The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denied mandamus relief, finding that a party is not entitled to petition the director for review of a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision denying institution of an inter partes review (IPR) or post-grant review (PGR) proceeding. This ruling reflects the Court’s ongoing consideration of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Arthrex, Inc., which held that Board judges cannot constitutionally render final decisions in IPRs without US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director oversight. Click here for our discussion of the case on remand, for which the Federal Circuit just denied en banc rehearing. In re Palo Alto Networks, Inc., Case No. 22-145 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 16, 2022) (Dyk, Chen, JJ.) (Reyna, J., concurring).
After being sued by Centripetal Systems for patent infringement, Palo Alto Networks filed petitions for IPR and PGR of some of the asserted patents. The Board denied institution, and Palo Alto Networks filed requests for Director rehearing. Although the PTO acknowledged receipt of the request, it informed Palo Alto Networks that the Director was not considering requests for rehearing of institution decisions “at this time.” Thereafter, Palo Alto Networks sought a writ of mandamus from the Federal Circuit. Between the request for mandamus and the Court’s decision, the PTO issued guidance explaining that although the PTO was not considering requests for rehearing, “the Director has always retained and continues to retain the authority to review such decisions sua sponte after issuance (at the Director’s discretion),” and indeed, exercised its authority to initiate sua sponte review since.
The Federal Circuit rejected Palo Alto Networks’ claim that the Director’s refusal to consider petitions for rehearing of institution decisions amounted to an abdication of authority prohibited by the Appointments Clause. Even assuming that institution decisions were “final decisions on how to exercise executive power” implicating the Appointments Clause, the Court found that the Director maintains statutory and regulatory authority to review institution decisions (unlike in Arthrex), and that the Board renders such decisions only based on the Director’s delegation of authority (also unlike Arthrex). Accordingly, the structural authority maintained by the Director is sufficient, even if such authority goes unexercised, according to the Court.
Writing separately, Judge Reyna agreed that no Appointments Clause violation had occurred but on different grounds. Although Judge Reyna noted that a categorical rejection of requests for rehearing by the Director might raise constitutional concerns, he concluded that mandamus was inappropriate for several reasons. First, the Director’s caveat that she refused to accept requests “at this time” did not constitute a categorical refusal but rather an exercise of discretion. Second, the Director’s invocation of her sua sponte authority to review belied a lack of exercise of discretion. The Director did in fact exercise sua sponte authority to consider Palo Alto Networks’ request, even though briefing in the Federal Circuit was pending, and thus a writ of mandamus was inappropriate.