In Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee, Supreme Court Will Have the Chance to Clarify that Patents are not Second Class Property Rights

Alden Abbott —  22 January 2016

On January 15, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Federal Circuit’s decision in Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee, a case that raises the question of whether patent rights, once issued initially by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Patent Office (PTO), are to be treated as fully legitimate interests or instead as “second class citizens” in the property rights firmament.  Cuozzo also raises questions about the ability of a patent owner to obtain full judicial review of all aspects of an administrative decision that strips him of his property rights

This case turns on the construction of the American Invents Act of 2011 (AIA) provisions on post-issuance “inter partes review” (IPR) proceedings conducted by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), an administrative tribunal within PTO (see 35 U.S.C. § 311).  The AIA did not alter the statutory understanding that, once PTO has issued a patent, the patent holder holds a legitimate property right (“patents shall have the attributes of personal property”, 35 U.S.C. § 261).  Furthermore, post-AIA, a patent continues to be presumed to be valid, unless and until a third party meets the burden of proving it invalid (“[a] patent shall be presumed valid” and “[t]he burden of establishing invalidity of a patent or any claim thereof shall rest on the party asserting such invalidity”, 35 U.S.C. § 282).

In response to the critique that federal district court litigation took too long and made it too costly to challenge “low quality” patents, the AIA established administrative PTAB IPR proceedings as a faster and (therefore) less costly alternative to challenging patents in the courts.  The AIA did not, however, alter the statutory presumption that a patent is a valid property right for purposes of such proceedings.  Moreover, although the AIA never specifically addressed the issue, PTO decided to apply a “broadest reasonable interpretation” (BRI) approach in PTAB IPR patent claims assessments.  BRI is the standard patent examiners apply before deciding whether to issue a patent.  Because it errs on the side of reading claims very broadly, it raises the probability that particular claims will be read as unpatentable because they “claim too much” and stray into existing art.  By contrast, federal district courts have never applied BRI, instead construing claims based on the neutral standard of “correct claims construction.”  This means that IPRs are not a speedy neutral substitute for district court litigation – they are instead an inherently biased forum that fails to accord challenged patents the dignity the statutory presumption of validity merits.  This degrades the value of patents and diminishes returns to patenting.  In other words, although application of an onerous standard (BRI) may be appropriate in deciding whether to grant a patent right initially, applying that same standard to “second guess” a patent right that has been granted diminishes its status as a presumptively valid property right.

The Supreme Court in Cuozzo Speed Technologies will address the question of whether the PTAB “may construe claims in an issued patent according to their broadest reasonable interpretation rather than their plain and ordinary meaning.”  The Cuozzo case arose as follows.  Cuozzo owned a patent that discloses an interface which displays a vehicle’s current speed as well as the speed limit.  In response to a challenge by Garmin International, Inc., the PTAB applied the BRI standard in disallowing certain of the patent’s claims as “obvious.”  In February 2015, a two-judge Federal Circuit panel majority affirmed this determination (authored by Judge Timothy Dyk, writing for himself and for Judge Raymond Clevenger), finding no error in the Board’s claim construction under the BRI standard, and also held that it had no jurisdiction to review the PTO’s decision to institute the IPR.

In her dissent, Judge Pauline Newman stressed that the Federal Circuit’s approval of BRI in patent examinations “was based on the unfettered opportunity to amend in those proceedings. That opportunity is not present in I[PR]; amendment of claims requires permission, and since the inception of I[PR], motions to amend have been granted in only two cases, although many have been requested.”  She noted that Congress intended an IPR to be an “adjudicative proceeding,” and “the PT[AB] tribunal cannot serve as a surrogate for district court litigation if the PTAB does not apply the same law to the same evidence.”

Judge Newman also dissented from the panel majority’s conclusion that 35 U.S.C. § 314(d) (which provides that PTO’s determination to institute an IPR “shall be final and unappealable”) “must be read to bar review of all institution decisions, even after the [PTAB] issues a final decision.”  According to Judge Newman, “[t]his ruling appears to impede full judicial review of the PTAB’s final decision, further negating the purpose of the America Invents Act to achieve correct adjudication of patent validity through Inter Partes Review in the [PTAB] administrative agency.”  In particular, a failure to review IPR institution decisions even after a final IPR ruling has been rendered would, as noted patent attorney Gene Quinn explains, give “the USPTO . . . unreviewable discretion to do whatever they want with respect to instituting IPRs, even in situations where petitions are clearly defective on their face.”  Quinn also points to a broader separation of powers concern raised by such unreviewable discretion:

Even if Congress intended to forever insulate [IPR] initiation decisions from judicial review, such an intention would seem to clearly violate at least the spirit of the bedrock Constitutional principles that ensure checks and balances between and among co-equal branches of government.  If Congress could do this here with patent rights then why couldn’t Congress prevent judicial review of decisions relating to real property?

After a sharply divided Federal Circuit voted six to five to deny rehearing en banc, the Supreme granted Cuozzo’s petition for certiorari, focused on these two questions:

(1) Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that, in inter partes review (IPR) proceedings, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board may construe claims in an issued patent according to their broadest reasonable interpretation rather than their plain and ordinary meaning; and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in holding that, even if the Board exceeds its statutory authority in instituting an IPR proceeding, the Board’s decision whether to institute an IPR proceeding is judicially unreviewable.

The Cuozzo case will afford the Supreme Court an opportunity to construe the AIA in a manner that gives full protection to the property rights that have long been understood to flow from a U.S. patent grant – an understanding that accords with treatment of patents as a true form of property, not as second class statutory privileges.  Such an understanding would also strengthen the U.S. patent system and thereby promote the economic growth and innovation it engenders (see here for a description of recent research describing the economic benefits of a strong patent system).

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.