A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit considered whether the Patent Commissioner, on assuming the role of the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director, can constitutionally evaluate the rehearing of Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) inter partes review (IPR) decisions. The panel concluded that neither Appointments Clause jurisprudence nor the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) impeded the Commissioner from exercising the PTO Director’s authority. Arthrex, Inc. v. Smith & Nephew, Inc. et al., Case No. 18-2140 (Fed. Cir., May 27, 2022) (Moore, C.J.; Reyna, Chen, JJ.)
Approximately one year ago, Arthrex succeeded in the Supreme Court of the United States on its argument that the Appointments Clause of the Constitution was violated unless a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed officer (such as the PTO Director) could review the Board’s final IPR decisions. (United States v. Arthrex, Inc.) The case returned to the PTO on remand. At the time, the position of PTO Director was vacant, and there was no acting director. Pursuant to the FVRA, the Commissioner of Patents (a position filled by the Secretary of Commerce) exercised the PTO Director’s authority to review Board decisions and ultimately rejected Arthrex’s challenge to the Board’s unpatentability determination. Arthrex appealed.
Arthrex contended that the Commissioner could not constitutionally exercise the PTO Director’s IPR review authority without running afoul of the Appointments Clause, that the FVRA barred the Commissioner’s exercise of authority and that the Commissioner violated separation of powers. Arthrex also challenged the ruling on the merits. None of these challenges were successful.
First, the Federal Circuit concluded that Arthrex reinforced long-settled Supreme Court precedent that an inferior officer could exercise a principal officer’s authority constitutionally on a temporary basis without violating the Appointments Clause. Here, the Court concluded that the Commissioner’s exercise of the PTO Director’s IPR review authority until a new director was installed presented no problem.
Second, the FVRA provides a statutory framework for the exercise of a principal officer’s duties under certain circumstances, which, if the law applied, would not have allowed the Commissioner to review IPR decisions. However, the Federal Circuit explained that the FVRA narrowly governs only those duties of an officer that are statutorily non-delegable (i.e., which US Congress has required to be exercised personally by the officer). According to the Court, such provisions did not apply here because nothing demonstrated that the PTO Director’s newly created authority to review IPR decisions was non-delegable.
Third, the Federal Circuit rejected Arthrex’s argument that the Commissioner’s service as the PTO Director violated the line of precedent that limits Congress’ ability to circumscribe the president’s removal authority for superior officers. Arthrex contended that the Commissioner, a non-superior officer, could be removed only for “misconduct or nonsatisfactory performance” and therefore could not fill the role of the PTO Director. The panel disagreed, explaining that the president could name an acting director “with the stroke of a pen,” and so the limits on removing the Commissioner from his role as Commissioner were irrelevant to the president’s authority over the position of PTO Director.
Finally, on the merits, the Federal Circuit rejected Arthrex’s argument that the Board erred by considering § 112 issues en route to its finding of unpatentability based on obviousness over a reference that post-dated Arthrex’s priority claim. The Board found written description lacking in the application chain on which the challenged patent relied for its priority claim, and therefore, concluded that the patent was not entitled to its claimed priority date—a determination that was ultimately dispositive in terms of obviousness over the refence asserted as prior art. The Court found no authority for the proposition that the Board could not decide issues of priority in an IPR, analogizing to the Court’s own precedent allowing such review in reexamination proceedings governed by similar statutory language.