By Jordan Duenckel. Jordan is a second-year law student at the University of Missouri School of Law and a registered patent agent.
Apple brought an action against the USPTO Director Vidal in district court under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701– 706, challenging the Director’s instructions to the Board regarding exercise of discretion in IPR institution decisions. In Apple v. Vidal, 2022-1249, — F.4th — (Fed. Cir. Mar. 13, 2023), Judge Taranto (joined by Judges Lourie and Stoll) largely affirmed the district court’s dismissal, confirming that the Director’s instructions are unreviewable. The court did separately reverse a tertiary challenge to allow Apple to proceed on a claim related to the note-and-comments procedure of the APA.
Apple and other repeat players in patent infringement litigation often use the inter partes review process under 35 U.S.C. §§ 311–319 to challenge the validity of asserted patents. The statute provides a two-step IPR process: Step 1 is the institution decision by the Director under § 314(b); Step 2 is the trial and final written decision by the PTAB.
At least two prerequisites assist the Director in deciding to grant review:  a reasonable likelihood that the petitioner would prevail in 35 U.S.C. § 314(a) and  a petition must be filed within one year after service of the infringement complaint. § 315(b). Even if these conditions are met, the Director has unreviewable discretion over whether to initiate an IPR. The statutory text is seemingly as clear as a statute can be: “The determination by the Director whether to institute an inter partes review under [§ 314] shall be final and non-appealable.” 35 U.S.C. § 314(d); see also United States v. Arthrex, Inc., 141 S. Ct. 1970, 1977 (2021).
From the outset of the IPR program, the Director delegated institution authority to the Board. 37 C.F.R. § 42.4(a). Practically, without this delegation, Director Vidal would spend a disproportional amount of time reviewing IPR petitions at the expense of other duties of the office, although she could have delegated responsibility to other agency departments such as the petitions division. The right of delegation of the institution is settled law. See Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc. v. Covidien LP, 812 F.3d 1023, 1031–32 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
At issue in Apple v. Vidal are the so-called Fintiv instructions issued by the Director based on Apple Inc. v. Fintiv, Inc., IPR2020-00019, 2020 WL 2126495 (P.T.A.B. Mar. 20, 2020) which provides six factors for analysis of whether to institute an IPR parallel to pending litigation.
Proposing an analysis under the arbitrary and capricious standard, Apple and the other petitioners are directly focused now not on the denial of a specific petition for IPR review but as a general challenge to the Director’s instructions to the PTAB about how to exercise the delegated discretion.
Slip Op. The district court ruled that 35 U.S.C. § 314(d) “precludes judicial review” of the challenged agency actions, bringing the case within the APA exclusion stated in 5 U.S.C. § 701(a)(1). According to this court, the IPR statute’s preclusion was settled by the Supreme Court in Arthrex and encompasses review of content-focused challenges to the Fintiv instructions. § 314(d) provides the clearest congressional delegation of nonreviewable discretion possible and the panel rightfully relied on plain-meaning and clear Supreme Court precedent.
While affirming the dismissal of the content-based claims, the court separates the procedural requirements set forth in the APA. Reversing the district court in part, Judge Taranto’s panel opinion reopened Apple’s claim that the Director was required, by 35 U.S.C. § 116 together with 5 U.S.C. § 553, to promulgate institution instructions through notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. Slicing the procedure from the underlying substance of the rule, Taranto relies on Lincoln v. Vigil, 508 U.S. 182, 195 (1993) to clarify that the 5 U.S.C. § 553 provides the basis for rulemaking through the notice-and-comment procedure for the Director’s instructions and is a separate analysis of reviewability from the substance of the instructions.
Standing was also preemptively addressed for the remand proceedings. Lujan provides the three-step test: injury-in-fact, causation, and redressability. In search of a particularized, concrete injury, the court takes notice that Apple is a repeat player with a history of IPR claims being denied. This past injury was used to show the eminency of future injury resulting from the denial of the benefits of IPRs linked to the concrete interest possessed by an infringement defendant. Redressability and causation were met because there is a genuine possibility that the instructions would be changed in a way favorable to Apple in notice-and-comment rulemaking.
The Federal Circuit may have reached a bit to find standing in an effort to effectively resolve concerns about a heavily used procedure: the IPR process. On remand, the district court might rightly decide that a traditional notice-comment rulemaking procedure is required to redress harms or prophylactically provide clarifications for the patent system that can accomplish the goals of using agency resources effectively. Allowing the frequent fliers of the IPR system to at least have an appearance of input in the procedure would create a process with more certainty and produce more long-term economic efficiency.