June 15, 2017

General Statements in Petition and Institution Decision Did Not Give Patent Owner Fair Notice of the Grounds of Invalidity in the Final Written Decision

By Bryan K. Wheelock, Principal

In Emerachem Holdings, LLC v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., [2016-1984] (June 15, 2017), the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s decision that claims 1–2, 4–14, and 17–19 of U.S. Patent No. 5,599,758 were obvious, and vacated and remanded as to claims 3, 16 and 20.

The ‘558 patent claims methods for regenerating a catalyst/absorber that has absorbed and oxidized nitrates and nitrites from the combustion gases of an engine.  The regeneration can be carried out in situ, without removing and replacing the catalyst with a fresh, unreacted one.

The patent owner attempted to remove a reference under 102(e), with the declaration of the inventor, but the Board found the evidence insufficient.  The Federal Circuit agreed, noting that corroboration is always required of an inventor’s testimony about invention, although the level of corroboration depends upon the circumstances.

The patent owner was more successful in its argument under the APA that it was denied adequate Notice and Opportunity to Respond.  Petitioner’s provided detailed claim charts, but only cited to a single reference for dependent claims 3, 16, and 20, and the Board’s institution decision only cited the same one reference as to these claims.  However, the final written decision relied upon a different reference.

The Federal Circuit stated that in a formal adjudication, like an IPR, the APA imposes particular procedural requirements on the USPTO.  In particular, the agency must timely inform the patent owner of the matters of fact and law asserted, and give all interested parties the opportunity to submit and consider facts and arguments, and allow a party “to submit rebuttal evidence as may be required for a full and true disclosure of the facts. 5 U.S.C. §§ 554(b)–(c), 556(d).

The Federal Circuit found that the Board denied patent owner its procedural rights guaranteed by the APA by relying on a new reference for its disclosure of limitations in dependent claims 3, 16, and 20.  The Federal Circuit rejected petitioner’s arguments that the patent owner had adequate notice of the reference from general comments about obviousness in the Petition.  The Federal Circuit also rejected petitioner’s arguments that the patent owner had adequate notice from general statements in the Institution Decision.  The Federal Circuit said that given the specificity with which the petition’s claim chart and the Institution Decision’s list of claims expressly identified particular references’ disclosures for some claims and not for others, it cannot be the case that the general statements relied upon provided sufficient notice that Stiles could be applied to all claims.

The Federal Circuit distinguished Cuozzo, because the institution decision gave the patentee notice of the prior art combination that the final decision relied upon, even though the petition did not.  In the current case, neither the petition nor the Institution Decision put the patentee on notice of the reference that would be used to reject claims 3, 16, and 20.  The Federal Circuit also distinguished Genzyme because  the patent owner had the opportunity to address the relied upon by the Board.

The Federal Circuit explained that it was not holding that the Board is constricted in its final written decision to citing only the portions of a reference cited in its Institution Decision — “word-for-word parity between the institution and final written decisions” is not required.  The question was not whether the Board cited a different passage of a reference than what it specifically cited in the Institution Decision, rather the question was whether the Board provided adequate notice and opportunity to respond to the reference being used to reject claims 3, 16, and 20, given the specificity with which the Board itemized the challenged claims with specific grounds for rejection in the Institution Decision.  On this question, the Federal Circuit said that the Board did not.