Most patents currently being reexamined at the PTO are also being litigated in parallel proceedings in district court. This rise in importance of parallel reexaminations leads directly to both Constitutional controversies and practical problems. Although the Federal Circuit has nimbly attempted to avoid the problem, the truth is that both the PTO (an Article II executive agency) and the Article III Courts focus on the same question of validity of patent claims. These races to conclusion raise questions of both separation of powers and res judicata.
A practical issue is raised by Microsoft in the i4i case relates to the relevance of non-dispositive reexamination events to the question of willful infringement. In Microsoft's case, the ex parte reexamination request was initially granted, and that grant was followed by a non-final office action rejection. On appeal, Microsoft argued that the PTO's rejections of i4i's claims on obviousness grounds should result in a per se finding that its its infringement defenses were not objectively reckless. Rather, according to Microsoft, the PTO's grant of reexamination and non-final rejection at least serve to prove that its defenses were credible. i4i argues on the other side that the non-dispositive reexamination events are irrelevant because of the different standard for review, different claim construction approach, and lack of finality.
At the Santa Clara Law School conference that I attended yesterday, one panelist made a seeming reasonable suggestion - that courts should begin to reexamination results once an applicant agrees to amend or cancel claims being asserted during litigation. At that point, it is a foregone conclusion that the resulting reexamination certificate will not confirm the patentability of those pre-amended claims.