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Blacklight Power, Inc. v. Dickinson

August 15, 2000

BLACKLIGHT POWER, INC. PLAINTIFF,
V.
Q. TODD DICKINSON, COMMISSIONER OF PATENTS AND TRADEMARKS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Date Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge

[11-1][13-1]

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Blacklight Power, Inc., alleges that defendant Q. Todd Dickinson, Commissioner of the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 706 et seq., when the PTO withdrew one and threatened to withdraw four others of plaintiff's patents from issue after plaintiff had received a "Notice of Allowance and Issue Fee Due" and payed the issue fee. The issues presented are whether the defendant had the authority to withdraw plaintiff's patent after plaintiff had paid the issue fee, and, if defendant did have the authority, whether that withdrawal was arbitrary and capricious. Plaintiff claims that defendant's actions were arbitrary and capricious, and that the internal regulation on which defendant relies contravenes the governing patent statute. Pending before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the parties' motions, memoranda in support, responses in opposition, replies in support, and the arguments at the May 22, 2000 motions hearing, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [11-1] is DENIED, and defendant's motion for summary judgment [13-1] is GRANTED.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiff has filed a series of five patent applications for technology that, according to plaintiff, represents a new source of chemical energy from hydrogen. One of these, titled "Lower-Energy Hydrogen Methods and Structure," was filed March 21, 1997. This application was issued as U.S. Patent No. 6,024,935 (the '935 patent) on February 15, 2000. Another of these, Ser. No. 09/009,294 (the '294 application), titled "Hydride Ions," had been filed January 20, 1998. During prosecution of the '294 application, plaintiff cited over 130 prior art articles concerning "cold fusion" and "perpetual motion." When the primary patent examiner raised issues relating to the operability of the '294 technology, plaintiff conducted a personal interview with the examiner to discuss the articles and the operability issues. On October 18, 1999, defendant issued a Notice of Allowance and Issue Fee Due for the '294 application (Notice). The Notice reads:

THE APPLICATION IDENTIFIED ABOVE HAS BEEN EXAMINED AND IS ALLOWED FOR ISSUANCE AS A PATENT. PROSECUTION ON THE MERITS IS CLOSED.

THE ISSUE FEE MUST BE PAID WITHIN THREE MONTHS FROM THE MAILING DATE OF THIS NOTICE . . . Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2.

Plaintiff paid the issue fee three days later, October 21, 1999. See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 3. Following payment of the issue fee, the '294 application was set to issue as U.S. Patent No. 6,030,601 on February 29, 2000. On February 17, 2000, twelve days before the '294 application was to issue, Frances Hicks, a Petitions Examiner with the Office of Petitions, Office of the Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Patent Policy Projects, issued a Notice (February 17 Notice) informing plaintiff that, by request of the Director of the Special Program Law Office, "the ['294] application . . . is being withdrawn from issue pursuant to 37 C.F.R. § 1.313 . . . to permit reopening of prosecution." Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 4. It is uncontested that the '294 application file was not in defendant's possession at the time this Notice was sent.

Upon receiving the February 17 Notice, plaintiff's patent counsel began investigating the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal, contacting different PTO employees by telephone and by mail, including Ms. Hicks, and Director Esther Kepplinger. On February 28, 2000, plaintiff's patent counsel hand-delivered a final letter asking that the withdrawal be reconsidered. Director Kepplinger met with him to receive the letter. She conceded that she still did not have a copy of the '294 application, at which time plaintiff's patent counsel provided her with a copy of his own '294 application file. See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 10; Melcher Decl. ¶ 22. In that meeting, Director Kepplinger indicated that she was concerned that the '294 technology involved "cold fusion" and "perpetual motion." *fn1 She also stated that the PTO intended to withdraw from issue four others of plaintiff's patents-in-application. *fn2 See Verified Compl. ¶ 22.

Pursuant to 37 C.F.R. § 1.181(a)(3), defendant treated plaintiff's February 28 letters to the Commissioner, Director Robert Spar, and Director Kepplinger, as a single petition requesting that the Commissioner exercise his supervisory authority and reverse the PTO's withdrawal decision. In a decision issued March 22, 2000 (March 22 Decision), defendant denied plaintiff's petition, refused to rescind the February 17 Notice, and disallowed plaintiff's patent. See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 8. The March 22 Decision indicated that the reason behind the withdrawal of the '294 application was its similarity to the '935 patent, both of which claimed to attain energy levels below the ground state according to a "novel atomic model." See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 8 at 2. Both claim that the electron of a hydrogen atom can attain an energy level and orbit below the 'ground state' corresponding to a fractional quantum number. According to defendant, this assertion alarmed the Director, who had examined the '935 patent, and who had learned of the '292 application, because it "did not conform to the known laws of physics and chemistry." Id. The March 22 Decision states that the Director "was immediately aware that any pending application embodying such a concept raise[d] a substantial question of patentability of one or more claims which would require reopening prosecution." Id.

III. Procedure

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on March 1, 2000. Plaintiff's complaint consists of two counts. Count I seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief directing defendant to issue the five contested patents-in-application as patents. Count II seeks a declaratory judgment that defendant's withdrawal of the patent applications was arbitrary and capricious and contrary to the PTO's own regulations and to the applicable patent issue statute. Plaintiff filed its motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on March 2, 2000. At their March 3, 2000 hearing, the parties agreed that plaintiff would withdraw its motion without prejudice, and defendant would not take any Office Action with respect to the patents-in-application. On March 8, 2000, the Court issued an order memorializing that agreement, and setting a briefing schedule. Defendant filed the administrative record on March 22, 2000.

The parties filed their cross motions for summary judgment on April 4, 2000. They filed their responses in opposition on April 18, 2000. Plaintiff filed its reply in support on May 1, 2000, and defendant filed its reply in support on May 5, 2000. The Court held a motions hearing on the cross motions for summary judgment on May 22, 2000.

IV. Discussion

The Court must examine several questions to resolve the pending cross motions. First, the Court must determine whether defendant has the authority to withdraw plaintiff's patent after plaintiff has paid the issue fee. If the Court determines that the PTO did possess the requisite authority, then the Court must conclude which PTO issuance, the February 17 Notice or the March 22, 2000 Decision, constitutes final, reviewable agency action. As the last step, the Court must determine whether that final agency action was arbitrary and capricious in contravention of the APA.

A. Whether the PTO Has the Authority To Withdraw

Plaintiff's Patent After Payment of the Issue Fee Plaintiff argues that the PTO does not have the authority to withdraw plaintiff's patent after payment of the issue fee for three reasons: 1) because doing so violates the plain language of the statute, 2) because the PTO regulation on which defendant bases its authority violates the plain language of the ...


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