Supreme Court Upholds “Clear and Convincing” Standard of Proof for Patent Invalidity While Suggesting Juries Be Instructed on the Weight of the Evidence

On June 9, 2011, the Supreme Court in an 8-0 decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, affirmed the long-standing rule that a challenger must demonstrate invalidity of a patent by “clear and convincing evidence.” Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. Partnership, 564 U.S.__, slip op. at 20 (June 9, 2011).  Microsoft had argued for a more relaxed “preponderance of the evidence” standard in a case where the prior art that formed the basis for the challenge had not been considered by the Patent Office.  While the holding puts to rest speculation over whether the Court would apply the lesser standard of proof, the Court endorsed the use of a jury instruction on the weight to be given prior art evidence that had not been considered by the Patent Office, stating that such an instruction, “when requested, most often should be given.”  Id.at 17.

Section 282 of the Patent Act of 1952 provides that “[a] patent shall be presumed valid” and “[t]he burden of establishing invalidity of a patent or any claim thereof shall rest on the party asserting such invalidity.”  35 U.S.C. § 282. While § 282 expressly places the burden of proof regarding validity of the patent upon an accused infringer, it does not expressly address the standard of proof.  Microsoft argued that the preponderance standard applied generally or, in the alternative, at least where the prior art asserted had not been considered by the Patent Office.  The Court rejected both contentions.

The Supreme Court rejected Microsoft’s first contention by finding that Congress had adopted the heightened standard from the common-law in 1952 when it enacted § 282.  The Court determined that by the time of the 1952 Act, the common law presumption of validity reflected the “universal understanding” that the preponderance standard was insufficient.  That understanding was reflected in the holding of Radio Corp. of America v. Radio Engineering Laboratories, Inc., 293 U.S. 1 (1934). In that case, the Supreme Court held that an accused infringer must overcome the presumption of validity by “clear and cogent evidence.” Id.at 2.  Accordingly, the Court held that the codification of the presumption in § 282 brought with it its common-law meaning, including the heightened standard proof, and there was no reason to “drop” the heightened standard simply because §282 does not explicitly recite it.

In arguing for the lesser “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof when the prior art was not considered by the Patent Office, Microsoft relied in part on the Supreme Court’s dicta in KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc., 550 U.S. 398, 426 (2007), that at least in cases where the invalidating prior art was not before the Patent Office, the presumption of validity “seems much diminished.”

Notwithstanding its earlier observation, the Supreme Court rejected the notion of a variable standard of proof.  The Court acknowledged language found in “numerous courts of appeals” cases before the 1952 Act, that referred to the presumption of validity being “weakened” or “dissipated” when the evidence was not considered by the Patent Office.  However, it explained that such language could not be read as supporting a different standard.  “Instead, we understand these cases to reflect the same common sense principle that the Federal Circuit has recognized throughout its existence—namely, that new evidence supporting an invalidity defense may ‘carry more weight’ in an infringement action than evidence previously considered by the Patent Office.”   Slip op. at 17.  Accordingly, “new evidence” of invalidity may make it “easier” for a challenger to meet the “clear and convincing” standard.

The Court suggested that the weight to be given this new evidence be explained in an instruction to the jury:

[A] jury instruction on the effect of new evidence can, and when requested, most often should be given. When warranted, the jury may be instructed to consider that it has heard evidence that the PTO had no opportunity to evaluate before granting the patent. . .  [T]he jury may be instructed to evaluate whether the evidence before it is materially new, and if so, to consider that fact when determining whether an invalidity defense has been proved by clear and convincing evidence.

Id.at 17.  This language will undoubtedly increase the frequency of requests for a specific instruction on the weight of the new evidence and on the use of such instructions.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, wrote a concurring opinion which emphasizes the need to pay careful attention to the distinction between fact questions and legal questions, noting that the standard only applies to evidence of the facts.  The Court’s opinion, slip op. at 2, does note that the ultimate question of patent validity is a question of law and that the same factual questions underlying the Patent Office’s original examination will also be present in an infringement action.  Id.  While this language is suggestive, the Court’s opinion never expressly states that the standard of proof applies only to the factual questions.  The concurrence thus raises the question of whether a court should refrain from applying the clear and convincing standard to legal conclusions, such as whether given facts render an invention obvious.  Further, the observations of the concurrence may impact the specific questions put to the jury in the form of a special verdict and instructions regarding the standard of proof.

Thus, the development of the patent law may be more affected by dicta from Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. Partnership than by its holding, which affirms the long-standing “clear and convincing” standard.

Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Limited Partnership et al.: Supreme Court Observations

In Microsoft v. i4i, the U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously (8-0) affirmed the clear and convincing evidence standard for invalidating issued U.S. patents under Section 282 of the Patent Act (1952).  In 2007, i4i sued Microsoft in U.S. District Court for infringement of i4i’s patent. As part of its defense, Microsoft asked for a jury instruction reciting a preponderance of the evidence standard for finding i4i’s patent invalid, rather than the long-standing clear and convincing evidence standard.  The District Court rejected Microsoft’s lower standard of proof, and a jury found that the patent was valid and that Microsoft infringed, awarding i4i a 9 figure damages sum.  Microsoft appealed to Federal Circuit, asserting in particular, that the District Court improperly instructed the jury on the standard of proof for invalidity.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s holding and Microsoft petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, which was granted.

In its argument to the Supreme Court, Microsoft argued that either (1) a defendant in a patent infringement action need only convince the jury that an issued patent is invalid by a preponderance of the evidence standard, or (2) alternatively, that at the very least, the preponderance of the evidence standard should apply to evidence that was never considered by the PTO during examination.  The Supreme Court in its decision rejected both of Microsoft’s arguments.

In its decision, the Court first focused on the language of Section 282, which specifies that “[a] patent shall be presumed valid” and “[t]he burden of establishing invalidity of a patent … shall rest on the party asserting such invalidity.”  Microsoft had argued that Federal Circuit precedent establishing a clear and convincing evidence standard was not supported by the 1952 Act because Section 282 did not explicitly set forth that standard.  The Supreme Court noted that, while the statute includes no express articulation of the standard of proof, the statute does use the term “presumed valid,” which has a settled meaning in the common law.  Relying on its long-standing decision in Radio Corporation of America (RCA) v. Radio Eng’g Labs., Inc., 293 U.S. 1 (1934), the Court found that the common law jurisprudence dating back to the 19th century reflects that Microsoft’s proposed preponderance standard of proof “was too ‘dubious’ a basis to deem a patent invalid.”  According to the common law, the Court held, “a defendant raising an invalidity defense bore a ‘heavy burden of persuasion,’ requiring proof of the defense by clear and convincing evidence.”

The Court also noted that the Federal Circuit has interpreted Section 282 to require this clear and convincing evidence standard for nearly 30 years. And while Congress has amended the patent laws several times since the Patent Act was passed, “the evidentiary standard in § 282 has gone untouched.”  The Court concluded that Congress is well aware of the Federal Circuit’s treatment of the statute, but thus far has not amended the statute, and further that “[a]ny re-calibration of the standard of proof remains in [Congress’s] hands.”

The practical implications of the decisions are many.  First and foremost, the decision preserves the status quo, which in turn maintains the strength of U.S. patents and current patent enforcement mechanisms, particularly as they relate to innovation, business certainty, and job creation.  The Court has also sent a clear signal that, in view of well-established jurisprudence, if the standard is to change, it must be done by Congress, as any such change would have a profound ripple effect on the entire patent system.

Microsoft V. i4i – Prosecution And The “Variable Proof Regime”

The Government recently weighed in on this important appeal with its amicus brief, signed by Neal Katyal, Acting Solicitor General.  The question posed is simply: “Whether, when the defendant [here Petitioner i4i] in an infringement suit asserts as a defense that the relevant patent is invalid, the defendant must prove invalidity by clear and convincing evidence.”

The major portion of the brief argues “clearly and convincingly” that both precedent and legislative history compel a finding that the clear and convincing (C&C) standard is the appropriate burden of proof for the defendant to meet, even when the defendant introduces evidence of invalidity that was not before the PTO during the examination process – even though the new evidence may “carry more weight and go further toward sustaining the attacker’s unchanging burden.” American Hoist & Derrick Co., 725 F.2d 1350, 1360 (Fed. Cir. 1984).

However, as is often the case, some of the most interesting writing is found in the footnotes, or toward the end of the brief, when the “mechanics” and practical implications of lowering the C&C standard to the “examination standard” of a preponderance of the evidence are discussed. In footnote 7, the Solicitor considers the situation in which some of the evidence was previously considered and some was not:

“If the heightened evidentiary standard was treated as a sort of ‘bursting bubble’ that converts to a preponderance standing if the defendant introduces any new evidence of invalidity, the exception would swallow the rule, since the party [asserting invalidity] will almost always be able to identify some arguably relevant prior art that was not presented to the PTO Examiner…..And even if the defendant … relied exclusively on materials that were not before the PTO examiner, difficult questions might arise as to whether those materials differed substantively from information that the examiner did consider. Any regime in which the standard of proof turns on whether particular evidence was before the PTO could also hinder the examination process by encouraging applicants to indiscriminately submit prior art references to the PTO, without regard to relevance.”

This footnote is so loaded with practical wisdom, it seems like someone in the Solicitor’s office must have actually prosecuted a patent application at some point! Particularly in the case of clients who self-generate lots of prior art, such as university inventors, an attacker will almost always be able to find one more abstract or even a popular local article reporting the invention. Even if the abstract or article is less detailed than the full papers the prosecuting attorney sent in, it may well contain a sentence or two of additional results, or even speculation as to “theoretical solutions” (See Duramed v. Watson).

Now the new art it is not “cumulative” and may be arguably material to at least one claim. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Solicitor, I am sorry to say that we prosecutors are already highly motivated to “indiscriminately submit prior art references to the PTO” by decisions such as McKesson and Therasense. Believe me, we are not ignoring “relevance” entirely, but if it is “analogous art” (which seems nearly borderless these post-KSR days), it is going in on a 1449. The Examiner may not read every word, but we know that the defendants will.