Guest Post by Peter S. Menell (UC Berkeley School of Law) and Jonas Anderson (American University Washington College of Law).
After nearly two decades of lower court confusion, there was a glimmer of hope that the Supreme Court might intervene to clarify the standard of appellate review of claim constructions determinations. Following strongly worded dissents from denial of rehearing en banc, the Supreme Court invited the Solicitor General’s views on the certiorari petition in Retractable Technologies, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson and Co., 653 F.3d 1296 (Fed. Cir. 2011), denial of rehearing en banc, 659 F.3d 1369 (2012).
In its filing last week, the Solicitor General has unfortunately recommended against Supreme Court review principally on the ground that Retractable Technologies is not an “appropriate vehicle” because the district court did not specifically rely upon factual findings. Therein lies the Catch-22. No district court since at least the Federal Circuit’s 1998 en banc Cybor ruling has been willing to make factual findings in construing patent claims for the pragmatic, logical, and legal reason that to do so would contradict Federal Circuit law that claim construction is a pure question of law.
As we have chronicled at length elsewhere, see Anderson & Menell, From De Novo Review to Informal Deference: An Historical, Empirical, and Normative Analysis of the Standard of Appellate Review for Patent Claim Construction (2012) available at <http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2150360>, Anderson & Menell, Appellate Review of Patent Claim Construction: The Reality and Wisdom of a “Mongrel” Standard the Federal Circuit, the Federal Circuit has struggled mightily over the standard of appellate review since the Markman case. A slim majority adheres to de novo review notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s recognition of the “mongrel” character of claim construction. The confusion has contributed to a high, variable, panel-dependent reversal rate of claim construction determinations. Fearing reversal for relying upon expert testimony, district judges avoid and/or mask use of experts in determining how skilled artisans interpret patent claims. Numerous studies indicate -- and district court and several Federal Circuit jurists believe -- that the de novo standard has significantly increased the uncertainty and costs of patent litigation, reduced settlement rates, and misapplied the Supreme Court’s Markman ruling.
The SG’s rationale overlooks a critical and unique structural feature of the federal patent system: the Federal Circuit’s exclusive jurisdiction over patent appeals. Circuit splits are not possible on patent issues and district courts throughout the land are bound by the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of patent law. Under the SG’s logic, therefore, the standard of appellate review will not be ripe for Supreme Court review unless a district court defies the Federal Circuit. Such logic nearly guarantees that there will never be an “appropriate vehicle” for considering this issue, notwithstanding the vehement cries for help from Chief Judge Rader, Judge Moore, and Judge O’Malley.
It is possible that the Federal Circuit will eventually revisit this standard on its own, although the historical record does not inspire confidence. As we chronicle in our article, members of the Federal Circuit have repeatedly sought to revisit the de novo standard since the Markman decision to no avail. Meanwhile, district courts and the patent system have endured a doubtful application of the Supreme Court’s Markman ruling, causing substantial disruption and wasted resources.
To avoid the Catch-22, the Supreme Court should view dissents from rehearing en banc in the Federal Circuit as a proxy for a circuit split. Furthermore, the fact that a “split” has festered since the time of Markman strongly indicates that the standard of appellate review is ripe for Supreme Court consideration. The SG has missed these critical points in its assessment of the Retractable Technologies certiorari petition.