Tag Archives: Inequitable Conduct

Fed Circuit Excuses Late Payment of Maintenance Fee

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

The Federal Circuit issued an interesting decision this week in Network Signatures, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., No. 2012-1492, that reversed a District Court’s finding of inequitable conduct based on a patentee’s late payment of a maintenance fee. The Court found that even though the patentee intentionally did not pay the maintenance fee, such a failure could be excused when the reason for not paying was based on an erroneous assumption that no one wanted to license the patent. Judge Newman wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by Judge Wallach. Judge Clevenger dissented.

Federal Circuit

Background

A scientist at the Naval Research Labs (NRL) obtained a patent relating to internet security. There did not appear to be any commercial interest in the patent, so NRL permitted the patent to lapse by not paying the 7.5-year maintenance fee. Unbeknownst to NRL, a company (Network Signatures) was interested in licensing the patent. The company attempted to contact NRL via phone and e-mail before the maintenance fee was due, but was unable to do so because NRL’s systems were not functioning properly. Network Signatures was finally able to reach NRL two weeks after the maintenance fee was due. At this point, NRL’s lawyer filed a petition with the PTO for delayed payment, asserting that the failure to pay was unintentional. The PTO granted the request, and NRL ultimately licensed the patent to Network Signatures.

Network Signatures sued State Farm for patent infringement. After discovery, State Farm moved for summary judgment on inequitable conduct, arguing that the failure to pay the maintenance fee was not unintentional. The District Court granted summary judgment, and Network Signatures appealed.

The Federal Circuit’s Decision

The Federal Circuit reversed. In doing so, it looked at the nature of the proceedings before the PTO. NRL’s lawyer submitted a standard form relating to late payments and checked a box indicating that the failure to pay was unintentional. The Court stated that “[w]e do not agree that this action constituted material misrepresentation with an intent to deceive.” The Court found no irregularities with NRL’s conduct after learning of Network Signatures’ desire to license the patent and that it was not improper to use the PTO’s forms (which did not require an explanation).

The dissent disagreed, and found that NRL intentionally allowed the patent to lapse. This was not the kind of unintentional delay that should be excused. While the dissent agreed with the District Court that State Farm had proven the first element of an inequitable conduct defense (material misrepresentation), the dissent found that the second element (specific intent to deceive) was a factual question that precluded summary judgment.

Conclusion

This is a rather odd decision. NRL clearly intended to allow its patent to lapse, but would not have done so but for a problem in communication. But, is this a “mistake of fact” that would excuse its abandonment? The majority failed to address the boundaries of the “mistake of fact” defense proffered by the patentee, and, instead, seems to have relied on the bare-bones nature of the PTO form used. This decision does not seem to provide much clarity as to what constitutes an “unintentional” abandonment of a patent.

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Federal Circuit Dramatically Overhauls Inequitable Conduct Defense in En Banc Therasense Decision

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

The Federal Circuit yesterday issued its en banc decision in Therasense, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co. that significantly changes the law of inequitable conduct. The 6-1-4 decision (written by Judge Rader, with a concurrence in part by Judge O’Malley and a dissent by Judge Bryson) creates bright-line rules for establishing the defense of inequitable that appear, as a practical matter, to almost eliminate this defense except in the most egregious (and likely difficult to prove) cases. In addition, under the Court’s decision, proving invalidity may be a precursor to a finding of inequitable conduct, thereby rendering this defense somewhat redundant. Below is a summary of the key points of the decision, along with a discussion of the consequences going forward.

The Defense of Inequitable Conduct

An accused infringer raising the defense of inequitable conduct must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the patentee misrepresented or omitted material information with the specific intent to deceive the PTO.

The Intent Element

To prevail on this defense, the accused infringer must prove that the patentee acted with the specific intent to deceive the PTO. Gross negligence or negligence are not sufficient. And, in the case of non-disclosure, the accused infringer must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the patentee made a deliberate decision to withhold a known material reference—that is, he knew of the reference, knew it was material, and deliberately decided to withhold it.

Intent and materiality are separate requirements. There is no “sliding scale,” and courts cannot infer intent solely from materiality. Therefore, proving that a patentee knew of a reference, should have known of its materiality, and decided not to submit it to the PTO does not prove specific intent to deceive.

Intent can be inferred from indirect and circumstantial evidence, but the specific intent to deceive must be the “single most reasonable inference able to be drawn from the evidence.”

The patentee need not offer any good faith explanation for its conduct until the accused infringer proves a threshold level of intent to deceive by clear and convincing evidence.

The Materiality Element

The Court rejected the standard of materiality defined in PTO Rule 1.56. Instead, it adopted a “but-for” materiality test.

“But-for” materiality must be shown by clear and convincing evidence, so an accused infringer must show that the PTO would not have allowed a claim if it had been aware of the undisclosed art. However, in making this determination, the court is to employ the PTO’s standard of patentability, not the judicial standard. Therefore, the court should apply the preponderance of the evidence standard used by the PTO and give claims their broadest reasonable construction. This creates a potential situation where a claim might not be invalid under an anticipation/obviousness defense at trial, but still could have been rejected by the PTO during prosecution.

“But-for” materiality is not required for affirmative acts of egregious misconduct, such as submitting false affidavits. However, the nondisclosure of prior art and the failure to mention prior art in an affidavit are not egregious misconduct. This type of misconduct still requires “but-for” materiality.

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