by the Board.
Although the Board states that the intended meaning of the claims is “subject to reasonable debate,” we perceive no debate. Rather, the parties to this proceeding agree as to the error and its correction. The Board erred in declining to accept the parties’ uniform position and correct the error that claim 4 depend from claim 3. With this correction, the rejection of claims 4 and 5 for absence of antecedent basis for “the application” disappears.
Slip Op. On remand, the Board will correct the error and actually judge the obviousness of these three remaining claims.