USPTO Director David Kappos has announced a set of proposed changes to the patent examiner count system. The proposed changes are not dramatic, but they may have some incremental benefit of reducing RCE churning (see below). The proposal also provides for an additional hour of examination time per case with the expectation that the added time will be used up-front in an interview or in preparing a quality first office action on the merits (FAOM).
The Count System: Under the current count system, examiners receive "counts" for various actions and must meet a certain quota every two-weeks. (The quota varies according to art unit and examiner grade.) Under the rules, one count is awarded when the examiner issues an initial office action rejection and a second count is awarded when the case is disposed-of. Because no counts are awarded for second or subsequent office action rejections, the current system is supposed to encourage examiners to quickly move a case to its conclusion.
RCE Churning: When an applicant files a request for continued examination (RCE), the examiner receives a count as a disposal. At that point, the current count system treats the application as new - thus the examiner can receive a second count for mailing another office action rejection and one more count for eventually allowing the application to issue as a patent. Thus, by "forcing" the RCE, the examiner receives four counts instead of only two. (Note - "Forcing" is in quotation marks because examiner's do not actually applicants to file RCEs.) A similar practice takes place with restrictions where the examiner pushes an applicant to divide a single patent application into multiple applications. In that scenario, the examiner can at times earn multiple counts for reexamining what are essentially identical inventions.
The proposed package would make some modifications - focusing especially on RCE practice. Under the proposal, the first RCE would only be worth 1.75 total counts (rather than 2) and any subsequent RCE can only be worth 1.5 counts. Examination of the original application would still be worth the same 2 counts, but the distribution is slightly shifted. Under the proposal, the first office action on the merits (FAOM) would garner 1.25 counts; a final rejection earns 0.25 counts; and eventual disposal leads to 0.5 more counts. If no final rejection is issued, then the disposal would be worth 0.75 counts. Thus, examiners will still receive credit for examining RCE's - just less credit than before. The proposal does not appear to address the restriction practice.
Encouraging substantive interviews: The proposal would also regularly grant one-hour of "non-examining time" for preparing for and conducting interviews. This would effectively reduce the examination quota of examiners who conduct interviews.
Examiner Mistakes: The PTO management appears to have come to an agreement with the examiner union POPA on these reforms, although the membership will still be asked for their approval. Interestingly, the documents distributed by the joint task force appears to show some changes on the review of examiners for mistakes in office actions. Notably, the proposal would not allow an examiner to be negatively treated "based upon a single clear error in Patentability Determination" even if the examiner has already received a warning for prior mistakes.
The proposal also includes a new "formal policy" of "working on the earliest filed applications on [an examiner's] Regular New Case docket first." This would block the game played by some examiners of cherry picking easier cases to examine earlier.