In re Swanson (Fed. Cir. 2008)
Back in 1984, the patent examiner rejected Swanson’s claim based on U.S. Patent No. 4,094,647 (“Deutsch”). The claims were then amended and the patent allowed. Later, in an infringement action involving the patent, the Federal Circuit affirmed a judgment that “Deutsch did not anticipate the asserted claims.” Abbott v. Syntron, 334 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2003). Surmodics is the patent owner, and the patent is licensed to Abbott.
After losing at the CAFC, Syntron filed for ex parte reexamination of the patent – asserting again that the claims were anticipated by Deutsch. As per usual, the PTO agreed to reexamine the patent – based on a “substantial new question of patentability.” 35 USC §303. On appeal, Swanson argues that the Deutsch reference was considered in both the initial examination and the litigation – and thus cannot serve as the “new” basis for reexamination.
Third-party filed reexaminations provide a check on PTO power, but the SNQ requirement is designed to protect patentees from harassment.
This ‘substantial new question’ requirement would protect patentees from having to respond to, or participate in unjustified reexaminations. Further, it would act to bar reconsideration of any argument already decided by the Office, whether during the original examination or an earlier reexamination. House Report 96-1307, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. (1980).
In its 1997 Portola Packaging case, the CAFC gave teeth to the SNQ requirement – finding that a new question could not be presented by “prior art previously considered by the PTO in relation to the same or broader claims.” Reacting to that decision, in 2002 Congress amended Section 303 and to ensure that a new question may be raised by prior art that was previously considered by the examiner:
35 USC §303 “The existence of a substantial new question of patentability is not precluded by the fact that a patent or printed publication was previously cited by or to the Office or considered by the Office.”
Pointedly, the House Report accompanying the 2002 legislation found that “the Federal Circuit incorrectly interpreted Congress’ original intent.” According to the House Report, “the appropriate test to determine whether a ‘substantial new question of patentability’ exists should not merely look at the number of references or whether they were previously considered or cited but their combination in the appropriate context of a new light as it bears on the question of the validity of the patent.”
SNQ = Reference Never Considered by the PTO for the Particular Purpose: Based on the statutory change, the appellate panel found that a substantial new question is simply one that has never been considered by the PTO. Here, the record shows that the original examiner relied upon Deutsch only as a secondary reference in an obviousness rejection of a broader claim.
“In light of the extremely limited purpose for which the examiner considered Deutsch in the initial examination, the Board is correct that the issue of whether Deutsch anticipates the method disclosed in claims 22, 23, and 25 was a substantial new question of patentability, never before addressed by the PTO”
SNQ Relation to Court Proceedings: In court, the parties had battled out the exact anticipation argument presented in the reexamination. On appeal, the CAFC panel found that “the determination of a substantial new question is unaffected by these court decisions.” According to the court this makes sense because “the two forums [Courts and the PTO] take different approaches in determining validity and on the same evidence could quite correctly come to different conclusions” based on the burden of proof. Quoting Ethicon (Fed. Cir. 1988).
- Judges Gajarsa (Author), Lourie, & Bryson.
- This opinion gives further strength to ex parte reexamination requests.
- The CAFC has consistently required that a patent’s presumption of validity be negated by “clear and convincing evidence.” Here, the court made a minor slip by calling the standard ‘statutory.’
“In civil litigation, a challenger who attacks the validity of patent claims must overcome the presumption of validity with clear and convincing evidence that the patent is invalid. 35 U.S.C. § 282. If this statutory burden is not met, “[c]ourts do not find patents ‘valid,’ only that the patent challenger did not carry the ‘burden of establishing invalidity in the particular case before the court.'” Ethicon, 849 F.2d at n.3 (internal citations omitted) (emphasis in original).”
Thanks to Paul Morgan for noting this issue.