April 21, 2020

Wrong or Purposefully Evasive Decisions on IPR Time Bar Are Not Reviewable

In Thryv, Inc., v. Click-To-Call Technologies, LP, [18-916] (April 20, 2020), the Supreme Court vacated the Federal Circuit’s decision vacating the PTAB’s Final Written Decision invalidating claims of U.S. Patent No. 5,818,836 relating to a technology for anonymous telephone calls.

Background: §315(b)

Entities associated with Thryv, Inc. sought Inter Partes Review of the ‘836 patent, and patent owner Click-to-Call argued that the petition was untimely under §315(b). The PTAB disagreed and instituted review, eventually issuing a final written decision reiterating its §315(b) decision and finding 13 of the patent’s claims unpatentable. Click-to-Call appealed the Board’s §315(b) determination. Treating the Board’s application of §315(b) as judicially reviewable, the Federal Circuit concluded that the petition was untimely, vacated the Board’s decision, and remanded with instructions to dismiss.

The Supreme Court held that 35 USC §314(d), which precludes judicial review of the USPTO’s institution decision, applies to §315(b)’s time prescription, and vacated the Federal Circuit’s decision and remanded.

Challenges, Appeals, and IPRs

The issue was whether a challenge based on §315(b) ranks as an appeal of the agency’s decision “to institute an Inter Partes Review.” §314(d). The Supreme Court found no need to venture beyond Cuozzo’s holding that §314(d) bars review at least of matters “closely tied to the application and interpretation of statutes related to” the institution decision, because a §315(b) challenge easily meets that measurement. Section 315(b), sets forth a circumstance in which “[a]n Inter Partes Review may not be instituted,” expressly governs institution and nothing more.

The Supreme Court said that this conclusion is strongly reinforced by the statute’s purpose and design. Congress designed Inter Partes Review to weed out bad patent claims efficiently. Allowing §315(b) appeals, however, would unwind agency proceedings determining patentability and leave bad patents enforceable.

The Supreme Court rejected Click-to-Call’s argument that §314(d)’s bar on judicial review was limited to the USPTO’s threshold determination under §314(a) of whether the petitioner has a reasonable likelihood of prevailing. Finding Cuozzo is “fatal” to that interpretation.

The Dissenting Opinion

Justice Gorsuch and Sotomayor dissented, with a persuasive explanation of not just how the majority got it wrong, but also why they are wrong, noting: “No matter how wrong or even purposefully evasive, the Director’s assessment of a petition’s timeliness is always immune from review.” According to Gorsuch and Sotomayor, it was only the initial determination of a reasonable likelihood of success that was insulated from review, since this would necessarily be reviewed as part of the review of the Final Written Decision.

Author’s Take

There just seems to be something wrong in allowing an administrative agency to determine an issue of law outside of its expertise (the significance of service of a complaint), and then barring the courts from reviewing it. It is bad policy to insulate the patent office from review, and bad precedent to insulate any administrative agency from review.