Submarine Sunk: Patent Prosecution Laches Pops GATT Bubble

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Addressing for the first time whether the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) can assert prosecution laches as a defense in a civil action brought under 35 U.S.C. §145, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the PTO could assert prosecution laches as a defense against four patent applications in a case where the plaintiff delayed presenting the claims for these applications over a period of at least 10 years. Hyatt v. Hirshfeld, Case Nos. 2018-2390; -2391; -2392; 2019-1038; -1039; -1049; -1070 (Fed. Cir. June 1, 2021) (Reyna, J.)

Gilbert Hyatt is well known for having built a prolific patent application portfolio based on nearly 400 initial filings made just before the United States changed from an issuance-based patent exclusivity system to a filing-based patent exclusivity system under the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). By 2003, those 400 initial filings had exploded into 45,000 independent claims. Hyatt’s applications were so labor intensive that the PTO developed a separate examining unit specifically dedicated to their review. Many of these applications have been rejected.

After the PTO finally rejected four of Hyatt’s computer software patent applications, in 2005 Hyatt filed a § 145 action in the district court. Throughout the litigation, the PTO argued that Hyatt had routinely delayed prosecuting his patent applications and never complied with his verbal agreement with the PTO to streamline each application to apply for only one invention. Ultimately, after a five-day bench trial, the district court found that the PTO failed to prove it had taken sufficient action to advance prosecution of Hyatt’s applications. The PTO appealed.

Resolving the threshold issue on appeal of whether prosecution laches is even available to the PTO in a § 145 action, the Federal Circuit explained that the right to assert laches as an affirmative defense flows naturally from the PTO’s rights to reject applications based on laches and defend such rejections on appeal in the Federal Circuit on the same grounds. Any other conclusion, the Court recognized, would create incongruence and undermine the PTO’s authority. Such a defense is available even if raised for the first time in the district court, as “§145 actions open the door to new evidence.”

The Court found significant errors in the district court’s application of prosecution laches law. First, the Federal Circuit held that the district court too narrowly focused on the PTO’s specific conduct without considering the totality of the circumstances, including delays caused by Hyatt’s sweeping amendments and prosecution of other patent applications, as well as the relative costs and burdens of examining Hyatt’s gargantuan application portfolio. The Court was particularly critical regarding the district court’s assignment of blame to the PTO in its attempts to manage the unwieldy task before it.

After reviewing the evidence presented by the PTO, the Federal Circuit found that the PTO had amassed significant evidence of Hyatt’s delay of prosecution of his applications—i.e., “patterns of prosecution conduct [that] created a perfect storm that overwhelmed the PTO.” As for the prejudice requirement of prosecution laches, the significantly increased administrative burden on the PTO was found to suffice. In light of the PTO’s showing, the Court ultimately remanded to afford Hyatt the opportunity to show he had “a legitimate affirmative reason for the delay” and that his conduct, intentional or not, did not cause material prejudice.

Practice Note: Although this case arose under unusual facts, it provides key insights into when and how a patent applicant’s own conduct can bar a claim for a patent under the doctrine of prosecution laches. It remains to be seen whether the PTO will more readily wield this hammer against other patent applicants in less severe cases.

Courtney Seams, a summer associate in the Washington, DC, office, also contributed to this case note.

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