In re Stepan Co. (Fed. Cir. 2011)
by Dennis Crouch
This is an important administrative patent law case holding that when the Board of Patent Appeals (BPAI) affirms a rejection based upon a new factual finding, it must identify the holding as a new ground for rejection. This holding benefits patent applicants because it creates a right to either reopen prosecution or request a rehearing based upon the new ground.
Here, the examiner rejected Stepan's claims as anticipated and obvious. Stepan had submitted a Rule 1.131 affidavit claiming a prior invention date in order to antedate one of the references. However, the examiner gave the affidavit no legal effect based upon the judgment that a prior public use of a portion of the invention qualified as 102(b) prior art because it occurred more than one year before the application filing date.
In the administrative appeal, the Board ruled that the applicant could claim priority to an earlier application and that, therefore the the prior art was no longer 102(b) prior art. However, the Board affirmed the rejection after holding that the prior use was still 102(a) prior art because the content of the Rule 1.131 affidavit was insufficient to prove Stepan's prior invention rights.
Writing for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Judge Prost vacated the Board's decision — holding that the Board's factual finding on the sufficiency of the content of the affidavit was a new factual finding that was not a basis of the examiner's rejection being reviewed and, therefore, that the Board must identify the affirmed rejection as a new ground of rejection.
Notice does not focus on the applicant’s arguments divorced from the examiner’s rejections of record that are actually appealed to the Board. Instead, it focuses on the “adverse decisions of examiners” during prosecution which form the basis of the Board’s scope of review. 35 U.S.C. § 6(b). Because Stepan did not have prior notice of the Board’s intent to craft and rely on new findings of fact to support a §§ 102(a)/103(a) rejection and because it failed to identify this rejection as a new ground, Stepan’s notice rights were violated. 5 U.S.C. § 554(b)(3); 35 U.S.C. § 6(b). Had the Board labeled its rejection as a new ground of rejection, Stepan could have reopened prosecution to address the newly-alleged deficiencies in its Declaration with the examiner.
Note: Although this case involves an ex parte reexamination, the principles here apply equally with ordinary ex parte examination. However, the decision will not apply to the new post grant review proceedings under the Leahy-Smith AIA because the review goes directly to the Board (the newly named Patent Trial and Appeal Board or PTAB) rather than an examiner.