by Dennis Crouch
The level of estoppel was a sticking point a decade ago in the lead-up to the America Invents Act (AIA). Patentee’s were concerned with repeat harassment by accused infringers; Accused infringers were concerned that IPRs would be ineffective and that they would then lose their right to challenge the patent in court. We now know that IPRs are very effective, but sometimes patent challengers would still like a second bite. That is the situation in the pending petition for certiorari in Apple Inc. v. California Institute of Technology, 22-203 (U.S.). Apple lost its IPRs against CalTech and now wants to bring additional invalidity challenges in court that it could have raised in its IPR petitions.
In the 2011 AIA legislation, Congress created two forms of petitioner estoppel, each of which attach only if the IPR petition is granted and the PTAB reaches a Final Written Decision, and only with respect the claims actually adjudged in the IPR final written decision.
315(e)(1) Estoppel of Further Proceedings Before the USPTO: The petitioner [or privy/RPI] may not request or maintain a proceeding before the Office with respect to that claim on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.
315(e)(2) Estoppel of Invalidity Arguments in Court: The petitioner [or privy/RPI] may not assert either … that the claim is invalid on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.
35 U.S.C. 315(e). As you can see, both provisions create estoppel barring a petitioner from later raising “any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.” The question in
Apple v. CalTech: CalTech sued Apple and Broadcom for infringing its patents covering wireless communication chip logic. Apple responded with several IPR petitions. The petitions were granted initiating the IPR, but the USPTO eventually sided with patentee in its final written description. Apple is thus prohibited from re-challenging the validity of the already challenged claims “any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.”
Back in district court, Apple attempted to raise additional invalidity challenges, but the district court barred those defenses. The district court concluded that Apple could reasonably could have included those as grounds in its IPR petition and thus barred under 315(e)(2). CalTech eventually won a $1 billion jury verdict. On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated the verdict on other grounds, but affirmed on the issue of estoppel. The Federal Circuit particularly held that estoppel extends to “all grounds not stated in the petition but which reasonably could have been asserted against the claims included in the [IPR] petition.” California Inst. of Tech. v. Broadcom Ltd., 25 F.4th 976 (Fed. Cir. 2022), overruling Shaw Industries Group, Inc. v. Automated Creel Sys., Inc., 817 F.3d 1293 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
Apple’s new petition to the Supreme Court identifies what it sees as a fundamental flaw in the Federal Circuit’s textual analysis. The Federal Circuit concluded that Apple was estopped from later raising grounds that it reasonably could have raised in the inter partes review petition. But, the statute as written creates a slightly different test — asking what “reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.” The following is Apple’s question presented to the Supreme Court:
Whether the Federal Circuit erroneously extended IPR estoppel under 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(2) to all grounds that reasonably could have been raised in the petition filed before an inter partes review is instituted, even though the text of the statute applies estoppel only to grounds that “reasonably could have [been] raised during that inter partes review.”
Apple question presented.
The IPR process begins with an IPR petition. 35 U.S.C. § 311. The statute charges the USPTO Director the role of instituting the IPR, although that duty had been delegated tot he PTAB. 35 U.S.C. § 314. After institution, the PTAB conducts a trial and issues its final written description. Apple’s basic argument is that the statute’s use of “during” excludes potential actions that could have taken place prior to institution. To wit, Apple recognizes that it reasonably could have made additional arguments in its IPR filings, but those took place prior to the IPR; And, once the IPR petition is granted, the challenger no longer has any opportunity to raise any other grounds to challenge the patents. In this scenario, the statute is practically limited to cover only grounds actually raised. Apple explains:
When “an inter partes review of a claim in a patent … results in a final written decision,” a petitioner is estopped from asserting in district court litigation only “any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.” 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(2) (emphasis added). By expanding statutory estoppel to cover any ground that could have been raised in a petition before an inter partes review even begins, the Federal Circuit effectively rewrote the statute. This Court’s review is urgently needed to restore Section 315(e) to its proper scope.
Apple’s petition relies heavily on the work of Cleveland-Marshall Prof. Christa Laser and her 2018 Florida Law Review article. Christa Laser, The Scope of IPR Estoppel: A Statutory, Historical, and Normative Analysis, 70 Fla. L. Rev. 1127 (2018). Laser suggested that the Supreme Court reinterpret the statute and “should hold that IPR estoppel applies narrowly only to grounds actually raised and instituted.” Id. Baltimore Prof. Greg Dolin penned a responsive article concluding that Laser’s approach is too narrow. Gregory Dolin, Estopping Patent Harassment: A Response to Christa J. Laser, 70 Fla. L. Rev. F. 136 (2019). From my view, Dolin and the Federal Circuit have the better view on this one over Apple and Laser. We’ll see this fall whether the Supreme Court agrees.