Supreme Court Taking Additional Look at Apple’s Estoppel Petition
by Dennis Crouch
The Supreme Court has added a fourth case to its list of potentials for 2023: Apple Inc., v. California Institute of Technology, Docket No. 22-203. The case is extremely important for our patent system because it could define key aspects of the interplay between inter partes review (IPR) proceedings and parallel district court litigation.
IPR Estoppel Provision: In traditional patent infringement litigation, accused infringers almost always raise invalidity defenses — arguing that the patent fails to satisfy the conditions of patentability set forth in the Patent Act. For the past decade, IPRs have offered an additional powerful tool to challenge validity. As the IPR system was being developed, patent holders were concerned about repeat harassment and argued that patent challengers should be required to choose their battleground: either the PTAB or Court, not both. Aspects of the eventual compromise are codified in the estoppel provision of 35 U.S.C. 315(e)(2). The statute becomes effective once an IPR reaches a final written decision as to some claim in the challenged patent. At that point, the IPR petitioner is prohibited from asserting in court that any challenged claim is “invalid on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.” Id. The question in the case is statutory interpretation – what did Congress mean by “could have raised during that inter partes review”?
Apple lost its IPR against CalTech’s patent and subsequently attempted to maintain further obviousness arguments in the parallel infringement litigation. The district and appellate courts applied 315(e)(2) estoppel to prohibit those additional obviousness arguments — concluding that Apple reasonably could have raised them in its initial IPR petition. Apple’s appeal to the Supreme Court argues that the Federal Circuit misconstrued the statute. Apple’s argument hinges on three key points:
- The statutory estoppel applies only to grounds that could have been raised “during” the IPR;
- The IPR begins only at the point where the PTAB grants the petition to institute an IPR; and
- Once the IPR is instituted, the petitioner is barred from raising new grounds (except for rebuttal-type issues).
The Federal Circuit’s error (according to Apple) is that the court found that estoppel applies to any ground that could have been raised in the petition. But, the petition is pre-IPR and thus not “during” the IPR as the statute requires. The petition for writ of certiorari asks the following question:
Whether the Federal Circuit erroneously extended IPR estoppel under 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(2) to all grounds that reasonably could have been raised in the petition filed before an inter partes review is instituted, even though the text of the statute applies estoppel only to grounds that “reasonably could have [been] raised during that inter partes review.”
What’s the news: The Supreme Court has issued a CVSG – Call for the Views of the Solicitor General – in the case. What this means is that at least four justices think that case has potential but that they would like to hear the Biden Administration’s views on whether this is an appropriate vehicle. The SG’s office is already working on three other briefs. Two focus on eligibility (Interactive Wearables & Tropp), and the other addresses the PTO-FDA interaction involving skinny-label infringement (Teva v. GSK).
My view on the estoppel issue:
- Point for CalTech: The Federal Circuit’s solution here is the better policy. Parties should not be given repeated affirmative opportunities to attempt invalidation of the same patent claims. Rather, the process should follow the general use-it-or-lose-it rule of litigation that forces parties to bring their best arguments to the table and see if they are good enough. Here, Apple made a strategic decision to bring certain arguments to the PTAB — most likely because they were the best arguments. It doesn’t help anyone to now let them bring on the third-string as a measure of patent invalidity.
- Point for Apple: A pure textual reading of the statute favors Apple. If the IPR does not start until initiated, “during” the IPR would not include any petition-stage actions.
- Match for CalTech: Apple’s reading removes essentially all meaning from the “reasonably could have raised” provision since petitioners basically cannot add any new grounds once the petition is granted. The statute’s purpose though was to prevent abusive and serial patent challenges.
I always hope that the Supreme Court takes patent cases because of both the drama and potential for meaningful and positive reform. Likewise, I hope that the court takes this case, but then affirms.