When pursuing inter partes patent reexamination, denial of a Substantial New Question of Patentability (SNQ) by the USPTO can be especially troubling to third party requesters. This is because a third party is estopped from asserting in litigation the “invalidity of any claim finally determined to be valid and patentable on any ground which the third-party requester raised or could have raised during the inter partes reexamination proceedings.” 35 U.S.C. § 315(c).
Denied SNQs raise the fear of potential district court estoppel relative to the prior art underlying the denied SNQ. For this reason, third parties will almost always dispute such denials internal to the USPTO–even where the claims of the patent remain rejected based upon other SNQs of the same request.
But, what is the appropriate vehicle for such a dispute, petition or appeal? The answer to this question will depend upon whether or not the denied SNQ pertains to a claim that is being actively reexamined on other grounds.
As explained by an expanded panel of the Board of Patent Appeals & Interferences (BPAI) yesterday in Belkin International et al., v. Optimumpath LLC, the denial of an SNQ in inter partes patent reexamination is petitionable, not appealable. In Belkin U.S. Patent 7,035,281 was reexamined (95/001,089). The request was granted as to claims 1-3 and 8-10, but denied as to claims 4-7 and 11-31.
The denial of the SNQs applied to claims 4-7 and 11-31 was petitioned to the Director of the Central Reexamination Unit. Upon reconsideration, the Director refused to reverse the examiner.
During prosecution, the rejection of claims 1-3 and 8-10 was later withdrawn by the examiner. Thereafter, the third party appealed the withdrawn rejection and the denial of the SNQs.
On appeal, the BPAI affirmed the examiner’s decision to withdraw the rejection and confirm the patentability of claims 1-3 and 8-10. As to the appeal of the denied SNQs, the BPAI explained that such issues may not be appealed to the Board.
. . . 35 U.S.C. § 312 states that the Director makes such determinations (of whether a substantial new question of patentability exists) and that the determination “by the Director . . . shall be final and non-appealable.” Only when the Director makes the determination that a substantial new question of patentabilityaffecting a claim of a patent is raised (i.e., that a substantial new question of patentability exists for a particular claim) shall an inter partes reexamination of the claim(s) in question be performed for resolution of the question (35 U.S.C. § 313). Therefore, on the other hand, when the Director makes a determination that a substantial new question of patentability affecting a particular claim is not raised, the Director does not order inter partes reexamination of the patent with respect to those claims. Under those circumstances, no reexamination is performed with respect to those proposed substantial new questions of patentability. Also, as pointed out above, the Director’s determination that no substantial new question of patentability was established for any particular claim(s) is final and non-appealable (35 U.S.C. § 312(c)).
Since, under 35 U.S.C. § 312 and 35 U.S.C. § 313, reexamination of the patent claims in question cannot proceed when the Director makes a determination that a substantial new question of patentability has not been raised for those claims and that the Director’s determination is non-appealable, no final decision, whether favorable or unfavorable, can be rendered pertaining to those claims. Under 35 U.S.C. § 315(b), a third-party requester may appeal with respect to any “final decision favorable to the patentability” of disputed claims. However, as described above, if the Director makes the non-appealable determination that no substantial new question of patentability has been raised, then reexamination is not performed for those claims in question with respect to the corresponding prior art references. There cannot have been a final decision (either favorable or unfavorable) on the patentability of the claims in question under 35 U.S.C. § 315(b), the claims not having been reexamined in the first place for lack of a substantial new question of patentability. (emphasis added)
The decision continues on to explain that the denial of SNQs is propoerly pursued by petition to the Director (which Belkin filed to no avail; 37 C.F.R. § 1.927). Note that had an SNQ been found but the corresponding rejections not adopted, appeal of non-adopted rejections would have been appropriate.
Of course, a patent owner’s seeking to reverse an accepted SNQ in ex parte patent reexamination may pursue the matter to the BPAI.