In re Hyon: Substantial Evidence Standard Helps Preserve Finding of Obviousness

By Chris Reaves

A recent appeal of a lengthy prosecution ended last week, when the Federal Circuit in In re Hyon, 102 USPQ2d 1889 (Fed. Cir. 2012) upheld the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI) findings that a person of ordinary skill would have reason to combine two references to create the invention at issue.  The Board’s decision, though possibly “flawed,” could not be found unreasonable under the applicable standard of review, emphasizing the challenge that patent prosecutors face in overcoming a factual finding.

Background

The applicants, Suong-Hyu Hyon and Masanori Oka, were granted U.S. Patent No. 6,168,626 on a specific type of “Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene” (abbreviated throughout the patent and the opinion as “UHMWPE”), and on the method for creating these material.  The inventors intended the material to be used for artificial joints although the claims were not limited to this embodiment.  The patent had only eleven claims, with limitations such as thickness of the UHMWPE and orientation of the crystal planes within.

Deciding these limitations were unnecessary, the applicants filed a reissue application (No. 10/643,674) within the two-year window, cancelling the original claims and adding several dozen new claims.  These new claims generally consisted of a method of four steps:

(a) crosslinking an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene block having a molecular weight not less than 5 million by irradiating the block with a high energy radiation at a level of at least 1 MR;

(b) heating said crosslinked block up to a compression deformable temperature below the melting point of the UHMWPE;

(c) subjecting said heated block to pressure; and then

(d) cooling said block.

(All claims to the UHMWPE material itself were eventually cancelled voluntarily.)

The examiner rejected all the reissue claims as obvious over two prior art patents, “Zachariades” and “Kitamaru” (Patent Nos. 5,030,402 and 3,886,056, respectively).  As the applicants acknowledged, Zachariades contained all the steps of the applicants’ claims, but in a different order – irradiation occurred after cooling.  (The exact radiation levels and molecular weights also varied, but not to a degree that the examiner thought relevant, and the applicants did not address this difference before either the Board or the Federal Circuit.)  Kitamaru, meanwhile, used a somewhat different method to prepare UHMWPE for use in films and sheets, but it began the process with an irradiation step.  The examiner found that it would be obvious to take the teaching of Kitamaru, to begin with the irradiation crosslinking, and apply it to Zachariades.

The applicants appealed to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, arguing that there was no motivation to combine the references.  The Board, however, affirmed the rejection, and the applicants appealed again to the Federal Circuit.

Ruling: Board Had Substantial Evidence to Support Finding

The majority opinion, written by Judge Bryson and joined by District Judge Jeremy Fogel (N.D. Cal., sitting by designation), opened by recalling that “existence of a reason for a person of ordinary skill to combine references” is a factual finding, reviewed under the “substantial evidence” standard.

Examining the applicants’ arguments, the majority first rejected the suggestion that the prior art came from “fundamentally different material technologies.”  Both patents spoke to the preparation of UHMWPE products, and although each focused on different embodiments, “[n]either reference limits the structure of the UHMWPE product that can be made”.

The majority also found arguments that Zachariades taught against irradiating before molding, or that the examiner and Board had cherry-picked one aspect of Kitamaru to combine with Zachariades, unconvincing.  Although its claims were limited to irradiating after molding, nowhere had Zachariades stated that the opposite was unfeasible or inadvisable.  More importantly, Kitamaru had emphasized that irradiation before molding was the key to creating desired improvements in UHMWPE, namely “a higher melting or softening point, improved transparency, and excellent dimensional stability.”  Therefore, the suggestion to select that element from the reference was in the reference itself.

Judge Newman, in dissent, found it telling that Kitamaru predated Zachariades (indeed, the former issued over a decade before the latter was filed).  It was therefore “noteworthy that Zachariades, seeking mechanical strength and dimensional stability, did not follow the known Kitamaru processing sequence, but instead crosslinked the polyethylene after deformation”.  Newman found this sufficient to show that a person of ordinary skill would not find the results of the combination predictable; had it been obvious to combine, Zachariades would have already done it in his own patent.  The Board, she concluded, had engaged in impermissible hindsight analysis, “reasoning backward from” the patent at issue to see what Zachariades himself had not.

Analysis: Don’t Directly Challenge a “Reason to Combine” Finding

The majority emphasizes the standard of review in its decision.  “Substantial evidence,” a standard used in review of factual findings by both juries and quasi-judicial agency decisions, requires deference to the Board’s decision unless it was without “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion” (Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474).  In other words, unless no reasonable fact-finder could come to the same conclusion given the same evidence, the appellate court will affirm.

Given this emphasis, the standard was likely what tipped the court.  The applicants may have presented a sufficiently convincing case under a preponderance standard, but could not show that the Board’s decision was “unreasonable.”  (Notably, the dissent did not mention the standard of review once, merely calling the Board’s reasoning “flawed”.)

The substantial evidence standard reminds prosecutors that the Board hearing is the stage to win questions of obviousness.  A Circuit panel with a clear focus on this standard is highly unlikely to overturn such a finding, so prosecutors should treat the Board as their only chance.  Should that fail, however, a prosecutor can also focus more energy on the meaning of claims, both prior art and present, which are reviewed de novo.  Finally, although expensive, a § 145 civil action can reset the entire record and remove all deference (see the recent Kappos v. Hyatt, 132 S.Ct. 1690), should the applicant be in true need of a do-over.

The opinion is available at: http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/images/stories/opinions-orders/11-1239.pdf

Oral arguments may be heard at: http://oralarguments.cafc.uscourts.gov/default.aspx?fl=2011-1239.mp3 (NOTE: the Federal Circuit’s oral argument database has been inconsistently accessible as of this article’s posting)

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