What Exactly is the “Thrust of the Rejection?”

Every so often a decision comes out of the USPTO’s Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) or the Federal Circuit that has immediate value for patent prosecutors. For example, back in June, the Federal Circuit analyzed the degree of corroboration necessary for an In re Katz declaration. Earlier this week, the Court reviewed an appeal from an inter partes reexamination in Honeywell Intl. Inc. v. Mexichem Amanco Holding S.A. de C.V. et al. to determine whether or not the Board’s reliance on a reference different from those of the patent examiners underlying rejections constituted a “new rejection.” The Court’s discussion, especially that found in the dissent, may help shed light on this somewhat amorphous standard.

While a new rejection analysis may appear to be limited in relevance to patent prosecution and appeals before the PTAB, this same analysis can be helpful in navigating Administrative Procedure Act (APA) compliance in AIA trial proceedings.

First, the “new rejection” framework stems from notice and due process concepts of the APA. As discussed previously in the AIA trial context, 5 U.S.C. § 554(b)(3) prevents the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) from introducing new claim interpretation theories without notice, or opportunity to respond. In patent prosecution and appeals before the PTAB, this procedural concern often manifests itself as a change in a rejection that so changes the “thrust” of the earlier positions that it would violate due process to close prosecution or enter an appeal decision absent further opportunity for the Applicant/Appellant to respond on the merits.

Turning back to Honeywell, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded the PTAB’s decision rejecting numerous claims in two merged inter partes reexaminations. Part of the reason for the majority’s remand was that the PTAB relied on a new ground of rejection. Specifically, the PTAB rejected Honeywell’s evidence of unexpected results in light of the “”Omure reference, on the grounds that this reference demonstrated the Patentee had not established a nexus to its secondary indicia evidence. As noted by the majority, Omure—while briefed by the parties—was not explicitly relied upon by the Examiner. Thus, the Court concluded that the PTAB’s reliance on Omure constituted a new ground of rejection in violation of the APA. (not a “new ground” per se, more a “new evidentiary” basis for denying the patentee’s argument)

Judge Wallach dissented from this part of the opinion, concluding that the PTAB did not issue or rely on a new ground of rejection. The dissent (here) noted that:

When considering whether the [PTAB] issued a new ground of rejection, the ultimate criterion of whether a rejection is considered new in a decision by the [PTAB] is whether applicants have had fair opportunity to react to the thrust of the rejection.

Which begs the question: What exactly is the “thrust” of a rejection?

Judge Wallach explains that the PTAB is not limited to reciting and agreeing with the Examiner’s rejection verbatim, and may further explain the rejection and respond to parties’ arguments. Dissent Op. at 2. On the other hand, if the PTAB finds facts not found by the examiner regarding the differences between the prior art and the claimed invention, and these facts form the basis for the PTAB’s rejection, then the PTAB improperly enters a new ground of rejection. Id.

Applying this reasoning to the facts of Honeywell, Judge Wallach found the majority’s reliance on statements by the PTAB that they “disagreed” with the Examiner were not sufficient to rise to the level of a new rejection. Rather, having concluded that the record supported a finding of prima facie obviousness, the PTAB next considered evidence of secondary considerations. The Board concluded there was no nexus, without relying on Omure. Thus, according to Judge Wallach, the “PTAB’s analysis of secondary considerations does not include an improper new ground of rejection.” That is, although the PTAB discussed Omure in other portions of its analysis in rejecting Honeywell’s secondary considerations argument, it was not the principal evidence upon which the PTAB’s rejection was based, and thus should not be considered a new ground of rejection. Rather, the PTAB was simply providing a more thorough explanation of the Examiner’s conclusion, and limiting the PTAB to “verbatim repetition of the examiner’s office actions…would ill-serve the [PTAB’s] purpose as a reviewing body.”

The takeaway here is that the “thrust” of the rejection balances the interests of notice and due process with the administrative flexibility necessary to explain decisions differently. Where the “thrust” may be argued to have shifted will depend upon whether or not the difference in explanation is supplementary in nature, or altogether new, principal evidence. As demonstrated by Honeywell reasonable minds may differ in this analysis.