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. 

Recent ex parte appeal PTAB decision cuts a corner to avoid deciding an appealed rejection

Patent Office employees are creatures of incentives. It is well-known that patent examiners earn various counts for use in the USPTO’s internal quota system. PTAB judges are also measured by a count-based system, which is based on the number of decisions they author. It is no secret that Examiners and PTAB judges at times get creative with policies and practices to most easily meet their quotas. Here, we look at a recent decision that shows a practice of PTAB judges deciding only one ground of rejection without looking to the remaining pending ground on appeal.

In deciding grounds of rejection on appeal, the three judge panel almost always decides all the contested pending rejections. Of course, if an appellant chooses not to argue against a ground of rejection in the appeal brief, the Board will summarily affirm the rejection. Very rarely, the Board decides only one ground of rejection on appeal and lets that carry the day, without deciding other pending grounds of rejection. This rarity is found in recently decided Ex Parte MacArthur et al (PTAB Jan. 2, 2018).

In Ex parte MacArthur, the appellant had challenged both a Section 101 abstract idea rejection and a Section 112 indefiniteness rejection. But the panel never even reached the second ground of rejection. After affirming the abstract idea rejection, the panel “exercised [their] discretion” and “declined to reach the merits of the Examiner’s remaining rejection.” This, after the appellant had devoted nine pages of argumentation on the Section 112 rejection in the appeal brief and the reply brief.

To support its discretion not to reach the remaining issue on appeal, the Board cited to two Federal Circuit cases. In re Basell Poliolefine, 547 F.3d 1371, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (“Having concluded that the Board properly affirmed the rejection of claims 1-52 of the ‘687 patent based on obviousness-type double patenting in view of the ‘987 patent, we need not address the remaining issues raised by Basell regarding the §§ 102(b) and 103(a) rejections, as well as the additional double patenting rejections.”); Beloit Corp. v. Valmet Oy, 742 F.2d 1421 (Fed. Cir. 1984) (ITC having decided a dispositive issue, there was no need for the Commission to decide other issues decided by the presiding officer). Another interpretation is that the panel found a way to achieve the same credit for deciding this appeal without the work of deciding the second issue.

Ex parte MacArthur is certainly not the first to use this kind of discretion to decline the call to decide remaining issues on appeal. Another relatively recent case, Ex parte Palmer (PTAB Mar. 10 2016), summarily affirmed a 112 rejection and proceeded not to reach several 103(a) rejections. In this analysis, the Board justified not reaching the 103(a) rejections by expressing concern for managing the Board’s docket. It also cited to the same ITC case above.

To the defense of PTAB judges, often there are many fact-specific grounds of rejection to be decided on appeal, which require time to analyze and write up. Especially in Ex parte Palmer, it would have taken a lot of time for the panel to pore over multiple references in deciding several obviousness rejections. 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. Interestingly, both of the above-discussed decisions come from the same tech center of 1700.

True, the appeal backlog has historically forced the PTO to get creative and balance resources at the BPAI/PTAB. But this decision not deciding an issue on appeal comes amid plunging backlogs for ex parte appeals. For example, as we recently reported, in the past year the backlog for tech center 1700 has dropped from 22.8 months to 16.9. Thus, the concern for creatively using judge resources is less compelling.

Plus, a half-baked effort at the PTAB may do little to speed up efficiency at the USPTO anyway. After a rejection is affirmed at the Board, the applicant can still prevail on this issue after reopening prosecution, either through additional argumentation or amendments. And back in the Examiner’s docket, if the Examiner still digs into his/her position on the other issue that was never decided by the board, then it would require another appeal to resolve. Better to do the job right the first time, even if it is tempting to take the shortcut in the decision.