Federal Circuit: Contractual Arbitration Agreements Don’t Bind PTAB Institution Decisions

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued an order declining to intervene in inter partes review (IPR) institution decisions by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) and further denied a writ of mandamus to stay the PTAB’s IPR institution pending contractually required arbitration of the dispute between MaxPower and ROHM Japan. In re: MAXPOWER SEMICONDUCTOR, INC., Case No. 21-146 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 8, 2021) (Reyna, J.) (O’Malley, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

MaxPower owned patents directed to silicon transistor technology and licensed the patents to ROHM Japan. The license agreement contained an arbitration clause that applied to any disputes arising from or related to it—including patent validity. A dispute arose between the parties as to whether the patents covered certain silicon carbide transistor ROHM products. After MaxPower notified ROHM that it was initiating arbitration under the terms of their license agreement, ROHM challenged the validity of four MaxPower patents at the PTAB, which granted ROHM’s petitions to institute IPRs for the four challenged patents.

MaxPower appealed the PTAB’s institution decision to the Federal Circuit and sought a writ of mandamus to stay or terminate the IPR proceedings without prejudice to later institution if an arbitrator decided that IPR proceedings were appropriate.

The Federal Circuit held that the PTAB’s decision to institute IPR is non-appealable under 35 U.S.C. §314(d), which plainly “confirms the unavailability of jurisdiction” for the Court to hear direct appeals. The Court also found that MaxPower failed to meet the criteria necessary to invoke the collateral order doctrine, which allows appeals from interlocutory rulings if they decide an issue “separate from the merits of the case” that would not be reviewable after final judgment. The Court noted that MaxPower could still raise its arbitration-related challenges after the PTAB issued its final written decisions in these cases.

The Federal Circuit also rejected arguments that the appeals were authorized under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1) and that MaxPower failed to show that its mandamus petition was not “merely a ‘means of avoiding the statutory prohibition on appellate review of agency institution decisions,’” citing the Court’s 2018 decision in In re Power Integrations.

Since the PTAB is not bound by private contracts enforcing arbitration agreements between parties, the Federal Circuit ruled that MaxPower had failed to show that the PTAB’s institution decisions in this case “clearly and indisputably exceeded its authority,” also stating that 35 U.S.C. § 294 does not authorize the PTAB to enforce private arbitration agreements.

In a partial dissent, Judge Kathleen O’Malley argued that the majority decision casts “a shadow over all agreements to arbitrate patent validity” and goes against strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements. While concurring with the majority that the PTAB’s IPR institution decisions are not appealable, Judge O’Malley stated that the case “provides exactly the sort of extraordinary circumstances under which mandamus review is appropriate” in what she called an important issue of first impression. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that [...]

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Notice Under § 287 Means Knowledge of Infringement, Not Knowledge of Patent

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court’s finding of liability for infringement that occurred prior to the filing of the action, explaining that notwithstanding the defendant’ admission that it was aware of the asserted patent, the actual notice requirement of § 287(a) is only satisfied when the recipient is informed of the identity of the patent and the activity that is believed to be an infringement. Lubby Holdings LLC v. Chung, Case No. 19-2286 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 1, 2021) (Dyk, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting in part).

Lubby Holdings sued Henry Chung for infringement of its patent relating to leak-resistant vaping products. Lubby sought damages for alleged pre-filing sales based on alleged compliance with the marking requirement of § 287. Chung raised the issue of whether Lubby’s products were properly marked as required by § 287(a), pointing to one of Lubby’s products as an example. At trial, Chung moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 50(a), arguing that Lubby did not meet its burden to show that it complied with the § 287 marking requirement. The jury ultimately found Chung liable for direct infringement and awarded Lubby almost $900,000. Chung renewed his motion for JMOL under Rule 50(b) and moved for a new trial under Rule 59(a). After both motions were denied, Chung appealed.

Chung argued that there was no evidence that Lubby complied with the marking or notice requirements of § 287. Lubby argued that Chung did not meet his initial burden to point to products that were sold unmarked.

The Federal Circuit explained that under § 287(a), a patentee must properly mark its articles that practice its own invention, or the patentee is not entitled to damages for patent infringement that occurred before “actual notice” was given to an alleged infringer. The Court noted that once Chung met the “low bar” burden bar under Artic Cat to “articulate the products he believed were unmarked patented articles, the burden of proving compliance with the marking requirement is on the patentee.” The Court explained that Chung met this burden by specifically pointing to Lubby’s J-Pen Starter Kit. The Court continued that the burden shifted to Lubby, and Lubby failed to present any evidence that its products were properly marked or that its products did not practice its invention. As a result, Lubby could only recover damages for the period after Chung was provided with “actual notice.”

The Federal Circuit explained that actual notice under § 287(a) requires that the recipient be informed “of the identity of the patent and the activity that is believe to be an infringement, accompanied by a proposal to abate the infringement.” The Court further explained that it is irrelevant whether the defendant knew of the patent or knew of its own infringement. As applied to this case, the Court found that it was not relevant that Lubby told Chung that he could not use the patented technology, or that Chung [...]

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Material Information Submitted to FDA but Withheld from PTO Gives Rise to Inequitable Conduct

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found prior art submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), yet withheld from the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) during prosecution of an asserted patent, sufficient evidence for a finding of inequitable conduct. Belcher Pharmaceuticals, LLC v. Hospira, Inc., Case No. 20-1799 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 1, 2021) (Reyna, J.)

The patent in issue relates to injectable formulations of l-epinephrine. Epinephrine is a hormone that has been on the market since approximately 1938 and is used for a variety of medical purposes. It is also known that l-epinephrine degrades into a more potent isomer known as d-epinephrine. L-epinephrine also degrades into an impurity known as adrenalone through a process called oxidation.

In 2012, Belcher first submitted a New Drug Application (NDA) for a 1 mg/mL injectable l-epinephrine formulation. The NDA was literature-based, meaning that Belcher did not perform any clinical or non-clinical studies on its epinephrine formulation to support its application. Among the materials submitted to the FDA was an article by Stepensky et al to support its statement that “racemization of the enantiomerically pure L-Epinephrine isomer in injectable formulations of epinephrine is a well-known process.” It also submitted data from Swiss pharmaceutical company Sintetica SA’s formulation that had a pH range of 3.1 – 3.3 and undetectable levels of adrenalone. Ultimately, Belcher pursued a formulation with a similar pH range of 2.8 – 3.3.

In 2014, Belcher filed a patent application that was ultimately issued as the asserted patent. The patent taught that increasing the in-process pH to 2.8 – 3.3 unexpectedly reduced the racemization of l-epinephrine to d-epinephrine at release by approximately two thirds. The asserted claims covered pharmaceutical epinephrine formulations having a pH between 2.8 – 3.3 and certain concentrations of l-epinephrine, d-epinephrine and adrenalone at the time of release and 12 months later.

The prosecution of the application involved a single office action in which the pending claims were rejected in view of Helenek. The examiner explained that Helenek taught 1 mg/ml of epinephrine injection that, among other things, had a pH range of 2.2 – 5.0. Belcher overcame this rejection by arguing that Helenek did not render obvious the claimed range of 2.8 – 3.3 because the claimed range was unexpectedly found to be critical to reduce racemization of l-epinephrine.

Hospiria also submitted an NDA seeking approval of an injectable l-epinephrine formulation, which included a certification under 21 U.S.C. § 355(b)(2)(A)(iv)(Paragraph IV) that the asserted patent’s claims were invalid, unenforceable and/or not infringed by Hospira’s NDA product. Belcher subsequently sued Hospira for patent infringement.

During trial, Darren Rubin, Belcher’s Chief Science Officer, testified that in his role at Belcher, he was involved in the drafting and development of the NDA and in the prosecution of the asserted patent—including drafting the claims and specification and responding to the examiner’s office action. Darren admitted he knew of Stepensky before the application was filed and that he possessed a label for a 1 mg/mL epinephrine product marked [...]

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Sixth Circuit: It’s a Go on Plaintiff’s Claims Despite Arbitration Clause

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in part a district court’s grant of a stay pending arbitration, finding that as non-parties to the underlying arbitration agreement, defendants could not stay the plaintiff’s action against them by arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration agreement. AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng, Case No. 19-4067 (6th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Guy, J., dissenting).

AtriCure invested millions into developing medical devices that treat a serious degenerative heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. The company sells these products to hospitals throughout the world. In the mid-2000s, AtriCure sought to enter the Chinese market. In order to do so, it needed a Chinese agent. Dr. Jian Meng approached AtriCure about partnering with one of his companies to serve as AtriCure’s Chinese distributor. AtriCure eventually entered into a relationship with Meng’s company, ZenoMed.

In 2015, AtriCure discovered that another of Meng’s companies, Med-Zenith, was attempting to market a knockoff version of one of AtriCure’s medical devices. AtriCure opted to continue the relationship with ZenoMed, and in 2016, AtriCure and ZenoMed entered into a distribution agreement. However, in 2017, AtriCure learned that Med-Zenith was attempting to develop more counterfeit versions of AtriCure’s devices. As a result, AtriCure allowed the distribution agreement to expire and demanded that ZenoMed return its inventory.

AtriCure then sued Meng and Med-Zenith in the Southern District of Ohio, alleging improper manufacturing and selling of dangerous counterfeit productions, as well as various state law claims. AtriCure also brought an arbitration demand under the distribution agreement against ZenoMed. Meng and Med-Zenith sought to stay the federal lawsuit, arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration clause in the distribution agreement under equitable estoppel and agency theories. After the district court denied the motion, Meng appealed.

The Sixth Circuit explained that after the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2009 ruling in Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, circuit courts are obligated to look to relevant state common law to decide when nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. As a result, the blanket federal presumption favoring arbitration even against nonparties was no longer applicable. Now, courts must examine state law to determine whether nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. The Court examined Ohio contract law to determine that a nonparty cannot enforce an arbitration clause unless it is an intended third-party beneficiary. The Court rejected Meng and Med-Zenith’s equitable estoppel arguments, finding that under Ohio law, AtriCure’s state law claims did not seek to enforce the distribution agreement against Meng and Med-Zenith, or rely on any theory that they owed contractual duties to AtriCure notwithstanding their nonparty status. Finally, the Court remanded the question of whether Meng’s agency argument could prevail by determining if he was acting as an agent of ZenoMed when he engaged in the conduct AtriCure complained about in the separate arbitration.

In dissent, Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. argued that Meng “unambiguously sought a ‘stay under Section 3 of the [...]

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Bascom Cannot Save Your Claims if Your Own Patent Says You Used Known Technology

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court determination that claims of several patents were patent ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 because they did not recite an innovation with sufficient specificity to constitute an improvement to computer functionality. Universal Secure Registry LLC v. Apple Inc., Case No. 20-2044 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 26, 2021) (Stoll, J.)

Universal Secure Registry (USR) sued Apple, Visa and Visa U.S.A. (collectively, Apple), asserting four patents directed to securing electronic payment transactions, which USR alleged allowed for making credit card transactions “without a magnetic-stripe reader and with a high degree of security” (e.g., allegedly Apple Pay or Visa Checkout). Apple moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6), arguing that the asserted patents claimed patent-ineligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The Delaware magistrate judge, quoting Visual Memory v. NVIDIA (Fed. Cir. 2017), determined that all the representative claims were directed to a non-abstract idea because “the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself, not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity.”

The district court judge disagreed, concluding that the representative claims failed at both Alice steps, and granted Apple’s motion to dismiss. The district court found that the claimed invention was directed to the abstract idea of “the secure verification of a person’s identity,” and that the patents did not disclose an inventive concept—including an improvement in computer functionality—that transformed the abstract idea into a patent-eligible application. USR appealed.

In assessing the claims under the Alice two-part test, the Federal Circuit noted that in cases involving authentication technology, patent eligibility often turns on whether the claims provide sufficient specificity to constitute an improvement to computer functionality itself. For example, in its 2017 decision in Secured Mail Solutions v. Universal Wilde, the Court (at Alice step one), held that claims directed to using a conventional marking barcode on the outside of a mail object to communicate authentication information were abstract because they were not directed to specific details of the barcode, how it was processed or generated or how it was different from long-standing identification practices. Similarly, in its 2020 decision in Prism Technologies v. T-Mobile, where the claims broadly recited “receiving” identity data of a client computer, “authenticating” the identity of the data, “authorizing” the client computer and “permitting access” to the client computer, the Court held at Alice step one that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “providing restricted access to resources,” not to a “concrete, specific solution.” At step two, the Court determined that the asserted claims recited conventional generic computer components employed in a customary manner such that they were insufficient to transform the abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

The claims in issue fared similarly. The district court held that the representative claim was not materially different from the Prism claims, and the Federal Circuit agreed. Although the [...]

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