US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director Katherine K. Vidal issued a precedential opinion clarifying the standard under which the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) can institute on an inter partes review (IPR) petition despite the Fintiv factors militating toward denial. CommScope Techs. LLC v. Dali Wireless, Inc., IPR2022-01242 (PTO Feb. 27, 2023) (Vidal, Dir.) (precedential).
This opinion follows the Director’s Interim Procedure for Discretionary Denials memorandum (Guidance Memo) and her opinion in OpenSky Indus. v. VLSI Tech. In the guidance memo, the Director explained that when there is “compelling evidence of unpatentability,” the Board may decline to exercise its discretion to deny IPR institution.
In this case, Dali Wireless sued CommScope in the district court, alleging infringement of its patent. CommScope filed a petition to institute an IPR proceeding against the asserted patent. The Board granted the petition and instituted an IPR proceeding while the district court litigation was ongoing.
In granting the petition, the Board acknowledged that it would normally perform a Fintiv analysis to determine whether it should deny the petition in light of the parallel district court proceeding. However, considering the Guidance Memo and the “compelling invalidity challenge” presented by the petitioner, the Board skipped the Fintiv analysis and instituted on the petition. The Director instituted sua sponte review.
Recognizing some ambiguity in both OpenSky and the guidance memo, the Director made her decision precedential to clarify:
My Guidance Memo states that “the PTAB will not deny institution based on Fintiv if there is compelling evidence of unpatentability.” Although I now recognize that this instruction could be read to allow for a compelling merits determination as a substitute for a Fintiv analysis, that was not my intent. By that instruction, I intended for PTAB panels to only consider compelling merits if they first determined that Fintiv factors 1–5 favored a discretionary denial . . . . In circumstances where . . . the Board’s analysis of Fintiv factors 1–5 favors denial of institution; the Board shall then assess compelling merits. In doing so, the Board must provide reasoning sufficient to allow the parties to challenge that finding and sufficient to allow for review of the Board’s decision.
A determination of whether the petition presents a compelling merits case for invalidity requires a merits case that meets a higher standard than the “reasonable likelihood” test required by 35 U.S.C. § 314(a).
The Director found that the Board’s decision was deficient in both parts of the analysis. The Board did not perform any analysis of the Fintiv factors but instead went straight to a determination of whether the petition presented a compelling invalidity challenge. In connection with that determination, the Board failed to provide any reasoning that explained why it found the merits case presented in the petition compelling.
Finding that the Board’s reasoning was conclusory, the Director vacated the Board’s decision to institute IPR review and remanded for further proceedings consistent with her decision.
Practice Note: Less than a week after the CommScope decision issued, the Director applied the CommScope two-part test in a subsequent opinion in a non-precedential decision, remanding the denial of a petition for the Board to determine whether the petition presented a compelling invalidity challenge. (Aviagames, Inc. v. Skillz Platform, Inc., IPR2022-00530 (Mar. 3, 2023) (Vidal, Dir.)) Practitioners should consider filing an IPR petition even when the Fintiv factors weigh heavily against institution but only where the merits challenge is “compelling.” Only a compelling invalidity challenge can be relied on to overcome even a strongly negative Fintiv analysis conclusion.