Can Judge Michel (and John Duffy) Convince the Supreme Court to Revisit Subject Matter Eligibility?

McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP

McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP

Einstein's aphorism that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is a hallmark of madness (or at least an inability to learn from the past) inevitably comes to mind when perusing the recent history of attempts to persuade, cajole, or shame the Supreme Court to revisit its recent subject matter jurisprudence.  While the many certiorari petitions have amply demonstrated the dysfunctional nature of the jurisprudence (at least in its application by the lower courts) it has seemed that no matter how the evidence was presented, or the outrageousness of the application (see "Supreme Court Denies Cert in American Axle"), or how many times the government joins the call in response to a request for the views of the Solicitor General (see, e.g., "Solicitor General Weighs In On Patent Eligibility Question"), the Court has been steadfast in denying cert.

But it is also the case that sometimes the way of getting a different outcome can be in how the question is presented to the Court (and it is certainly true that the arguments made in the over 60 cases where cert was denied have been similar to the point of repetitiveness).  While it is too soon to tell (or to raise any hopes) in this regard, it may be significant that a recent amicus brief on behalf of former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel and Professor John Duffy in CareDX v. Natera has prompted the Court to ask the Respondent (the prevailing party who espoused the Court's decisions and analytical structure to invalidate the patent on subject matter ineligibility grounds) to address their arguments.  (It also may be significant that Professor Duffy was instrumental in convincing the Court to review the Federal Circuit's application of obviousness law in KSR Int'l v. Teleflex several years ago.)  The resulting indication of the Court's interest, intellectual curiosity or belated sense of responsibility for the utter mess that is subject matter eligibility law (particularly with regard to diagnostic methods) certainly merits consideration of the arguments raised in this amicus brief.

The difference in the Michel/Duffy approach is to focus on what they characterize as a clear instance of Congress overruling "judge-made law" in enacting the 1952 Patent Act and the "continuing trend of uncertainty and inconsistency in patent-eligibility jurisprudence" engendered by how the lower courts have been implementing the Court's subject matter eligibility decisions to contradict those statutory commands.  And of course this state of affairs resulting in an undermining of the "innovation-promoting goals of U.S. patent law."

The statute at issue has been codified under 35 U.S.C. § 100(b) which defines a subject matter eligible "process" to "include a new use of a known process."  This definition was included in the 1952 Act, amici argue, to expressly overrule 19th Century judge-made law that held a new use of known technology was patent-ineligible, constituting a "clear example in which the judicial gloss on patentable subject matter has been legislatively rejected," citing John F. Duffy, Rules and Standards on the Forefront of Patentability, 51 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 609, 632 (2009).  The Federal Circuit erred, the brief argues, in its determination that the methods recited in the claims were "conventional" despite the fact that "none of [them] are found in nature (and many of which were not even possible within living memory)."  (It will be recognized that if persuasive this argument would severely limit if not abolish the second step of the Mayo/Alice test as enunciated by Justice Breyer in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., that "inventiveness" was negated where the application of a natural law was "routine, well-understood or conventional.")  Amici argue that this purported "conventionality" is "irrelevant to the patent-eligible inquiry when the process is directed to statutorily defined patent-eligible (rather than patent ineligible) subject matter."

The brief argues that the law of patent-eligibility needs "clarification," citing the litany of cases illustrating the disarray in this area of the law.  This includes reminding the Court that the Justices themselves have asked for the Solicitor General's views in five recent cases (Tropp v. Travel Sentry, Inc., 143 S. Ct. 361 (2022); Interactive Wearables, LLC v. Polar Electro Oy, 143 S. Ct. 78 (2022); Am. Axle & Mfg., Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, 142 S. Ct. 2902 (2022); Hikma Pharm. v. Vanda Pharm., Inc., 140 S. Ct. 911 (2020); and HP Inc. v. Berkheimer, 140 S. Ct. 911 (2020)).  The brief also cites statements from Chief Judge Moore (in Am. Axle & Mfg., Inc. v. Neapco Holdings, LLC, dissenting), Judge Dyk (Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc.), and Judge Hughes (Athena Diagnostics, Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Servs., LLC) in their opinions asserting the need for "further explication of eligibility standards" from the Court, as well as similar sentiments from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  The issue is framed as a conflict with the Executive Branch, which "continues to issue patents only to see them invalidated in the Federal Circuit."  Outside the government, the brief cites observations from legal academics ("[t]he law of patentable subject matter is a mess," Mark Lemley, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 4, 2019) and "[n]umerous others in the business and legal communities," citing testimony from those hearings.

Moreover, the brief argues, the decision is wrong for "overlook[ing] the Patent Act's text and conflict[ing] with th[e] Court's precedent."  On the facts, the brief argues that the decision "disregarded the specific, technologically advanced steps of the claimed processes" as well as relying on "conventionality" of the recited methods, which (as has long been recognized even in the briefing by the government in Mayo) "conflat[ed] patent eligibility (under § 101) with the requirements for patentability (in §§ 102, 103, and 112)."  In doing so, amici argue that the Federal Circuit acted contrary to the Court's mandates in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 308 (1980) (quoting United States v. Dubilier Condenser Corp., 289 U.S. 178, 199 (1933)), that "courts should not read into the patent laws limitations and conditions which the legislature has not expressed" (while recognizing in other precedent that there are "implicit exceptions" to patent eligibility including the meaning of the term "process").

Starting with the text of the statute (which "must be the starting point") the standard is that a new and useful process or improvement thereof is recited in Section 101 and the term "process" defined in Section 100(b) as a "process, art or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material."  Taken together, amici argue, "a new process that is presented as an improvement on a known useful process is presumptively patent eligible."  And in enacting this definition of "process" they argue that merely because a process was known or, in the Court's language, "conventional" was not enough to per se determine the process to be patent-ineligible subject matter.  The brief recognizes that conventionality is a relevant consideration for novelty or obviousness but states that:

To interpret § 101 as imposing a strict "non-conventionality" standard for patentable subject matter—while not respecting the definition of§ 100(b) and the explicit roles of § 102 and § 103—is to wander so far from the words of the Patent Act as to end up in the wilderness of atextualism.

The brief cites the Court's decision in Diamond v. Diehr as "an instructive example" of how to reconcile the implicit judicial exceptions to subject matter eligibility with the statutory text.  Even though the claimed rubber-curing process in Diehr was "conventional" that was not dispositive, because the improvement (using the Arrhenius equation) was an application of a scientific principle to improve a known process, producing a new process for curing rubber (a judicial principle also recognized in Cochrane v. Deener, 94 U.S. 780 (1876) according to the brief).  None of these principles or considerations were cited or addressed in the Federal Circuit's opinion according to the brief, important due to the similarities between the claimed invention at issue and the patent-eligible claims in Diehr:

Both processes involve complex chemical transformations, not performed in nature, and they both utilize scientific principles to create "new and useful improvement[s]" of known processes.  They both incorporate data analysis to yield a useful result.  They both offer specific technological solutions to a problem that remained unsolved for many years.

The argument is presented as being capable of a narrow focus (albeit with broad implications), wherein the Court could "delineate when improvements of technological processes are patent eligible and to correct a decision that conflicts with the statutory text and this Court's precedent."

The brief further explicates reasons why the Federal Circuit erred in its decision, including that the claims "involve specific, complex biochemical reactions that do not occur in nature and occur only through the provision of human ingenuity" without preempting any "fundamental natural phenomenon" (extensively explicating these differences).  The brief also notes that the recited "specific, complex biochemical reactions" in many instance have themselves been patented in "[t]oo any examples" to be listed in the brief.  And the inclusion of conventional steps is not in itself enough to invalidate an "otherwise novel and nonobvious technological process" under Diehr, amici argue.  The Federal Circuit's analytical error was in creating an "overly simplistic 'summary' of the claimed processes" that "present[ed] the invention at a level of abstraction that eviscerates key features of the claimed processes."  The brief sets forth as an illustration of a better alternative by analogy methods for refining and analyzing precious metals and presents a detailed comparison with patented methods on this subject matter (for which the brief argues "there is no reasonable dispute about patent eligibility").  In doing so, the brief illustrates how these patent-eligible processes could themselves be presented at a sufficiently high level of abstraction so as to be deemed patent-ineligible.  And this is something that the Federal Circuit has done consistently with regard to diagnostic method claims, amici argue, even in instances (such as Ariosa Diagnostics) where what is claimed is a "new diagnostic method [that] is novel and unforeseen, and is of profound public benefit— 'a significant contribution to the medical field,'" Newman, J., dissenting).  The brief also contains argument regarding the doctrinal impropriety of conflating Section 101 requirements with those of Sections 102, 103, and 112, making reference to arguments by the Solicitor General in its Tropp brief.  And the brief cites the consequences of holding to be patent-ineligible "biological and chemical processes that are designed to provide life-saving diagnostic results," that are "not products of nature" and do not claim "the fundamental, scientific principle" but instead "solve[] a technological problem."

It should be noted the care with which amici approach the imputed basis for the need for the Court to provide guidance, wherein the brief states that "[t]his reassessment [by the Court, requested by amici and others] need not overrule the Alice/Mayo test, but it would allow a more faithful application of this Court's precedent to achieve the objective of the Constitution's Patent Clause and would respect the text of the Patent Act."  In this regard, the brief also notes the Court's reliance in Mayo and Alice on pre-1952 decisions and how those decisions were directed to "patentability" and not patent "eligibility," and that the citation in Mayo of Parker v. Flook with regard to an "inventive concept" was based on only two uses of the term and no reliance on any precedent for what the term meant.  The brief also mentions that the term "inventive concept" was absent in Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130 (1948), and Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co. v. Radio Corp. of America, 306 U.S. 86, 94 (1939), as well as Benson v. Gottschalk, and that in this regard the Court's decision in Diehr overruled Flook until it was rehabilitated (or resurrected) in Mayo.  But "'inventive Concept' as a key requirement for patent eligibility finds little support in this Court's historical precedent," amici argue, and yet that is what the Federal Circuit relied upon in invalidating the claims below.

Finally, the brief argues that this case is "an excellent vehicle" for the Court's reconsideration and reassessment of the proper eligibility test for processes because it is directed to a diagnostic methods which are "critically important" to innovation and for consistency with the constitutional mandate that the patent laws "promote progress."  According to a USPTO report, the current state of patent eligibility "has a direct [(negative)] impact on investment, research, and innovation," citing A. Sasha Hoyt, The Impact of Uncertainty Regarding Patent Eligible Subject Matter for Investment in U.S. Medical Diagnostic Technologies, 79 Wash. & L. Rev. 397, 398 (2022).  These uncertainties are illustrated in the brief by citation of Federal Circuit decisions upholding or invalidating diagnostic method claims in different cases without any consistency, citing CardioNet, LLC v. InfoBionic, Inc., 955 F.3d 1358, 1367 (Fed. Cir. 2020); Exergen Corp. v. Kaz USA, Inc., 725 Fed. App'x 959, 966 (Fed. Cir. 2019); and Rapid Litig. Mgmt. Ltd. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1044 (Fed. Cir. 2016), that found eligibility versus Genetic Veterinary Scis., Inc. v. LABOKLIN GmbH & Co. KG, 933 F.3d 1302, 1319-20 (Fed. Cir. 2019); Roche Molecular Sys., Inc. v. CEPHEID, 905 F.3d 1363, 1381 (Fed. Cir. 2018); Cleveland Clinic Found. V. True Health Diagnostics LLC, 859 F.3d 1352, 1363 (Fed. Cir. 2017); Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, 1381 (Fed. Cir. 2015), that did not.

Whether this brief prompts the Court to address patent subject matter eligibility or not, the arguments therein could motivate Congress to exercise its authority to mandate application of Section 100(b) consistent with the basis for enactment of the statute to overrule "judge-made" ineligibility for broad classes of inventions (i.e., new uses for old methods).  The Constitution gives Congress the power to grant patents (and to decide whether to have a patent system that does so), and so long as Congress does not exceed this authority the Court is subject to how Congress exercises this authority.  Whether Congress can muster the will or intestinal fortitude to do so is another matter.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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