Case Law Update: Inequitable Conduct Law Continues to Evolve

In a recent decision, the Federal Circuit ruled a company’s patent unenforceable due to the inequitable conduct committed by the company’s non-inventor president. As background, Avid’s founder and president, Dr. Hannis Stoddard, hired three engineers to develop a product based on his idea of identifying and processing recovered animals. Dr. Stoddard was not an inventor on the patent that ultimately issued, but he did demonstrate an early version of the technology at a trade show more than a year prior to the filing date of the issued patent. This demonstration was not disclosed to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) during prosecution of the patent, and Dr. Stoddard did not dispute that this information was withheld with specific intent to deceive the USPTO for the purposes of obtaining a patent. He argued that he was neither an inventor nor an attorney and therefore owed no duty of candor to the USPTO; however, the district court disagreed and found Avid’s patent unenforceable for inequitable conduct committed by Dr. Stoddard.

The regulations governing inequitable conduct are provided by 37 C.F.R. §1.56 (“Rule 56”), which imposes a duty to disclose information to the USPTO when an individual is (1) associated with the filing and prosecution of a patent application, and (2) knows that the information in question is material. For purposes of identifying who owes a duty of candor to the USPTO, Rule 56 defines “individual(s) associated with the filing or prosecution of a patent application” as (1) each named inventor, (2) each attorney or agent that prepares or prosecutes the application, and (3) every other person who is substantively involved in the preparation or prosecution of the application and who is associated with the inventor or assignee. 37 C.F.R §1.56(c).

Dr. Stoddard is neither an inventor nor an attorney or agent involved in the preparation or prosecution of the patent, so the issue of whether or not he owed a duty to candor to the USPTO involved an analysis of whether or not he was “substantially involved” in the preparation or prosecution of the patent, and whether or not the prior demonstration was material to patentability.

With respect to “substantially involved,” the Federal Circuit identified a number of factors in affirming the ruling of the district court that Dr. Stoddard met this requirement. Some of these factors included his position and responsibilities in the company, his involvement in hiring the engineers/inventors to develop the product, and his communication with the inventors during prosecution of the patent in Europe.

With respect to materiality, the Federal Circuit dismissed Avid’s argument that the demonstration was not material to the patentability of the claims even though it would not have lead to a proper §102(b) rejection by the USPTO. Indeed, the demonstration involved a preliminary product that failed to contain all of the elements of the issued patent claims. Moreover, an infringement jury was given information regarding the demonstration and still found the patent valid. However, the court reasoned that the demonstration, while not invalidating, was the closest prior art and was thus material. By doing so, the court relied on the “reasonable examiner” standard, which was written out of the old Rule 56 (i.e., prior to the 1992 amendments). The current Rule 56 is much more objective and likely would have found this demonstration non-material to patentability.

The Federal Circuit thus affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Avid’s patent was unenforceable for inequitable conduct committed by Dr. Stoddard. This case seems to be a close call, and it certainly didn’t help that Dr. Stoddard purposefully withheld the information knowing that it would likely have some impact during prosecution. If anything, this case serves as a reminder to submit any relevant information to the USPTO even if the person aware of this information is only remotely involved in the preparation and prosecution of a patent application.

See Avid Identification Sys. v. Crystal Import Corp., No. 09-1216 (Fed. Cir. April 27, 2010).