Supplemental Examination of Patents

Supplemental Examination of Patents

Pursuant to the America Invents Act, supplemental examination will be available as of September 16, 2012.  Patent owners will be able to ask the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office “to consider, reconsider or correct” information that was not considered (or was inadequately considered) during a prior prosecution.  And the courts will be barred from holding a patent unenforceable based on information that was considered during a supplemental examination (and any resulting USPTO-ordered reexamination).

The introduction of supplemental examination raises many questions, and our understanding of the implications of this new opportunity will develop as the USPTO rule-making unfolds and as patent owners, litigants and the courts gain experience with it.  But some potential implications concern the relationship between practitioners and their clients, and may prompt new thinking about that relationship on the part of each.

Inherent in the design of supplemental examinations is the opportunity for the patent owner to liberate the patent from any taint resulting from misconduct in its procurement.  The supplemental examination proceeding is designed, in fact, to divorce the patent owner’s property right from any actual or alleged past misconduct on the part of the patent owner or its representative.  In particular, as illustrated by the legislation’s “carve out” for USPTO-detected “material fraud”, the enforceability of a patent that has undergone supplemental examination is a separate issue from the obligations of registered practitioners, inventors, and others who participate substantively in patent prosecution to disclose (and refrain from misrepresenting) known material information to the USPTO.   It is this opportunity to detach the enforceability of the patent from any misconduct in its procurement, in particular, that has the potential to impact the client-practitioner relationship.

From the perspective of the patent owner, supplemental examination provides an opportunity to have the USPTO consider, reconsider or correct information relating to patentability, and to remove that information as a potential basis for a viable inequitable conduct challenge in the courts.  In some cases, at least, it can be expected that the patent owner’s primary or even sole consideration, then, will be the “cleansing” of the patent.

However, as noted above, the very legislation that creates this opportunity for patent owners requires the USPTO to refer suspected material fraud to the United States Attorney General.  And, as is expressly preserved by the AIA, the USPTO retains its authority to discipline registered practitioners.  Thus, where misconduct such as an intentional candor violation did occur or might reasonably be suspected to have occurred, supplemental examination could lead to disciplinary or even more serious consequences for practitioners.  Accordingly, the interests of patent owners and the practitioners who assisted in the procurement (or a prior examination) of the patent as they relate to the use of supplemental examination have the potential to diverge – significantly.

For those patent owners who are themselves not potentially subject to criminal or disciplinary investigation or sanction, this possibility should not present a problem.  Patent owners are free, of course, to hire different counsel for supplemental examination than they used to prosecute the patent in the first place.  And, given that deceptive intent is irrelevant to supplemental examination and that any consequences for misconduct unearthed in supplemental examination will effect only the person(s) suspected of being involved in that misconduct, a patent owner (it appears) need not be concerned about whether a supplemental examination request suggests such misconduct.  But practitioners may find such a situation disconcerting, as they may have concerns about being thrown under the proverbial bus, even where the patent owner did not so intend.

For one thing, by definition, a practitioner who is not asked file a supplemental examination request relating to a prior prosecution in which she was involved will not have the opportunity to participate in the development of such a request.  But a practitioner who is engaged to request supplemental examination regarding a patent he prosecuted may have an additional or different concern, namely, whether the circumstances create a conflict between his client’s interest in cleansing the patent and his personal interest in his reputation and good standing.

Much in this regard will depend on what information the USPTO requires or permits (or receives) in supplemental examination requests, and whether supplemental examinations ultimately lead to any conduct-related investigations or charges.  Although we’ll learn something about the former from the upcoming USPTO rule-making, the latter, at least, will take some time to develop.  In the meantime, the potential effects of supplemental examination relating to the relationship between clients and practitioners are among the questions raised by this proceeding.

As appearing in Patently-O, Professor Lisa Dolek, Syracuse Univ. Law School

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