A patent applicant usually decides to appeal a rejection as a last resort because of the substantial cost and time. When the applicant decides to overlook the substantial cost and time, it is because she believes independent judges will objectively overturn at least one of (but hopefully all) the rejections. These administrative patent judges (APJs) have experience, technical backgrounds, and are independent from Examiners. So if this body of judges were to sustain Examiners’ rejections most of the time, you would think that the Examiners are doing a good job of examining applications. And if the Examiners are doing well, it would appear that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) is doing well. But it’s not.
Currently, the USPTO measures decision outcomes of ex parte appeals in three different ways: affirmed, affirmed-in-part, or reversed. This is highlighted by the USPTO’s recently released statistics on outcomes of ex parte appeals for FY2017. These stats show that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) very frequently upholds Examiners on appeal, with a 55% affirmance rate. This rate is consistent with previous years’ affirmance rates. These affirmed rates suggest a job “well done” by the USPTO. However, the way the USPTO counts affirmances yields counterintuitive and misleading results, especially with cases involving multiple grounds of rejection. Indeed for accountability purposes, this way of measuring appeals cloaks the USPTO’s Examining Corps failures.
The USPTO currently measures ex parte appeals in relation to the total appealed claims—not the total pending rejections. If all of the appealed claims stand rejected under at least one ground of rejection, the decision is affirmed. Thus, only one ground of rejection affirmed for the appealed claims is required for a decision to be marked affirmed by the USPTO. Under this measuring system, assuming an Examiner rejects all claims under five different grounds, the decision is marked affirmed even if the Board reverses four of the five grounds.
This way that the USPTO measures appeals undermines use of ex parte appeals data for accurate accountability of the USPTO in two ways. First, the data do not show which grounds of rejections get overturned on appeal. As we have previously pointed out in this blog, several of the individual grounds are currently being completely reversed at rates over 50%. This means that for certain legal grounds of rejection, an Examiner’s rejections are bad over half the time. This is obviously not very favorable to the USPTO. But when bad rejections get overlooked because of one affirmed rejection, any accountability for an Examiner’s bad rejections is lost.
This way that the USPTO measures affirmances of ex parte appeals skews how often Examiners are truly upheld because not all grounds of rejection are equally critical for the application to move forward. In fact, some rejections require very minor claim amendments or Terminal Disclaimers that insignificantly affect the patent protection. So any system of measuring outcomes should take into consideration this actual effect of the specific grounds of rejection to provide true accountability. However, it becomes difficult to measure accountability of examiners, art units, tech centers, etc., when trivial affirmances by the Board mask substantive affirmances.
For example, a recent decision, Ex parte Lee et al., had two grounds of rejection on appeal: obviousness and double patenting for the same claims. The Board reversed the rejection on obviousness, but because the appellant did not argue the double patenting rejection, the Board summarily affirmed the double patenting rejection. The appellant did not fight the double patenting rejection because of an intention to file a Terminal Disclaimer, which would have rendered the rejection moot. However, because of the non-substantive affirmance of double patenting, the entire decision is marked as affirmed. This, when all three Examiners involved with this case got, in the Board’s view, the substantive legal issue of obviousness completely wrong.
The outcome for Ex parte Lee is far from what one might expect. One would expect if the appellant won on the only issue it actually argued, then that outcome would be marked as “reversed.” Even being generous, you could permit an outcome “affirmed-in-part,” considering the Examiner did get affirmed on one issue (even if the affirmed ground was not on the merits). But you would certainly never consider this decision as affirmed—the application is going to issue as a patent. However, the bizarre outcome of “affirmed” is exactly how this decision is counted and reported to the public by the USPTO.
The second way that the USPTO’s measuring system is deficient is by not showing how many of the rejections get overturned. If the USPTO only needs one of the grounds of rejection to qualify an appealed decision as affirmed, the tracking system effectively ignores the outcome on appeal of all remaining rejections. This greatly skews the data in favor of counting affirmances of appeals. In fact, because most decisions involve more than one ground of rejection, including accurate one-ground decisions with inaccurate multiple-ground decisions make the USPTO’s affirmance statistics almost meaningless. It certainly does not accurately reflect the accountability of an Examiner’s rejections.
This is also true for the other senior Examiners also involved the appeal process. Before every appealed case, an appeal conference takes place consisting of the Examiner, the Examiner’s supervisor, and another primary examiner. For the appeal to proceed to the judge panel, this appeal conference must sign off that they agree that the Examiner’s current rejections would likely be affirmed by the APJs on the Board. In other words, before the judges even hear the case, the appeal conference has the authority not to take the case to the panel of judges. The appeal conferees can instead disagree with the pending rejections by issuing a Notice of Allowance or by reopening prosecution with a new Office Action. So for a decision that makes it to the judge panel, one might assume that for any ground of rejection issued by the Examiner, the supervisor and another primary examiner agree fully with all the rejections as they stand.
But with the current way of measuring appeal decisions involving multiple issues, if only one of those grounds of rejection sticks, the Examiner and this appeal board did a “good job”—they were affirmed! Thus, the appeal conference examiners really only care about one of the rejections being “good enough” for the appeal to proceed. Because of the variety of rejections, the appeal conference examiners can be sure they pick cases that they are sure have a “good enough” rejection which will not adversely affecting their reputation.
The USPTO’s practice of measuring outcomes would not necessarily be a skewed way of measuring were there only one ground of rejection per decision. Nor would this practice be skewed if decisions with multiple grounds of rejection were properly designated as “affirmed-in-part” when the decision reverses on one ground and affirms for another. However, since most decisions involve multiple issues, the outcomes data counts one ground as being a full affirmance, overshadowing the remaining grounds.
From the way that the USPTO currently advertises their appeals statistics, the agency seems proud of its affirmance rates. This, because the USPTO’s way of measuring affirmances happens to be favorable to the USPTO. But if you accept the USPTO’s affirmance rates, you get counterintuitive and misleading results, especially with cases involving multiple grounds of rejection. The current measuring system of the USPTO lacks the necessary granularity, and the public only gets to see a roll up of all the flawed affirmance data.
Since certain rejections are reversed more often than others, and since there is wide variability across tech centers and art units, having additional granularity on appeals is critical to drawing meaning from the publicly available data. Without a more comprehensive way of measuring outcomes based on what substantively happened in each appeal, the USPTO Examining Corps is not truly held accountable.
A more accurate way of measuring appeals is keeping track of the outcome for each ground of rejection. This is exactly what Anticipat Research Database does. An important part of Anticipat’s mission is extracting value from appeals decisions by devising an intuitive way of processing decisions.
The Anticipat research database keeps track of all the rejection outcomes for each ground of rejection in ex parte appeals, for greater precision. You can see which specific rejections are being reversed across various art units, tech centers, etc. This more accurate data may not show up as a neat pie chart, but having the data is powerfully more useful for accurately holding the USPTO accountable. It is also helpful for setting expectations for patent prosecution strategies and evaluating the strength of rejections. With the data, you can even see, for the very first time ever, how often the Board is agreeing with the Examiner’s supervisor.
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