The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) Precedential Opinion Panel (POP) issued a precedential opinion in an inter partes review (IPR) to resolve two questions:
- May the PTAB raise a ground of unpatentability not developed by the petitioner?
- If it does so, must the PTAB provide the parties notice and an opportunity to respond to the new ground of unpatentability?
Hunting Titan, Inc. v. DynaEnergetics Europe GmbH, Case No. IPR2018-00600 (USPTO July 6, 2020) (Boalick, CAPJ) (granting request for POP rehearing). The POP held that while the PTAB may raise new grounds of unpatentability, it should refrain from doing so except in rare instances. If it does raise new grounds of unpatentability, the PTAB must provide the parties notice and an opportunity to respond to the new grounds.
Titan filed a petition requesting IPR of a patent owned by DynaEnergetics directed to a perforating gun assembly for wellbore tools. One of the grounds alleged anticipation by a prior art reference (Schacherer). The PTAB instituted review, and DynaEnergetics timely moved to amend the claims. Opposing the motion to amend, Titan argued that the substitute claims were obvious over various prior art references, including the Schacherer reference. Titan did not argue anticipation as to the substitute claims. In its final written decision, the PTAB held that the amended claims were unpatentable because they were anticipated by Schacherer. DynaEnergetics moved for reconsideration and POP review.
The POP granted review to provide precedential guidance on new grounds of unpatentability. Citing to the recent US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decision in Nike, Inc. v. Adidas AG, the POP determined that the PTAB may raise new grounds of unpatentability in certain cases, but those cases should be exceedingly rare. The POP reasoned that the adversarial nature of an IPR proceeding puts the competing parties in a better position to identify and argue the strongest grounds. The POP rejected the notion that the PTAB should independently examine the patentability of every proposed substitute claim, as if it were a reexamination proceeding, by culling through the prior art to determine if better unpatentability arguments could have been presented. Only in rare cases that are no longer adversarial, such as when a petitioner does not oppose a motion to amend or when a petitioner ceases to participate in an instituted IPR that proceeds to a final judgment, would it be reasonable for the PTAB to consider new grounds of unpatentability. Although the POP did not articulate every exceptional scenario, it suggested that when the record “readily and persuasively” establishes that substitute claims are unpatentable, it would be reasonable for the PTAB to rely on a new ground of unpatentability. Titan’s IPR was not an exceptional case, so the POP reversed the panel’s decision as to the substitute claims.
The POP also explained that the parties must be given notice and an opportunity to respond to any new grounds the PTAB may raise. With respect to substitute claims, notice cannot come from the grounds used in the petition. Those grounds are directed to the original claims, and they cannot put a patent owner on notice that those same grounds might be used by the PTAB to invalidate the substitute claims. Thus, even though Titan’s IPR identified an anticipation ground based on the Schacherer reference, that did not put the patent owner on notice with respect to the substitute claims. While leaving open the possibility for other forms of notice, the POP stated that the notice requirement could be fulfilled by allowing for supplemental briefing or by requesting that the parties be prepared to discuss the new ground at the oral hearing.