SAS Indirectly Strengthens the Impact of Estoppel
The Supreme Court decision in SAS Institute v. Iancu[i]will likely strengthen a patent owner’s ability to argue in favor of estoppel and keep a petitioner from getting multiple bites at the invalidity apple in parallel PTAB and district court proceedings. At first glance the Supreme Court’s recent decision appears to be another setback to patent owners. Instead of quickly defeating post grant challenges to at least some challenged claims pursuant to a denial of institution, patent owners will now have to fight petitions even if the Board finds merit with only a single ground challenging patentability. Upon closer examination, however, SAS’s implications for estoppel are favorable and may even resolve a split concerning the scope of estoppel.
The Supreme Court Directive in SAS
SAS addressed the PTAB’s “partial institution” policy, under which the PTAB claimed the power to institute an IPR with respect to only some of the claims challenged in a petition. In SAS, the Supreme Court rejected that policy. The Court explained that if the PTAB decides to institute an IPR, 35 U.S.C. § 318(a) provides that PTAB “shall issue a final written decision with respect to the patentability of any patent claim challenged by the petitioner.” Emphasizing the statute’s use of the phrase “any patent claim,” the Court held that PTAB cannot pick and choose which claims to address, but must instead take the petition as it finds it.[ii] The Court found further support for its interpretation in the structure of the inter partes review process “in which it’s the petitioner, not the Director, who gets to define the contours of the proceeding.”[iii]
The Split on Estoppel
The partial institution policy that SAS rejected has created a split in the interpretation of estoppel under 35 U.S.C. § 315(e). Section 315(e)(2) provides that “[t]he petitioner in an inter partes review . . . that results in a final written decision under section 318(a) . . . may not assert . . . in a civil action . . . that the claim is invalid on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.” Congress intended this provision to preclude the same party from re-litigating invalidity in the district court once it had chosen to do so through an IPR. As then-Director of the PTO David Kappos testified, the “estoppel provisions mean that your patent is largely unchallengeable by the same party.”[iv] Similarly, Senator Grassley stated that IPR review “will completely substitute for at least the patents-and-printed-publications portion of the civil litigation.”[v]
Notwithstanding the apparently broad estoppel envisioned by Congress, some courts have interpreted § 315(e) more narrowly. For example, in Shaw Industries Group, Inc. v. Automated Creel Systems, Inc., the Federal Circuit explained that where PTAB partially instituted an IPR, the petitioner was not estopped from raising a ground in district court that it had included in its IPR petition but on which PTAB did not institute. The court reasoned that the non-instituted ground was not raised “during th[e] inter partes review.”[vi] Similarly, in HP Inc. v. MPHJ Technology Investment, LLC, the Federal Circuit explained that “noninstituted grounds do not become a part of the IPR,” and “[a]ccordingly, the noninstituted grounds were not raised and, as review was denied, could not be raised in the IPR.” The court therefore held that “the estoppel provisions of § 315(e)(1) do not apply.”[vii] Other courts have followed suit and even extended that holding.[viii]
A broader interpretation of estoppel tracks what many believe to be the statutory intent, however, as a party should not get two bites at the apple and be able to seek review at both the PTAB and in the district court. Adopting this view, the court in Biscotti Inc. v. Microsoft Corp. cabined Shaw and HP to their facts, holding that they “exempt an IPR petitioner from § 315(e)’s estoppel provision only if the PTAB precludes the petitioner from raising a ground during the IPR proceeding for purely procedural reasons.”[ix] Thus, the court held that § 315(e) estopped the petitioner from asserting any ground that (1) was included in PTAB’s final written decision, (2) was not instituted for non-procedural reasons, or (3) was not included in the petition.[x] Any other decision would result in needlessly protracted litigation as petitioners would re-litigate arguments similar to those that it had already lost or strategically chose not to include in a petition.[xi] The court in Douglas Dynamics, LLC v. Meyer Products LLC took a similar view with respect to non-petitioned grounds, holding that estoppel applies “to grounds not asserted in the IPR petition, so long as they are based on prior art that could have been found by a skilled searcher’s diligent search.”[xii]
SAS Strengthens Patent Owners’ Estoppel Arguments Because a Petitioner is Deemed to be the “Master of its Complaint”
While SAS had nothing to do with estoppel on its face, much of the disagreement regarding the scope of estoppel arose out of the PTAB’s partial institution policy and the effect of estoppel on non-instituted claims. Because the PTAB no longer has discretion as to partial institution, courts will no longer have to struggle with whether a petitioner is estopped from raising non-instituted grounds for unpatentability in a subsequent or parallel district court proceeding. While a few open issues remain, the patent owner will still be able to argue that SAS supports the idea that petitioners should only get one opportunity to challenge patentability—either at the PTAB or before a jury. The Supreme Court directive from SAS, coupled with recent guidance from the PTAB, suggests that the divide between the broad (Biscotti and Douglas Dynamics) and narrow (Shaw and HP) interpretations of estoppel—at least with respect to pre-institution decisions from the PTAB—may be merging.
Moreover, while SAS does not explicitly resolve whether a petitioner is estopped from arguing non-petitioned claims in a parallel district court case, the premise behind the Supreme Court’s decision—that the petitioner is the master of its own petition—suggests that estoppel should apply. Some commentators have predicted that because PTAB must now choose between full institution and full denial, “petitioners [will] have an incentive to focus their petitions even further—when choosing claims to challenge, grounds to assert, and prior art to cite—in order to ensure that the likelihood of full institution is greater than the likelihood of full denial.”[xiii] But filing a targeted (and therefore stronger) petition may run the risk of estoppel on any non-petitioned claim. As Biscotti and Douglas Dynamics indicate, petitioners should not be permitted to hold arguments in reserve in case of an unfavorable result at the PTAB. Moreover, SAS supports Biscotti’s and Douglas Dynamic’s interpretation of the meaning of “during” the IPR. While Shaw characterized an IPR as not beginning until institution,[xiv]SAS depicts post grant review as a single process that begins with petitioner defining the scope of the proceeding in its petition.[xv] Applying estoppel to non-petitioned claims would not be inconsistent with a courts’ concern “that estoppel applies only to those arguments, or potential arguments, that received (or reasonably could have received) proper judicial attention.”[xvi]
Further, SAS will still enable patent owners to rely on the same line of cases to argue for procedural estoppel. Before SAS, the PTAB frequently denied institution in view of procedural deficiencies.[xvii] Now, however, the PTAB will be faced with either denying institution for failure to comply with PTAB rules or allowing institution on all grounds even where some of the challenges are procedurally improper. For example, petitioners could present a single procedurally proper argument to open the door to review and evade page limit requirements by packing the remainder of the petition with grounds that must also be instituted under SAS but that are supported only by improper incorporations by reference.[xviii] While denying institution because of procedural failings could preclude the petitioner from filing another (procedurally proper) petition making the same arguments,[xix] the petitioner, as “master of its complaint,” could have drafted its petition correctly from the start.[xx] In short, the petitioner’s failure to follow the rules should not justify a second bite at the validity apple.
Finally, pending petitions subject to partial institution could have the same consequences depending on the action of the petitioner post-SAS. PTAB guidance indicates that in such cases, “the panel may issue an order supplementing the institution decision to institute on all challenges raised in the petition.”[xxi] If a petitioner fails to seek supplemental institution or fails to appeal the PTAB’s refusal to supplement, estoppel could apply. While some courts might continue following Shaw and HP by holding that non-instituted claims were not raised “during” the IPR, petitioner “could have raised” those claims and arguments “during” the IPR—even under Shaw’s interpretation—given SAS’s holding because the petitioner should have sought to remedy the non-institution.
While not obvious at first glance, SAS follows recent decisions like General Plastics that tend to protect patent owners’ rights. While the focus of SAS was on institution and the scope of institution, the Court has armed patent owners with another weapon with which they can challenge serial review of the same patent on the same grounds in multiple petitions and district court proceedings.
[i] No. 16-969 (Apr. 24, 2018).
[ii] Id., slip op. at 1, 4-5.
[iii] Id., slip op. at 12.
[iv] Hr’g on H.R. 1249 Before the Subcomm. on Intell. Prop., Competition and the Internet of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 112th Cong. (2011) (statement of David Kappos, Dir., USPTO) (“Those estoppel provisions mean that your patent is largely unchallengeable by the same party.”)
[v] 157 Cong. Rec. S1360-94 (daily ed. Mar. 8, 2011) (statement of Sen. Grassley) (claiming that the estoppel provision “ensures that if an inter partes review is instituted while litigation is pending, that review will completely substitute for at least the patents-and-printed-publications portion of the civil litigation”).
[vi] 817 F.3d 1293, 1300 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (quoting 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(2)).
[vii] 817 F.3d 1339, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
[ See, e.g., Verinata Health, Inc. v. Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7728, at *8-10 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 19, 2017); Illumina, Inc. v. Qiagen N.V., 207 F. Supp. 3d 1081, 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2016).viii]
[ix] 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144164, at *21-22 (E.D. Tex. May 11, 2017).
[x] Id. at *22.
[xi] Id. at *17-18, *20-21.
[xii] 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58773, at *15.
[xiii] Saurabh Vishnubhakat, First Steps After SAS Institute, Patently-O (Apr. 27, 2018), https://patentlyo.com/patent/2018/04/first-steps-institute.html
[xiv] 817 F.3d at 1300.
[xv] Slip op. at 6, 9.
[xvi] Verinata, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7728, at *10.
[xvii] See, e.g., Shenzhen Huiding Technology Co., Ltd. v. Synaptics Incorporated, IPR2015-01741, Paper 8 at 29-31 (PTAB Aug. 7, 2015) (partially denying institution due to improper incorporation by reference); Bomtech Elec., Co. Ltd. v. Medium-Tech Medizingeräte GmbH, Case No. IPR2014-00138, Paper No. 8 at 32-33 (PTAB Apr. 22, 2014) (same).
[xviii] See 37 C.F.R. § 42.6(a)(3).
[xix] General Plastic Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Canon Kabushiki Kaisha, IPR2016-01357, Paper 19 (PTAB Sept. 6, 2017).
[xxi] Guidance on the Impact of SAS on AIA Trial Proceedings (Apr. 26, 2018) (emphasis added).