Maier & Maier

Tribal Sovereign Immunity: PTAB Decision Casts Doubt On Patent Defense Strategy

Last fall, Maier & Maier highlighted a new defense strategy for Patent Owners against IPR (Inter Partes Review) Petitions in an overview of the ongoing Allergan “Tribal Immunity” Proceeding. In sum, Allergan transferred their patent portfolio to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (“Tribe”) in upstate New York, paying them a lump sum and royalties in exchange for retaining an exclusive license for the patent. In doing so, the Tribe became the Patent Owner, availing them of protection from suit under the Eleventh  Amendment.[1] As explained by the Supreme Court, “As a matter of federal law, an Indian tribe is subject to suit only where Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived its immunity.”[2]. After the assignment, the Tribe filed a motion to dismiss based on their Tribal Immunity. Just last month, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) denied that motion.

The Decision

The PTAB panel primarily based its decision on two findings: 1). Tribal Immunity does not apply to the petition for IPR; and 2). Even if it does, the Tribe is not an indispensable party that the Proceeding could not continue without.

The Board relied on a few factors for the first finding, including an absence of statutory support for applying Tribal Immunity to administrative proceedings like the PTAB and the fact that the PTAB decision would be applied to the patent itself, not the Tribe as the patent holder.

Even if Tribal Immunity applied, the Board ruled that the proceeding would still continue because the Tribe is not an indispensable party. To come to this result, the Board conducted a thorough analysis of the sale to the Tribe and the alleged license back to Allergan. As explained in the decision, the involved parties/ characterization of an agreement as a license compared to a full assignment is not determinative, with precedent relying more heavily on the terms than the label given to it. According to the Board, Allergan’s exclusive right to practice the patent, coupled with the Tribe’s ‘illusory’ rights to enforce it, indicated that the agreement was an assignment and not a license. This in turn makes Allergan an owner and allows the proceeding to continue, as any of the Tribe’s interests could be fully represented by Allergan, tipping the scales in the indispensable party analysis.[3]

Implications

Moving forward, it is unlikely that the Tribal Immunity defense will be a useful tool for Patent Owners in IPR proceedings. The PTAB has ruled against its application to IPR’s, established an alternate means to continue with the proceedings with the Tribe’s licensee, and any appeal to the Federal Circuit would face an uphill battle.

In the meantime, anyone still seeking protection for their patents under Tribal Immunity will need to push the balance of their license agreement farther than Allergan and give the Tribe more than ‘mere royalties’ and an ‘illusory’ right to enforce so that 1). the licensee would not be determined the true owner and 2). the Tribe would not be deemed indispensable.[4]

This decision strikes another blow to sovereign immunity defenses, as just this past December the PTAB ruled that State Sovereignty could not be applied to dismiss an IPR proceeding when the Patent Owner has filed an infringement suit asserting the patent. In the Board’s view, the act of bringing suit is as a waiver of the Eleventh Amendment right that would otherwise apply to the proceeding.[5]

Allergan and the Tribe will now continue their defense in the IPR Proceeding with the PTAB, with a Final Decision expected by June, at which point it will likely go to the Federal Circuit for an appeal.[6] You can check for updates using the USPTO E2E platform or subscribe to case alerts here: www.postgrant.com.


[1] The Eleventh Amendment provides that “Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. amend. XI.  See also Covidien LP v. University of Florida Research Foundation IncorporatedNeochord, Inc. v. University of Maryland BaltimoreReactive Surfaces Ltd., LLP v. Toyota Motor Corporation.

[2] Kiowa Tribe of Okla. v. Mfg. Techs., Inc., 523 U.S. 751, 754 (1998).

[3] Mylan Pharmaceutocals Inc., et al. v. Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, IPR2016-01127, Paper 130 at 39 (PTAB, February 23, 2018).

[4] See Luminara Worldwide, LLC v. Liown Elecs. Co., 814 F.3d 1343, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“a financial interest . . . without more does not amount to a substantial right.”); see also Propat Int’l Corp. v. RPost, Inc., 473 F.3d 1187, 1191 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (“[T]he fact that a patent owner has retained a right to a portion of the proceeds of the commercial exploitation of the patent, . . . does not necessarily defeat what would otherwise be a transfer of all substantial rights in the patent.”)

[5] Ericsson Inc. v. Telfonaktiebolaget Lm Ericsson, IPR2017-01186, Paper 14 at 4 (PTAB, December 19, 2017).

[6] Mylan Pharmaceutocals Inc., et al. v. Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, IPR2016-01127, Paper 132 at 4 (PTAB, February 23, 2018)

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