Takeaway: In a post-Therasense decision, a district court granted summary judgment on inequitable conduct stemming from declarations submitted in a reexamination proceeding (Reexam Control No. 90/010,874). Therefore, before submitting a declaration to the PTO, ensure: (1) any past or present financial relationships between the declarant and the patentee are fully disclosed, (2) declarations are provided only by individuals having skill in the relevant art, and (3) representations relating to distinctions over prior art are based on the personal knowledge of the declarant. (Caron et al. v. QuicKutz, Inc., 2:09-cv-02600-NVW (D.Ariz. Nov. 13, 2012.)
Declarations can provide an expeditious way to advance prosecution; however, declarations may also be fertile ground for charges of inequitable conduct. While Therasense has significantly raised the bar for a party asserting inequitable conduct based on the patentee’s failure to submit a prior art reference, Therasense recognizes an exception to the “but-for” standard of materiality in connection with the filing of a “false affidavit.” Therasense, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Company, 649 F.3d 1276, 1292-93 (Fed. Cir. 2011).
A scathing opinion entered by the District Court in Arizona provides a reminder of the dangers associated with the use of declarations in practice before the PTO. In Caron et al. v. QuicKutz, Inc., Case No. 2:09-cv-02600-NVW, the Court granted summary judgment of unenforceability due to inequitable conduct relating to U.S. Patent No. 7,469,634. The Court identified three separate acts of inequitable conduct involving declarations submitted to the PTO by the plaintiffs.
First, the Court found that plaintiffs committed inequitable conduct by submitting three declarations under 37 C.F.R. § 1.132 by individuals who had undisclosed prior financial relationships with the plaintiffs. Order, at page 15. See Declarations under 37 C.F.R. § 1.132 submitted on July 5, 2011 in Reexam. Control No. 90/010,874 (available on Public PAIR). These declarations were submitted by the plaintiffs in order to establish that the plaintiffs’ products were unique in the marketplace. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued to the PTO that “each declarant identifies that these die features and benefits are novel in their opinion and have never been commercialized in the scrapbooking industry before Spellbinders introduced this invention.” See Office Action Response dated July 5, 2011, submitted in Reexam. 90/010,874.
The Court cited Ferring B.V. v. Barr Laboratories, Inc. for the proposition that “the inventor must disclose the known relationships and affiliations of the declarants so that those interests can be considered in weighing the declarations.” 437 F.3d 1181, 1187 (Fed. Cir. 2006). The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that the prior relationships were minimal, and accordingly, did not need to be disclosed. Specifically, the Court found:
Although Plaintiffs contend that the compensation each received was minimal, the evidence shows a basis for possible bias by each declarant. Clear and convincing evidence shows each declarant had motivation to provide an opinion favorable to Plaintiffs’ patent application. The PTO was deprived of evidence that it needed to determine the weight it should give to the declarations….
Order, at page 15.
This issue can be avoided by directly communicating to a declarant the importance of full disclosure of prior and current relationships and ensuring that those relationships are clearly recited in the declaration. The PTO does not prohibit submission of declarations by declarants with relationships with the patentee. On the contrary, the Federal Circuit explained in Ferring:
In coming to this conclusion, we fully recognize that inventors often consult their colleagues or other persons skilled in the art whom they have met during the course of their professional life. Accordingly, when an inventor is asked to provide supportive declarations to the PTO, it may be completely natural for the inventor to recommend, and even contact, his own colleagues or people who are, or who have been, affiliated with his employer and to submit declarations from such people. Nothing in this opinion should be read as discouraging such practice. Rather, at least where the objectivity of the declarant is an issue in the prosecution, the inventor must disclose the known relationships and affiliations of the declarants so that those interests can be considered in weighing the declarations.
437 F.3d at 1194-95.
Second, the Court found that the plaintiffs committed inequitable conduct by submitting declarations from two individuals who based their declarations solely on experience with the plaintiffs’ product as end users. Order, at pages 14-15. The Court found “[h]ad the PTO known that [the declarants] did not have professional experience in the relevant industry, it would have given little or no weight to their opinions, particularly regarding the novelty of Spellbinders’ dies.” Id., at page 15. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted the plaintiffs’ representation that the declarations were provided by individuals with “experience in the arts and crafts and scrapbooking industry that are familiar in some way with the [plaintiffs’ products].” Id., at page 14. The Court found that the two individuals “[b]oth provided opinions using technical language that implied professional experience in the relevant industry rather than merely experience as a customer….” Id.
A practical way to avoid this issue is to have a declarant prepare his or her own declaration and to include in the declaration a description of the declarant’s relevant experience. This approach ensures that the language used by the declarant is commensurate with the declarant’s experience. Further, by relying on the declarant to describe his or her qualifications, the PTO will have relevant information available to gauge the declarant’s competence to reach the conclusions recited in the declaration.
Third, the Court found that the submission of a declaration by the inventor and one of the plaintiffs, Jeff Caron, constituted “an affirmative act of egregious misconduct” due to unfounded and unsupported characterizations in the declaration of the prior art reference upon which the PTO relied. Id., at page 21. The declaration in question was filed by the Plaintiffs on October 24, 2011, in Reexam. 90/010,874, and purported to describe the teachings of International Publication No. WO 03/016035. The Court found that the declarant lacked personal knowledge relating to the assertions made in his affidavit.
The Court’s finding that the declaration constituted “an affirmative act of egregious misconduct” was based upon a finding that the declaration “misrepresented that it conveyed information that the declarant knew to be true and was submitted to the PTO with the misrepresentation that the declarant had firsthand knowledge about the subject of the declaration.” Id. The Court also found that Mr. Caron’s deposition testimony was inconsistent with his declaration. According to the Court, “his deposition testimony was more than evasive; it was false or misleading. If his deposition testimony was true and responsive, then his 2011 representations to the PTO are, at the least, misleading.” Id., at page 20.
A similar scenario could plausibly occur when an attorney, and not the declarant, formulates the content of the declaration and presents the finished declaration to a declarant for signature. In such a scenario, the declarant may not take the time to fully understand an argument prepared by the attorney, believing that the attorney’s understanding is sufficient. As noted by the Court, however, declarations must be based on declarant’s personal knowledge. In other words, it may not be sufficient to merely have sound technical arguments. Rather, the arguments must be sound and the arguments must be based on personal knowledge of the declarant. Again, this issue may be avoided by having a declarant prepare his or her own declaration.