Federal Circuit Opens the Door for IPR Amendments

In Aqua Products, Inc. v. Matal, No. 2015-1177 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 4, 2017), an en banc Federal Circuit determined that it was improper for the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) to place the burden of establishing the patentability of mid-IPR claim amendments on the patent holder.  Instead, the ruling determined that the burden should be placed on the petitioner to prove any amended claims are unpatentable.
Previous panels of the Federal Circuit had held that, if the patent owner in an inter partes review proceeding (IPR) wanted to amend the claims of the patent, the patent owner was required to show that the amended claims would be patentable over the prior art.
The en banc Federal Circuit in Aqua Products instead held that the AIA’s statutory language in 35 USC §316(e), which places the burden of proving a proposition of unpatentability by a preponderance of the evidence onto the petitioner in an IPR case, would likewise extend to claim amendments. While the en banc court produced five different opinions, a majority of judges held that the statute that establishes the evidentiary standard for IPRs, 35 U.S.C. § 316(e), was ambiguous with regard to whether the burden of persuasion of establishing the unpatentability of substitute claims should be on the petitioner. As such, the court was required to reach step two of Chevron. From this, the court reached two legal conclusions: first, that the PTO has not adopted a rule that is entitled to deference that would place the burden of persuasion on the patent owner, and, second, that in the absence of such a rule entitled to deference, the PTO was not entitled to place that burden on the patent owner.
However, even though this decision is likely to result in many more patents being able to survive the inter partes review process in some form or another, it is unlikely to be a permanent solution. The en banc decision is narrow and makes clear that the Patent Office would have the ability to again place the burden of persuasion for claim amendments back on the patent owner. The Federal Circuit noted that, because a majority of the judges in the en banc proceeding only overturned the PTO’s present amendment practice because they believed that the statute was ambiguous with regard to amendments, if an official interpretation of the statute was made by the Director of the Patent and Trademark office, the court would be required to give deference to it under the Chevron standard. However, to do this, the USPTO would have to first go through proper notice and comment stages for such rule-making.
There are also certain downsides to filing claim amendments for the patent owner. Any amended claim will likely be subject to “intervening rights,” where the change in scope of the claim restricts its applicability to past or present infringement. Because many if not most patents in IPR proceedings will also be involved in concurrent district court litigation, if an IPR can be used to force the patent owner to make an amendment to the asserted claims, the litigation may not be able to continue.