An inter partes review (IPR) is one of the ways a party can challenge a patent in the Patent and Trademark Office. This procedure was added by the America Invents Act, which established a panel of judges called the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) to decide IPRs and conduct other procedures used to challenge patents.  An IPR is quicker and less costly than patent litigation. It also allows an accused infringer to attack the plaintiff’s patent without having to defend against a patent infringement claim at the same time.

There is a time limit for filing an IPR.  Pursuant to 35 U.S.C. §315(b), the PTAB cannot grant a petition requesting an IPR if the petition is “filed more than one year after the date on which the petitioner, real party in interest, or privy of the petitioner is served with a complaint alleging infringement of the patent.”  While this language seems clear enough, patent infringement defendants sometimes don’t even realize they have missed the deadline and end up trying to argue that the time bar is not so clear. 

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, however, has made it even clearer: §315(b) is a strict one-year time bar that begins to run when a party, real party interest, or its privy is served with a patent infringement complaint alleging infringement of the patent sought to be challenged. Click-To-Call Technologies, LP v. Ingenio, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 22839 (Fed. Cir. August 16, 2018).

The Click-To-Call litigation history is complicated by the existence of numerous parties who were merged or acquired by other parties, and a patent that was acquired by one party from another party.   The first patent infringement lawsuit involving the patent in question was filed in 2001.  Ingenio, the defendant in that case, then acquired the plaintiff, and the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice by a stipulation of the parties.  The patent was later acquired by another party, Click-To-Call. In 2012, Click-To-Call sued the original defendant, Ingenio, and several other defendants for patent infringement.

In 2013, the defendants jointly filed a petition for an IPR challenging the patent.  Click-To-Call filed a response claiming that the defendants were time-barred under §315(b) from seeking an IPR because Ingenio had been sued for infringement of the patent in 2001, more than one year before the petition for an IPR was filed.

The PTAB ruled that the IPR was not time-barred because the 2001 patent infringement lawsuit had been dismissed voluntarily without prejudice.  The PTAB’s rationale was that, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 41(a), a dismissal nullifies the complaint and leaves the parties as if the complaint had never been filed.

Click-To-Call requested a rehearing before the PTAB, which was denied. The PTAB then issued a decision invaliding a number of the patent’s claims.

Click-To-Call appealed to the Federal Circuit.  After two dismissals by the Federal Circuit and one trip to the Supreme Court, the case was finally heard by the Federal Circuit.

The question before the court was whether a voluntary dismissal of a patent infringement complaint triggers §315(b)’s one-year time bar for filing an IPR.  The court held that it does, vacating the PTAB’s decision in the IPR and ordering the IPR dismissed.

The Federal Circuit held that the language of §315(b) was plain and unambiguous. Id. at *14.  There are no exceptions to the one-year bar; in particular, there are no exceptions for cases that are dismissed voluntarily after the complaint has been served. The court explained, at *15:

“Simply put, §315(b)’s time bar is implicated once a party receives notice through official delivery of a complaint in a civil action, irrespective of subsequent events…it is wholly irrelevant to the §315(b) inquiry whether the civil action in which the complaint was filed is later voluntarily dismissed without prejudice.”

Thus, “subsequent events” in the original patent infringement case do not “nullify service of the complaint for the purpose of §315(b)’s time bar.” Id. at *17.

The Click-To-Call decision may have several ramifications. Defendants in patent litigation may be more reluctant to enter into settlements requiring a dismissal without prejudice.  In addition, defendants will be more likely to file IPRs earlier in order to ensure that they don’t miss the deadline.  Parties to pending IPRs filed more than one year after a complaint was filed may end up in a fight over whether this case should apply to their IPR, potentially leading to its dismissal.