Recent pattern of PTAB cutting corners: Decide Section 101 and avoid deciding other pending grounds

We have previously reported that PTAB judges, like Examiners, are measured by a quota-based production system. For PTAB judges, the quota is based on the number of decisions they author. It is no secret that this production system prompts some Examiners and PTAB judges at times to get creative with practices to most easily meet their quotas. Here, we look at some recent decisions that show a pattern of PTAB judges deciding a Section 101 rejection without looking to the remaining pending grounds on appeal.

First some context. The Board has discretion not to reach all pending rejections on appeal, which makes sense. For example, ex parte appeals decisions often times do not reach prior art rejections after finding that the claims are indefinite because, e.g., the scope of the claims cannot be determined. But for the overwhelming majority of cases, PTAB judges decide all pending rejections on appeal (unless not argued by the appellant). This practice encourages compact prosecution, something that the USPTO very much favors. So this discretion to avoid deciding grounds of rejection is very rarely used.

But this discretion is sometimes used and as shown in two recent Board decisions, it can also be abused. For example, judges have recently affirmed a “Section 101 – patent-ineligibility” rejection and then declined to reach other pending rejections (either prior art rejections or 112 rejections).

The first decision is Ex Parte Snow (PTAB Feb. 8, 2018), deciding Section 101 and asserting that it therefore need not go to the pending Section 103(a) rejection. To support this action, the panel relied on two cases (one Federal Circuit and one precedential PTAB decision). From the decision:

Because claims 1—33, 35, 37, and 39 are directed to patent-ineligible subject matter, we do not reach the prior art rejection of those claims. See In re Comiskey, 554 F.3d 967, 973 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (declining to reach the prior art rejection when claims are barred at the threshold by § 101); Ex parte Gutta, 93 USPQ2d 1025, 1036 (BPAI 2009) (precedential) (same).

It is true that In re Comiskey declined to rule on a Section 103(a) rejection after concluding that the claims were directed to patent-ineligible subject matter under Section 101 (both the original decision in 2007 and the en banc decision). Interestingly, the Federal Circuit in In re Comiskey newly applied the Section 101 rejection without needing to go to the Section 103(a) rejection. The Board had only reached the Section 103(a) rejection, affirming the Examiner. Thus, it does not appear that the Federal Circuit was attempting to establish precedent for the Board to not reach pending prior art rejections when a Section 101 rejection is at issue. Instead, it merely did not need to go to the Section 103(a) because it vacated and remanded for the Board to pick this up.

The other case cited was a precedential case Ex parte Gutta. In Gutta, the Board declined to reach prior art rejections by citing to Comiskey as well as a 1942 case: In re Rice, 132 F.2d 140, 141 (CCPA 1942) (finding it unnecessary to reach rejection based on prior art after concluding claims were directed to nonstatutory subject matter).

Here, Gutta was an expanded panel that included then Chief-judge and vice-Chief judge. Similar to the Federal Circuit panel in In re Comiskey, it’s possible that this PTAB panel was a special case. In other words, maybe they didn’t want to mix another issue (prior art rejection analysis) with what they wanted to establish as precedential.

Said differently, the Gutta decision does not appear to have been trying to establish that if the Board finds that the claims are patent-ineligible subject matter, then there is no need to reach prior art rejections. Indeed, if all panels did that, then we would start getting into more subjective appeal analyses, where the Board favors ruling on Section 101 so that it need not address other issues. And by not addressing prior art rejections, doesn’t it seem like the panel is implicitly communicating that the application is a lost cause–no matter how the claims are amended? Section 101 should not be used as a tool by the Board to pick and choose eventual patent grants.

Indeed, a goal of the USPTO should be compact prosecution. Just because an appellant loses Section 101 on appeal is not the end of the road. It is possible that after the appeal, the applicant amends the claims to clear the Section 101 rejection. Other less likely scenarios are that a request for rehearing is granted or a Federal Circuit appeal vacates the Board’s findings. In all three of these scenarios, it’s possible that the Examiner and the applicant are later at an impasse with regard to the other rejection (e.g., prior art rejection) and an appeal is needed in the future. The judge panel could have resolved it in the first place.

The second decision cites to the same above-two cases: Ex Parte DeYoung et al (PTAB Feb. 7, 2018) (not reaching written description 112 rejection because Section 101 was affirmed, citing In re Comiskey, 554 F.3d 967, 973 (Fed. Cir. 2009); Ex parte Gutta, 93 USPQ2d 1025, 1036 (BPAI 2009) (precedential)). Unlike decisions where the Board understandably could not reach other rejections because the claims were indefinite and the scope could not be understood, here the Board took the opportunity to avoid analyzing whether the claims found written description support in the specification. And it did so because Section 101 was affirmed.

The fact-specific grounds of rejection to be decided on appeal, which were omitted in the above two cases, do require time to analyze and write up. Especially in Ex parte Snow, it would have taken a lot of time for the panel to pore over multiple references in deciding obviousness. And in Ex parte DeYoung, it would have required careful consideration of the specification. But even though this requires a lot of time, it’s what PTAB judges do. That is, these decisions that do not decide all contested issues are extremely rare compared with the overwhelming majority of decisions that decide every issue that is argued.

If you have experience or opinions about this subject, we would love to hear from you. Please provide feedback in the comments section or by email at admin@anticipat.com whether the Board seems to be correctly relying on In re Comiskey and Ex parte Gutta for the proposition that it need not evaluate rejections after finding Section 101 is affirmed. Unsure opinions are great. 

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