Too Much to Say? Word Limits Don’t Prevent Estoppel

By on February 24, 2022
Posted In Patents

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) did not err in finding that a petitioner was estopped from maintaining a third inter partes review (IPR) of a patent claim after a final determination of two other IPRs challenging the same claim on different grounds. The Federal Circuit also found that it did not have jurisdiction to review the merits decision of the third IPR because the petitioner lacked statutory authorization to appeal as of the issuance of the prior two final written decisions. Intuitive Surgical, Inc. v. Ethicon LLC, Case No. 20-1481 (Fed. Cir. Feb 11, 2022) (O’Malley, Clevenger, Stoll, JJ.)

Intuitive Surgical concurrently filed three separate IPR petitions for a patent owned by Ethicon relating to a robotically controlled endoscopic surgical instrument. All three petitions challenged a single claim of the patent, relying on different combinations of prior art references. The Board instituted on two of the petitions at the same time and on the third petition one month later. The Board issued simultaneous final written decisions in the first two IPRs, upholding the patentability of the challenged claim. As the third IPR remained ongoing, Ethicon filed a motion to terminate Intuitive as a party to the IPR, arguing that it was estopped from proceeding under 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(1). The Board agreed, terminating Intuitive as a party and issuing a decision upholding the patentability of the challenged claim. Intuitive appealed.

Intuitive argued that § 315(e)(1) should not apply to simultaneously filed petitions. Section § 315(e)(1) precludes a petitioner from maintaining a proceeding before the Board on any ground that it “raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.” Intuitive argued that it could not have reasonably raised all of its grounds in one petition because of the 14,000-word limit, and that simultaneously filed petitions do not conflict with the purpose of § 315(e)(1)—to prevent abusive IPR conduct. The Federal Circuit disagreed, finding that § 315(e)(1) estops a petitioner as to grounds it reasonably could have raised in another IPR, even if the petitions are filed on the same day. The Court went on to note multiple ways around the word limit issue, none of which Intuitive attempted. Intuitive could have sought to consolidate the proceedings or divided its petitions on a claim-by-claim basis instead of by grounds (something which the Court noted is not prohibited by § 315(e)(1)). Intuitive also argued that, under the Court’s decision in Shaw, it was only estopped from raising instituted grounds, but the Court cited its recent decision in California Institute of Technology v. Broadcom Limited, which overruled Shaw, explaining that estoppel applies to all grounds that could have been reasonably included in the petition.

The Federal Circuit also considered whether Intuitive was authorized to pursue an appeal given the termination. Intuitive argued that it had the right to appeal the Board’s decision in the third IPR because it was once a party to the IPR. The Court disagreed, explaining that the estoppel under § 315(e)(1) was effective as of the issuance of the other two IPR decisions, and that as of that time, Intuitive was no longer a party. Because §§141(c) and 319 only authorize a “party to an inter partes review” to appeal a final written decision of the Board, the Court found that once Intuitive ceased to be a party, it was no longer statutorily authorized to appeal.

Colin J. Stalter
Colin J. Stalter focuses his practice on patent litigation, client counseling, and prosecution. He has experience working with large technology companies on complex intellectual property matters including strategic acquisitions, claim chart drafting, portfolio valuation, freedom to operate opinions, and inter partes review. Colin holds a BS in systems engineering and design, and has particular experience in the consumer electronics, telecommunications, and content delivery industries. Read Colin Stalter's full bio.

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