The Federal Circuit recently asked the government to submit an amicus brief to address “what, if any, deference should be afforded to decisions of a Patent Trial and Appeal Board Precedential Opinion Panel (‘POP’), and specifically to the POP opinion in Proppant Express Investments, LLC v. Oren Technologies, LLC, No. IPR2018-00914, Paper 38 (P.T.A.B. Mar. 13, 2019).” Order, Facebook, Inc. v. Windy City Innovations, LLC., No. 2018-1400 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 12, 2019).
In 2018, the Director of the Patent and Trademark Office created the Precedential Opinion Panel, which typically comprises the Director, the Commissioner for Patents, and the Chief Judge of the PTAB. The POP may be convened to rehear matters that are of exceptional importance, or to assist the Director in deciding whether a PTAB decision should be designated as precedential or informative.
The specific POP decision the Federal Circuit cited, Proppant Express, addressed “whether 35 U.S.C. § 315(c) permits a petition to be joined to [an IPR] proceeding in which it is already a party.” If an alleged infringer intends to seek IPR of the patent, it must file its petition within one year of being served with the complaint. After filing, Section 315(c) permits “the Director, in his or her discretion, [to] join as a party to that inter partes review any person who properly files a petition under section 311 that the Director, after receiving a preliminary response under section 313 or the expiration of the time for filing such a response, determines warrants the institution of an inter partes review under section 314.” 35 U.S.C. § 315(c).
In Proppant Express, the PTAB POP held that Section 315(c) allowed the Director to join the petitioner itself as a party beyond the one-year deadline. In practice, that interpretation of 315(c) allows a petitioner to join issues that would otherwise be time-barred. Different PTAB panels had previously split on whether the petitioner could use “same party” joinder to add additional issues to the IPR. Also, the Federal Circuit had expressed doubt that “Congress intended that petitioners could employ the joinder provision to circumvent the time bar by adding time-barred issues to an otherwise timely proceeding.” Nidec Motor Corp. v. Zhongshan Broad Ocean Motor, 868 F.3d 1013, 1017 (Fed. Cir. 2017).
The government filed its amicus brief with the Federal Circuit on September 17, 2019, arguing that any POP decisions interpreting the America Invents Act (“AIA”) are entitled to Chevron deference. In United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 227-29 (2011), the Supreme Court held that an agency is usually afforded Chevron deference when Congress delegates the authority for “rulemaking or adjudication.” According to the government, the AIA delegated authority to engage in both rulemaking and adjudication. First, the AIA authorized rulemaking by permitting the Director to enact regulations to establish and govern the IPR process. Second, the AIA authorized adjudication by enabling the Director to adjudicate the IPRs. Thus, according to the government, the Director is entitled to Chevron deference when interpreting statutory provisions of the AIA, including Section 315. The government further argued that the PTAB POP’s decision in Proppant Express should not be reversed under a Chevron deference review.
The Federal Circuit invited the parties to file a response to the government’s amicus brief, which are due October 1, 2019. The Federal Circuit’s resolution of the issue could have a profound effect on future review of all PTAB POP decisions.