Determination of Non-Obviousness by USPTO Disregarded by Court

Last week’s CAFC decision in In re Construction Equipment decided the validity of U.S. Patent 5,234,564…..again. In the first appeal, decided in 2001, the CAFC upheld the validity determination of the District Court. In the second appeal, decided last week, the CAFC considered an appeal from the USPTO rejecting the claims of the ‘564 patent in ex parte patent reexamination. In their second decision, the CAFC found the ‘564 Patent invalid in light of some of the very same prior art references at issue in the first appeal.

In her dissent Judge Newman questioned the constitutionality of the USPTO looking over the shoulder of the CAFC.

In a case of “turnabout is fair play,” last Friday, a United States District Judge for the District of Connecticut considered, and disregarded, the USPTO’s reexamination analysis of the same prior art in Jacobs Vehicle Equipment Co. v. Pacific Diesel Brake Co. et al. (D.Conn).

The Court decided that the earlier ex parte patent reexamination analysis of U.S. Patent 4,848,289, which confirmed the validity of the ‘289 Patent, was flawed in two major respects.

First, the Court explained that the non-obviousness determination of the USPTO in 2005 predated KSR. In this regard, the Court determined that the patent reexamination analysis that confirmed the claims of the ‘289 Patent may have been too rigid an application of the teaching/suggestion/motivation test (TSM).

The second, and perhaps more troubling rationale, was that the USPTO simply did not have the time or robust record to consider the issues in full during patent reexamination as compared to that of the District Court.

The Court noted in footnote 8 of the decision that:

The record before me on issues relating to obviousness is far more complete than the one before the PTO. The ex parte reexamination interview lasted about forty-five minutes. The trial, which was more about invalidity than infringement, lasted several weeks. Nearly all the prior art was before the examiner. But he did not have the benefit of the extensive evidence and arguments submitted to me.

(decision here)

Under the above rationale, a Patentee can either lose their patent in ex parte patent reexamination outright, or simply survive to fight the very same battle on another day, at additional expense. All the while, an ongoing infringement action may even be stayed pending the outcome of the reexamination for seemingly no good reason.

The new proceedings of the America Invents Act (AIA), Inter Partes Review and Post Grant Review will provide for limited discovery, estoppel to prevent duplicative proceedings, and provide adjudicative processing. These more robust proceedings will prevent such inconsistent outcomes going forward.

Unfortunately, ex parte patent reexamination was left largely untouched by the AIA.