Estoppel by Inaction, BPAI Forecloses Argument in Patent Reexamination

Estoppel by Inaction, BPAI Forecloses Argument in Patent Reexamination

Silence in Original Prosecution History Used Against Patent Owner

As discussed previously, prosecution history is applied inconsistently in patent reexamination claim interpretation analysis. In applying a plain meaning analysis to claim language, prosecution history is considered as a necessary component in accordance with Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303; 75 USPQ2d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). Conversely, in analyzing the broadest reasonable interpretation consistent with the specification as it would be interpreted by one of skill in the art, there is no consideration of prosecution history. This is because the BRI standard is rooted in patent application prosecution (where no previous history exists). As such, it is no surprise that the case law and MPEP are silent on the use of prosecution history as an aspect of a BRI in patent reexamination.

Yesterday, the BPAI analyzed a prosecution history for evidence that a Patent Owner disclaimed an argument now before the Board in an ex parte reexamination appeal. In doing so, the Board appears to be attempting to expand the waiver policy of Hyatt v. Dudas, 551 F.3d 1307, 1313-14 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (the Board may treat arguments appellant failed to make for a given ground of rejection as waived)

The decision affirmed the examiner's rejection in ex parte patent reexamination based upon the prosecution history. (Ex Parte A. James Smith, Jr) In the decision claim interpretation was not at issue, instead, the written description support of the issued continuation-in-part (CIP) was analyzed relative to the parent application relative to the claim term "graphical image." (for determing the applicability of intervening art). The Board deemed that the written description issue was fully considered in the application prosecution and noted that the Patent Holder failed to dispute the 112 priority issue. This inaction was considered a clear disavowal of the argument by the Board effectively estopping the Patent Owner from pursuing the issue in the subsequent patent reexamination.

In arriving at their decision, the Board noted that the original prosecution included a rejection of the same claims (i.e., 6-12 and 27-32) as lacking written description support in the parent application for graphical image. In responding to this rejection, the Patent Owner merely pointed out that claim 12 was supported by the claims of the parent. For this reason, the written description rejection of claim 12 was withdrawn during the original prosecution. However, no argument was made relative to the 112 rejection of the other rejected claims, and the Examiner reiterated the written description issue in the Notice of Allowance.

In finding that the Patent Holder had in fact disavowed arguing priority for the remaining rejected claims, the Board explained:

In making this determination, we find that during the original prosecution of the '336 patent, the Examiner made specific unambiguous priority findings during a First Office Action (FF 2, 3, 4), a Final Office Action (FF 6, 7, 8), and again in the Examiners Reasons for Allowance (FF 10). In response to these priority findings, Appellant did not contest the findings other than to correct the Examiner's apparent clerical error. (FF 5). Thus, in overcoming the prior art during the prosecution of the '336 patent without attempting to traverse the Examiner's priority findings, the Appellant forwent opportunities to persuade the Examiner that there may be support for the contested subject-matter in an ambiguous disclosure that otherwise might have sufficed to obtain an earlier priority date. Determination of a priority date is purely a question of law if the facts underlying that determination are undisputed. See E.I. du Pont de Nemours, 525 F.3d at 1359. . . . . . . . .

Therefore, based upon the Examiner's unambiguous priority findings (FF 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8), the Appellant's full and fair opportunity to contest these findings during original prosecution (FF 5), and their opportunity to appeal to the Board (FF 9), we find that these circumstances have created an estoppel for the Appellant to deny that there was new matter present in the CIP. As such, Appellant's silence during the original prosecution creates an estoppel for the Appellant to deny the Examiner's repeated priority findings, thereby impliedly conceding their correctness, and therefore Appellant's lack of entitlement to the original filing date of the '328 patent for the term "graphical image," as recited in claims 6, 7, 28, 33, 3-9, and 41-45 of the '336 patent.

By refusing to award priority to the parent for the rejected claims, the intervening art was found to invalidate the claims at issue.

PPG Comment: In essence the Board has inferred a disclaimer/waiver by inaction, and has estopped the Patent Holder from now disputing the issue. While the decision notes the unambiguous rejection of the examiner, it is the Patent Holder that must be clear and unambiguous with respect to a disavowal of the argument. Here, the claims were actually allowed on independent grounds in the original prosecution despite the priority question (112 support). While the Patent Holder could have argued the written description rejection rather than the alternate path they chose that led to the ultimate allowance of the claims, this inaction may be more of an illustration of economics rather than true disclaimer/waiver. For example, the further argument of the 112 issue may have required submission of declaration evidence under 37 CFR § 1.132. Selection of a less costly option, that ultimately was successful, would not seem to rise to the level of an unambiguous and clear disavowal of other options.

Moreover, clear disavowal in an district court setting would not be found based on silence alone. An applicant's silence in response to an examiner's characterization of a claim does not reflect the applicant's clear and unmistakable acquiescence to that characterization if the claim is eventually allowed on grounds unrelated to the examiner's unrebutted characterization as was the case here. After all, the applicant has disavowed nothing.

In this case the Patent Holder's decision to argue the 112 support to the exclusion of other rejected claims would have to be enough to tilt the scales.

Yet another interesting BPAI case that appears destined for the CAFC.

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