By David Boundy
David Boundy of Cambridge Technology Law LLC, a patent law firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, practices at the intersection of patent and administrative law, and consults with other firms on PTAB trials and appeals. In 2007–09, David led the teams that successfully urged the Office of Management and Budget to quash the USPTO’s continuations, claims, information disclosure statements, and appeal regulations under the Paperwork Reduction Act.
This paper is a short version of an article in the current issue of ABA Landslide, vol. 9, no. 3, electronic edition. It’s a follow up to my earlier paper on the Cuozzo case, which ran in Patently-O in February 2015.
Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee illustrates an important lesson for the patent bar: federal courts are far more familiar with administrative law than with patent law. Almost every federal court hears several times as many administrative law cases as patent cases. Even the Federal Circuit sees at least as many administrative law issues (involving various federal employees and contracts) as patent law issues. We patent lawyers need better administrative law issue spotting skills, and when a case presents them, we must argue on administrative law grounds with administrative law expertise. Basic principles of good advocacy urge us to argue our cases on the courts’ choice of turf.
Cuozzo is a prime illustration. In Cuozzo, the Supreme Court narrowly decided that the PTO’s decision to institute an inter partes review (IPR) against Cuozzo’s patent was unreviewable. Notably, the Court’s reasoning clarifies that many decisions to institute are judicially reviewable, so long as the issues are cloaked in administrative law terms rather than patent law terms. Cuozzo’s loss stems from Cuozzo’s briefing that failed to mention a dead-on administrative law statute, and that was all but silent on the Supreme Court’s administrative law precedent. Cuozzo creates many future opportunities for informed administrative law advocacy.
The AIA, Its Preclusion Statutes, and Cuozzo’s Path to the Supreme Court
The 2011 America Invents Act (AIA) created new patent reviews within the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): inter partes review (IPR), post-grant review (PGR), and covered business method review (CBM). Congress included preclusion statutes that limit judicial review of USPTO decisions to institute such reviews.
The preclusion statutes for IPR and PGR decisions to institute, 35 U.S.C. § 314(d) and § 324(e) respectively, are essentially similar: “The determination by the Director whether to institute [a review] under this section shall be final and nonappealable.” Compared to other preclusion statutes (discussed in the full Landslide paper), this is decidedly on the weak end of the spectrum of preclusion statutes.
In February 2015, the Federal Circuit gave its first deep consideration to these statutes in In re Cuozzo Speed Technologies LLC. The IPR petition against Cuozzo’s patent had applied reference A to claim 10, and references A, B, and C to claim 17 (which depended from claim 10). However, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) instituted on references A, B, and C against claim 10. The PTAB cited no statute or regulation, only its own naked claim of “discretion” to mix and match among the grounds in the petition.
The IPR ended in cancellation of claim 10, on references A, B, and C.
Cuozzo appealed the final decision to the Federal Circuit, and challenged the decision to institute. The Federal Circuit held that § 314(d) precluded all review of all issues embedded in a decision to institute: “On its face, the provision is not directed to precluding review only before a final decision. It is written to exclude all review of the decision whether to institute review.”
In June 2016, the Supreme Court issued its further decision. Where all decisions leave open issues, Cuozzo introduces several internal contradictions. Let’s look at the background administrative law case law, and how Cuozzo fits—or misfits.
APA § 706: Government-Wide Grounds of Judicial Review
The Administrative Procedure Act (APA), in 5 U.S.C. § 706(2), confines judicial review of agency action to a specific list of errors—a court may set aside agency actions that are:
(A) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law; …
(C) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right;
(D) without observance of procedure required by law; …
Section 706(2) is famously deferential to agencies, but it doesn’t insulate agencies totally. Courts set aside agency decisions that fail standards of “reasoned decisionmaking” by failing to explain an important point, giving an irrelevant explanation, omitting consideration of important factors or basing a decision on impermissible factors, deciding without evidence, deciding on legal error, acting beyond jurisdictional authority, and the like.
APA § 704: Preliminary Decisions Are Reviewable with Final Agency Action
Procedural lapses usually find review under 5 U.S.C. § 704: “A preliminary, procedural, or intermediate agency action or ruling not directly reviewable is subject to review on the review of the final agency action.” Thus, if an agency’s final decision is infected by error earlier in the process, the final decision can be attacked on the basis of that underlying error.
Supreme Court’s Presumption of Judicial Review
Since the days of Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court has relied on a strong presumption that judicial review is available for executive branch action. Agency decisions are presumed to be reviewable, and preclusion statutes are construed narrowly. Even within the scope of preclusion, an agency decision that reflects “brazen disregard” of procedure, or “abuse,” or that has sufficiently grave consequences, often can be reviewed. Likewise, the Court has always held agencies to scrupulous observance of their own procedures. The presumption of review has always been extraordinarily high for procedure, and the “holes” in preclusion statutes for procedure and “abuse” have always been quite large. Cuozzo is an extraordinary outlier. Among the principles established in Supreme Court precedent:
- Courts accept judicial review of underlying issues in agency decisions, even if the final decisions are unreviewable, especially where procedural fairness is at stake.
- Preclusion statutes are read narrowly—they preclude only what they say they preclude, and no more. Even where a statute precludes review of an end result decision, underlying issues are not precluded unless the preclusion statute speaks expressly to those underlying issues. “[R]eview is available to determine whether there has been a substantial departure from important procedural rights, a misconstruction of the governing legislation, or some like error going to the heart of the administrative determination.”
- Courts read statutes closely to split issues finely, and will review issues (especially underlying issues) that differ by a hair’s breadth from precluded issues. When a statute precludes benefit amounts for individual claimants, “challenges to the validity of the Secretary’s instructions and regulations are cognizable in courts of law.”
- When an agency statute, regulation, or guidance promises the public that an agency or agency employee “must” or “will,” the agency must follow those procedures “scrupulously.” Review of agency decisions under § 706(2)(D), “without observance of procedure required by law,” is “strict” and “without deference.”
Review under § 704/§ 706 is a persistent substrate. To preclude review, especially of underlying issues, Congress must speak expressly.
Cuozzo’s Brief, the Majority Opinion, and the End Result: Cuozzo’s Specific Institution Is Nonreviewable
The Cuozzo majority opinion follows the basic contour of 50 years of precedent: preclusion statutes are to be read narrowly. However, on the facts, Cuozzo lost—the Court characterized Cuozzo’s complaint to be a “mine-run claim,” “an ordinary dispute about the application of certain relevant patent statutes,” and “little more than a challenge to the Patent Office’s conclusion, under § 314(a), that the ‘information presented in the petition’ warranted review.” That is, the Supreme Court understood the case to be a good faith difference of opinion in application of validly promulgated law, not a case of an agency tribunal exercising naked “discretion” against a party, making up new rules on the fly with no grounding in any text, and asserting those new rules in a context with no opportunity for rejoinder. Because the Court was not informed of the procedural basis for the case, the Cuozzo opinion stands in striking contrast with the Court’s precedent that requires agencies’ “scrupulous” observance of procedure, and strict “no deference” judicial review for procedural issues.
The Supreme Court majority opinion embeds a number of internal contradictions that leave a great deal of unclear ground. The majority’s holding, if applied to the facts—at least the procedural facts as we patent lawyers understand them—leads to the opposite result.
Most of these contradictions in the majority opinion, and perhaps the final result itself, are invited error. Cuozzo’s brief treats the case as a patent law case, arguing page after page of Title 35 U.S.C. and Federal Circuit patent law cases. Cuozzo’s opening brief cites Supreme Court “preclusion of review” cases only as a cursory afterthought—a single string cite, with no discussion of analogies to precedential cases. The brief compounds the error by citing a 1946 case that had been overruled by the Supreme Court in 2013. The table of authorities in Cuozzo’s opening brief has only a single cite to Title 5 U.S.C., and only one more in the reply brief.
But reviewability is an administrative law issue, and that’s where the Court decided it.
Even though Cuozzo’s briefs are all but irrelevant to the administrative law bases on which the Court decided the case, the reasoning comes so close to going Cuozzo’s way. Cuozzo demonstrates the importance of identifying the turf where a court is likely to decide an issue, and arguing it there. And that may well be administrative law, rather than patent law.
Cuozzo’s “Long Paragraph”
The heart of the majority opinion is a long paragraph toward the end of section II, beginning “Nonetheless.” The majority explains that most issues arising under patent law are precluded, but that issues arising under other bodies of law are not. Review remains available for constitutional questions, and most importantly, for issues slotted into one of the pigeonholes of APA § 706. The latter half of the “long paragraph” reads as follows:
[W]e do not categorically preclude review of a final decision where a petition fails to give “sufficient notice” such that there is a due process problem with the entire proceeding, nor does our interpretation enable the agency to act outside its statutory limits by, for example, canceling a patent claim for “indefiniteness under § 112” in inter partes review. Such “shenanigans” may be properly reviewable in the context of § 319 and under the Administrative Procedure Act, which enables reviewing courts to “set aside agency action” that is “contrary to constitutional right,” “in excess of statutory jurisdiction,” or “arbitrary [and] capricious.”
The latter half of the long paragraph, especially the last sentence, opens a wide barn door. The Cuozzo majority’s long paragraph indicates that the full reach of § 706 applies to underlying issues in decisions to institute. Cuozzo tells us that issues that are losers when presented in patent law vocabulary become winners when wrapped in administrative law vocabulary.
Cuozzo Could Have Argued an Administrative Law Jurisdictional Issue
Cuozzo’s brief doesn’t squarely present the issue of the PTAB’s transgression of its own jurisdictional boundaries. Section 312(a) reads, “A petition . . . may be considered only if . . . the petition identifies, in writing and with particularity, each claim challenged, the grounds on which the challenge to each claim is based . . . .” Section 314(a) reads, “The Director may not authorize [institution of an IPR] unless the Director determines that the information presented in the petition . . . shows that there is a reasonable likelihood that the petitioner would prevail . . . .” These are plainly jurisdictional statutes, confining jurisdiction to the grounds in the petition. The APA, in § 706(2)(C), provides that a court shall set aside agency action “in excess of statutory jurisdiction.” Yet, Cuozzo’s brief argues only breaches of the AIA, not the administrative law jurisdictional issues that—the majority tells us—would be reviewable under administrative law principles.
The Supreme Court has been quite strict in enforcing agencies’ jurisdictional boundaries, no matter (in the Cuozzo majority’s words) how compelling “one important congressional objective” might be.
Cuozzo’s brief fleetingly nibbles at the edges of the issue, and even cites one of the important cases in this line (for a different proposition), but never squarely frames the challenge as “in excess of [the agency’s] jurisdiction”—neither brief mentions § 706 at all. And thus Cuozzo lost the issue.
The latter half of Cuozzo’s “long paragraph” places jurisdictional issues within the scope of judicial review, so long as they are framed in an § 706(2)(C) administrative law context, not a patent law context. Subject matter jurisdiction is central to a court’s duty to prevent agencies from “act[ing] outside . . . statutory limits,” or in the language of § 706, “in excess of statutory jurisdiction.”
Had the issue been presented squarely as a challenge to PTAB action beyond its jurisdiction, with the patent law issues argued as underlying support for APA § 706(2)(C) “in excess of jurisdiction” grounds, Cuozzo likely would have obtained a favorable result, and the Court majority would not have been left grasping at inconsistent straws to reach its decision.
Several more omissions from Cuozzo’s brief, and internal contradictions in the majority opinion, are discussed in the full Landslide paper. The full paper shows that Cuozzo lost a very winnable case because the opening brief argued patent law principles to the near exclusion of administrative law principles. The patent bar is left with a resultant set of internal contradictions in the Cuozzo decison, with all the problems and opportunities they create. And the Federal Circuit is left with a difficult task of reconciling Cuozzo’s reasoning against its end result.
The full paper gives a number of other examples of questions that come out differently depending on whether they’re argued as patent law issues or administrative law issues. There are many differences between the powers of an Article III court and of an agency tribunal, differences between appellate review of an Article III court vs. judicial review of an agency, differences in the arguments that an appellant and appellee can raise, and differences in limits on raising new issues on appeal. Unfortunately, Cuozzo’s brief did not exploit those differences or cite the applicable administrative law.
The key take-away is that almost every PTAB proceeding and appeal presents a “target rich environment” of administrative law issues. Teams that include administrative law expertise will successfully exploit many opportunities that are invisible to teams without that expertise.
Because of internal tensions in the Cuozzo decision, many issues remain to be decided by the Federal Circuit, and will be decided differently depending on how well parties match their argument turf to courts’ choice of decision turf.
. Cuozzo Speed Techs. v. Lee (Cuozzo III), 136 S. Ct. 2131 (2016).
. In re Cuozzo Speed Techs. LLC (Cuozzo I), 778 F.3d 1271 (Fed. Cir. 2015), reissued without change to the reviewability discussion, Cuozzo II, 793 F.3d 1268 (Fed. Cir. 2015).
. Cuozzo I, 778 F.3d at 1276.
. 5 U.S.C. § 702 (“A person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute, is entitled to judicial review thereof.”); Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402 (1971).
. Service v. Dulles, 354 U.S. 363 (1957); Vitarelli v. Seaton, 359 U.S. 535 (1959).
. Lindahl v. Office of Personnel Management,470 U.S. 768, 791 (1985) (internal quotation marks omitted).
. Bowen v. Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, 476 U.S. 667, 680 (1986).
. Reuters Ltd. v. FCC, 781 F.2d 946, 950–51 (D.C. Cir. 1986); see also Berkovitz v. United States, 486 U.S. 531, 544 (1988) (“The agency has no discretion to deviate from [its procedural regulations].”).
. Cuozzo III, 136 S. Ct. 2131, 2136, 2139, 2142 (2016).
. See Brief for the Petitioner, Cuozzo III (No. 15-446), 2016 WL 737452 at xiv, 52-53, 54 (Feb. 22, 20142016); Reply Brief for the Petitioner at iii, Cuozzo III, 2016 WL 1554733 (Apr. 15, 2016).
. Cuozzo III at 2141–42 (majority opinion).
. FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120, 125 (2000)