In Re Swanson, September 4, 2008 (07-1534)
In 1997, the CAFC decided In re Portola Packaging, holding that “prior art previously considered by the PTO in relation to the same or broader claims" would preclude reexamination requests on the same art.
In 2002 Congress amended § 303(a) to include an additional sentence, explaining that the amendment “overturns the holding of In re Portola Packaging" and that "[t]he existence of a substantial new question of patentability is not precluded by the fact that a patent or printed publication was previously cited by or to the Office or considered by the Office."
Swanson's (aka Abbott's) Case: Abbott Laboratories (“Abbott”) licensed Swanson's patent, and sued Syntron Bioresearch, Inc. for infringement. Syntron countered that Swanson's patent was invalid, and cited prior art that included a reference ("Deutsch") that was considered by the PTO during the original prosecution.
The district court held the patent was not invalid based on the prior art. Syntron appealed. The CAFC agreed with the district court and held that Swanson's patent was not invalid. Syntron then went to the PTO with the same art seeking reexamination. Despite the fact that (1) the prior art was previously considered in the PTO, (2) the district court considered the same art, and (3) the CAFC agreed with the district court, the PTO nevertheless found a "substantial new question of patentability" under § 303, and subsequently invalidated the patent.
On appeal, the CAFC agreed that, despite the court proceedings dealing with the same issues, the PTO had the right to institute reexamination proceedings anyways:
The the statutory language, legislative history, and different purposes underlying reexamination and federal court proceedings suggest that the determination of a substantial new question is unaffected by these court decisions . . . the legislative history for both the original and amended reexamination statute suggest that Congress was concerned only with the consideration of issues in prior PTO examinations, not prior civil litigation . . . Not once in the legislative history did Congress refer to references or issues addressed in prior civil litigation.With regard to art before the PTO:* * *
Section 303’s language and legislative history, as well as the differences between the two proceedings, lead us to conclude that Congress did not intend a prior court judgment upholding the validity of a claim to prevent the PTO from finding a substantial new question of validity regarding an issue that has never been considered by the PTO. To hold otherwise would allow a civil litigant’s failure to overcome the statutory presumption of validity to thwart Congress’ purpose of allowing for a reexamination procedure to correct examiner errors, without which the presumption of validity never would have arisen.
Section 303(a) now mandates that “the existence of a substantial new question of patentability is not precluded by the fact that a patent or printed publication was previously cited by or to the Office or considered by the Office.” Thus, under § 303(a) as amended, a reference may present a substantial new question even if the examiner considered or cited a reference for one purpose in earlier proceedings. Nothing in the statute creates an exception to this rule for references considered in the context of a rejection of prior claims. Indeed, such an exception would overwhelm the rule and thwart a central purpose of the amendment, to overrule In re Portola Packaging.
[T]he 2002 amendment removes the focus of the new question inquiry from whether the reference was previously considered, and returns it to whether the particular question of patentability presented by the reference in reexamination was previously evaluated by the PTO. As was true before the amendment, an “argument already decided by the Office, whether during the original examination or an earlier reexamination” cannot raise a new question of patentability.* * *
Determining the scope of an examiner’s previous consideration of a reference will generally require an analysis of the record of the prior proceedings to determine if and how the examiner used the reference in making his initial decisions. As we believe that this inquiry is most accurately viewed as a question of fact, we will review the Board’s findings regarding the scope of consideration of a reference during prior examinations for substantial evidence.