July 25, 2016

PTO Cannot Raise & Decide Unpatentability Theories Never Presented by the Petitioner

By Bryan K. Wheelock, Principal

In In re Magnum Tools International, Ltd., [2015-1300] (July 25, 2016) the Federal Circuit reversed the PTAB’s determination that the challenged claims U.S. Patent No. 8,079,413 were invalid for obviousness.

The Federal Circuit examined burden of proof, which encompasses both a burden of persuasion and a burden of production.  The Federal Circuit said that in an Inter Partes Review, “the burden of persuasion is on the petitioner to prove ‘unpatentability by a preponderance of the evidence,’ 35 U.S.C. § 316(e), and that burden never shifts to the patentee.”  Where, as here, the only question presented is whether due consideration of the four Graham factors renders a claim or claims obvious, no burden shifts from the patent challenger to the patentee.  This is especially true where the only issues to be considered are what the prior art discloses, whether there would have been a motivation to combine the prior art, and whether that combination would render the patented claims obvious.  The Federal Circuit said that the PTO’s burden shifting framework is directly at odds with its precedent holding that the decision to institute and the final written decision are “two very different analyses,” and each applies a “qualitatively different standard.”  Furthermore, because of the significant difference between the standards of proof at institution and trial during an IPR, it is inappropriate to shift the burden to the patentee after institution to prove that the patent is patentable.

The Federal Circuit said the petitioner continues to bear the burden of proving unpatentability after institution, and must do so by a preponderance of the evidence at trial.  See 35 U.S.C. § 316(e). The Board has an obligation to assess the question anew after trial based on the totality of the record.

The patent owner argued that petitioner failed to establish a motivation to combine, pointing out that the Petition was based on a different reference than relied upon in the institution decision.  The Federal Circuit rejected the PTO’s position that this should have been challenged with a request for rehearing of the institution decision, holding that the patent owner can challenge a final Board opinion relying on the same rationale given in the institution decision.

The Federal Circuit agreed with the patent owner that the Board improperly shifted the burden to the patent owner to prove nonobviousness.  To satisfy its burden of proving obviousness, a petitioner cannot employ mere conclusory statements.  The petitioner must instead articulate specific reasoning, based on evidence of record, to support the legal conclusion of obviousness.

Finding that the petitioner failed to separately meet its burden of establishing obviousness, the Federal Circuit reversed.

The Federal Circuit went on to reject the USPTO’s position that the Board is free to adopt arguments on behalf of petitioners that could have been, but were not, raised by the petitioner during an IPR. Instead, the Board must base its decision on arguments that were advanced by a party, and to which the opposing party was given a chance to respond.  The Federal Circuit said that while the PTO has broad authority to establish procedures for revisiting earlier-granted patents in IPRs, that authority is not so broad that it allows the PTO to raise, address, and decide unpatentability theories never presented by the petitioner and not supported by record evidence.