The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit revived a petitioner’s validity challenge seeking ex parte review at the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO), reversing a district court decision dismissing its complaint seeking Administrative Procedures Act (APA) review of the PTO Director’s vacatur decision. The Federal Circuit concluded that the petitioner was not subject to inter partes review (IPR) estoppel from pursuing reexamination after receiving IPR final written decisions concerning the same claims of the same patents. Alarm.com Inc. v. Hirshfeld, Case No. 21-2102 (Fed Cir, Feb 24, 2022) (Taranto, Chen, Cunningham, JJ.)
This case explores the tension between the ex parte reexam statute and the IPR estoppel statute. Under 35 U.S.C. § 302, “any person at any time may file a request for reexamination . . . of any claim of a patent on the basis of any prior art cited under [§ 301].” If the PTO Director determines “pursuant to [§ 303(a)] that no substantial new question of patentability is raised,” that determination “will be final and nonappealable.” § 303(c). If a substantial new question is deemed to have been raised, “the determination will include an order for reexamination of the patent for resolution of the question.” § 304. Under § 315(e)(1), a petitioner in an IPR that results in a final written decision is estopped from requesting or maintaining a proceeding before the PTO “with respect to that claim on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.”
Alarm.com filed several IPR petitions that resulted in three final written decisions holding that Alarm.com had not carried its burden of proving that the challenged claims at issue were unpatentable. The Federal Circuit affirmed all three decisions in its 2018 ruling in Vivint, Inc. v. Alarm.com. Alarm.com subsequently filed three requests for ex parte reexamination of the same claims under 35 U.S.C. § 302 and 37 C.F.R. § 1.510, presenting different grounds than were presented in the IPRs. Instead of rendering a § 303(a) decision on the issue of whether petitioner presented a substantial new questions of patentability, the Director vacated the requests, finding that Alarm.com reasonably could have raised its reexamination grounds in the IPRs and, therefore, was estopped under § 315(e)(1) from submitting the requests. Alarm.com filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia against the Director and the PTO under 5 U.S.C. § 702, stating that the Director’s actions were arbitrary and capricious. Following dismissal of the complaint, Alarm.com appealed.
The PTO argued that the overall ex parte reexamination scheme precluded judicial review of the Director’s vacatur decision based on § 315(e)(1) estoppel, which brought Alarm.com’s challenge within the exception to APA review, i.e., where “statutes preclude judicial review.” 5 U.S.C. § 701(a)(1). The PTO did not raise any other arguments as to why judicial review would not be available under the APA.
The Federal Circuit explained that “[t]he only portion of the ex parte reexamination statutory scheme that expressly precludes judicial review is § 303(c), but the preclusion established by that text is narrowly defined.” In relevant part, the statute provides that “[a] determination by the Director pursuant to subsection (a) of this section that no substantial new question of patentability has been raised will be final and nonappealable.” The PTO conceded that § 303(c) did not expressly bar Alarm.com’s challenge. As the Court explained, the only express ground for statutory preclusion in the ex parte reexamination statute does not apply to § 315(e)(1) estoppel but only to an issue the Director did not determine: the existence of a substantial new question of patentability.
The Federal Circuit concluded that the PTO’s application of IPR estoppel here would “breach the provision’s textual limits and would be contrary to the  decisions addressing § 303(c).”