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Federal Circuit Vacates Earlier Inequitable Conduct Holding to Hear Appeal En Banc

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The last issue of Nutter’s IP Bulletin reported that a three judge panel of the Federal Circuit upheld a finding of inequitable conduct in Therasense, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson and Co. The Federal Circuit finding, in which Judge Linn dissented with respect to the finding of inequitable conduct, was based on an applicant’s characterization of its own prior art reference in proceedings with the European Patent Office (EPO) that were deemed to directly contradict statements made to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) by the applicant regarding the same reference. The statements made to the EPO regarding the reference were found to be material to patentability, and thus the failure to disclose such statements was ruled to be an appropriate basis for finding inequitable conduct.

On April 26, 2010, the Federal Circuit issued an order vacating the holding of the earlier three judge panel. The Federal Circuit decided to hear the appeal of the decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California en banc. In issuing its order vacating the previous appeal, the Federal Circuit presented six issues for the parties to consider when presenting the new briefing; each of the issues relates to inequitable conduct. The doctrine of inequitable conduct allows a patent to be rendered unenforceable if it is found that a person associated with the filing and prosecution of a patent fails to disclose information to the USPTO that is material to the determination of patentability and was withheld with intent to deceive the USPTO.

The six issues specified by the Federal Circuit order are:

1. Should the materiality-intent-balancing framework for inequitable conduct be modified or replaced?

2.  If so, how?  In particular, should the standard be tied directly to fraud or unclean hands?  See Precision Instrument Mfg. Co. v. Auto Maint. Mach. Co., 324 U.S. 806 (1945); Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford-Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238 (1944), overruled on the grounds by Standard Oil Co. v. United States, 429 U.S. 17 (1976); Keystone Driller Co. v. Gen. Excavator Co., 290 U.S. 240 (1933). If so, what is the appropriate standard for fraud or unclean hands?

3.  What is the proper standard for materiality? What role should the USPTO’s rules play in defining materiality? Should a finding of materiality require that but for the alleged misconduct, one or more claims would not have issued?

4. Under what circumstances is it proper to infer intent from materiality? See Kingsdown Med. Consultants, Ltd. v. Holllister Inc., 863 F.2d 867 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (en banc).

5. Should the balancing inquiry (balancing materiality and intent) be abandoned?

6. Whether the standards for materiality and intent in other federal agency contexts or at common law shed light on the appropriate standards to be applied in the patent context.

The Federal Circuit’s decision to rehear the appeal en banc has been well received, as many in the patent community believe that current rules related to inequitable conduct need to be changed. Members of the patent community hope that the Federal Circuit will clarify the doctrine of inequitable conduct, and in doing so, help ease the growing burden on applicants that the current rules create with respect to the duty of disclosure.

It is anticipated that the en banc appeal will be heard by the Federal Circuit in October or November of this year. We will keep our readers well-informed of the developments surrounding this case.

This advisory was prepared by Nutter's Intellectual Property practice. For more information, please contact your Nutter attorney at 617-439-2000.

This update is for information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any specific facts or circumstances. Under the rules of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, this material may be considered as advertising.
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