In vacating an unpatentability decision by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (Board), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the rights of a joined party to an inter partes review (IPR) proceeding applies to the entirety of the proceedings and includes the right of appeal. Fitbit, Inc. v. Valencell, Inc., Case No. 19-1048 (Fed. Cir. July 8, 2020) (Newman, J.).
Apple petitioned the Board for IPR of certain claims of a patent owned by Valencell. The Board granted the petition in part, instituting review of certain claims and denying review of other claims. After institution of the Apple IPR, Fitbit filed an IPR petition for the instituted claims and moved for joinder with Apple’s IPR. The Board granted Fitbit’s petition, granted the motion for joinder and terminated Fitbit’s separate proceeding.
After the Apple/Fitbit IPR hearing, but before any Final Written Decision was issued, the Supreme Court decided SAS Institute v. Iancu (IP Update, Vol. 21, No. 5), holding that the America Invents Act requires that all patent claims challenged in an IPR petition must be reviewed by the Board if the petition is granted. Accordingly, the Board re-instituted the Apple/Fitbit IPR to add the previously denied patent claims. The Board’s Final Written Decision found the originally instituted claims unpatentable, but the newly instituted claims not unpatentable. After the decision, Apple withdrew from the proceeding. Fitbit appealed the decision as to newly instituted claims that had been found not unpatentable.
On appeal, Valencell challenged Fitbit’s right to appeal as to the newly instituted claims. 35 U.S.C. § 319 provides that “[a]ny party to the inter partes review shall have the right to be a party to the appeal.” Valencell argued that Fitbit does not have the status of “party” for purposes of appeal because Fitbit did not request review of the newly instituted claims in its initial IPR petition, did not request leave to amend its initial petition after the Supreme Court’s decision in SAS Institute and did not submit a separate brief with respect to the non-instituted claims after the joined IPR was re-instituted. Valencell also argued that because the Board stated that Fitbit would have “limited participation, if at all, and required Fitbit to seek authorization from the Board before filing any papers,” Fitbit was not a full participant in the joined IPR.
Fitbit responded that Valencell did not object to Fitbit’s joinder and did not object to or seek to qualify Fitbit’s continued participation after the Board re-instituted the joined IPR to include the new claims, so there was only one IPR. Fitbit also cited the Board’s statement in granting its joinder motion that the “[d]ecision addressing the status of each challenged claim in this proceeding applies to all parties.” Fitbit acknowledged that it did not seek to file a separate brief after the new claims were added to the IPR, but claimed no separate brief was needed to present the issues.
The Federal Circuit agreed with Fitbit, finding that the circumstances of the case did not override Fitbit’s statutory right of appeal, and noted that the statutory purpose of a joinder is to avoid redundant actions by facilitating consolidation while preserving statutory rights, including judicial review.
Turning to the substantive merits of the Board’s decision, the Board found the newly instituted claims not unpatentable, based solely on its rejection of Fitbit’s proposed construction of the claim term “application-specific interface (API),” and did not review the merits of any of the asserted grounds of obviousness. Citing SAS, Fitbit criticized the Board’s procedure for holding the claim not unpatentable without considering any of the references cited and on the grounds of obviousness. The Federal Circuit agreed, noting that claim construction is only the first step in establishing the meaning and scope of a claim, with patentability assessed for the claim as construed. Therefore, the Board erred in finding that not adopting Fitbit’s claim construction alone decided the question of patentability. Although Fitbit requested the Court conduct the obviousness analysis, the Court relied on Oil States in deeming such ab initio determination inappropriate for an appellate court.