Thursday, November 3, 2016

PTAB reverses obviousness based on inherency and design choice – but then enters new design choice rejection

Takeaway: In an obviousness rejection, the Examiner relied on several alternative theories for the range of values claimed for a material property of foam: inherency, design choice, and overlapping ranges. The Applicant appealed, and the Board reversed the Examiner's rejection. The Applicant's specification was persuasive evidence that the claimed property wasn't inherent, the Examiner's design choice rationale amounted to an impermissible per se rule, and the overlapping ranges theory relied on data in the Applicant's own specification. However, after finding that the claimed effusivity values weren't described by the Applicant as critical, the Board went on to enter a new obviousness rejection. On the basis of these additional factual findings, the Board found that "the mere selection of a known plastic material having the claimed ranges for effusivity and thermal conductivity to make Reinke's plastic container, as modified by Ishikawa, would have been an obvious design choice for a person skilled in the art." (Ex parte Gehring, PTAB 2016.)


Ex parte Gehring
Appeal 2014004556; Appl. No. 12/485,073; Tech. Center 3700
Decided:  June 10, 2016

The application on appeal was directed to a case for dispensing cleaning wipes. The specification taught that some consumers prefer a case that feels warm to the touch. This property of a material, known as effusivity, is calculated as the square root of the product of the material's thermal conductivity, density, and specific heat capacity. The originally filed claims recited a foam material with a specific effusivity range.

A representative claim on appeal read:
     1. A reusable container for storing and dispensing wipes, the wipes container comprising:
     a. an upper container shell hingedly joined to a lower container shell
such that the upper and lower shells can be configured in an open position and a closed position,
     wherein an interior storage space is defined by the upper and lower shells when the shells are in the closed position,
     the upper and lower shells being at least partially separable from one another to enable a user to replenish a depleted wipes supply in the container;
      b. an opening in the upper shell that enables a user to access at least one wipe stored in the interior storage space, and
     a lid connected to the upper shell and disposed over the opening;
     wherein the upper and lower shells are formed of a molded synthetic polymeric foam material
     wherein the synthetic polymeric foam has an Effusivity value at 23° C and 32° C of from 200-300, according to the Sensory Warm Test,  and
     the lid is formed of a different polymeric material than the shells.
(Emphasis added.)
The Examiner initially rejected the claim using a combination of Reinke and Guy. Guy taught a wipes container having a foam insulator, and the Examiner asserted "it appears that Guy's insulator would inherently have the claimed effusivity value." The Applicant amended to specify the foam's location (outer surface of the shell). The Examiner's next rejection used a new secondary reference Abramson, plus a third reference Lee. Abramson taught a wipes container with outer surface made of leather, and Lee taught foamed EVA as replacement for leather. According to the Examiner, it was obvious to substitute foam for leather, and "it would appear that the foamed EVA of Lee inherently has the claimed effusivity value." The Applicant amended again, adding a lid formed of a different polymeric material.

The next rejection added a third reference Ishikawa for the lid, and switched to a different secondary reference Miller ("Vascular Access Kits and Methods"). Miller disclosed a two part case made of EVA foam, and taught that "EVA may be generally described as a polymeric material with some of the characteristics of elastomeric materials and some characteristics of thermal plastic materials." The Examiner asserted the obviousness of making Reinke's case out of Miller's EVA foam "for the predictable result of obtaining good thermal characteristics." The Examiner further asserted that "it appears that the EVA of Miller would have the claimed effusivity value," and indicated that the burden of proof had shifted to the Applicant. (“[T]he PTO can require an applicant to prove that the prior art products do not necessarily or inherently possess the characteristics of his [or her] claimed product." In re Best, 562 F.2d 1252, 1255, 195 USPQ 430, 433-34 (CCPA 1977).)

In response, the Applicant amended the foam characteristics to narrow the claimed effusivity value, from "less than about 550" to "from 100 to 400." In addition, the Applicant traversed the Examiner's reliance on Miller by noting that while the Applicant's specification taught that EVA foams have differing effusivity properties, Miller did not discuss any reason to use materials with particular thermal conductivity or effusivity properties. According to the Applicant, the fact that containers formed of EVA foam were known did not amount to a suggestion to use a material with the particular property claimed.

The Examiner maintained the rejection. In the Response to Arguments, the Examiner asserted that it was "within the general skill of a worker in the art to select a known material on the basis of its suitability for the intended use as a matter of design choice" (citing to In re Leshin, 277 F.2d 197 (CCPA 1960)). The Examiner also explained that even if Miller didn't discuss the desirability of particular effusivity values, recognition by the Applicant of a different advantage that flowed naturally from the prior art doesn't confer patentability (citing to Ex parte Obiaya, 227 USPQ 58 (BPAI 1985)).

The Applicant once again narrowed the effusivity range (now "from 200-300"), and this time argued there was no suggestion or teaching in the references to both replace Reinke's material with Miller's EVA form and to "select and/or process such material such that it would have an Effusivity Value [as claimed]." The Examiner maintained the rejection, and addressed the narrowed effusivity range by reiterating his position that Miller's EVA foam was presumed to inherently have the claimed effusivity value.

The Applicant appealed. In the Appeal Brief, the Applicant first attacked the Examiner's rationale for combining as follows:
     Although Miller et al. mentions at [0055] that its molded case may be formed of compression molded EVA foam, it also states that it may be formed of any of a number of other materials "including, but not limited to, nylon, cordura type materials, various types of polymeric and plastic materials,'' and "relatively soft materials such as canvas, polyesters and similar materials,'' "materials such as lightweight aluminum alloys and similar hard materials," and "a wide variety of polymeric materials, elastomeric rnaterials and/or thermoplastic materials" including urethane and PVC. Contrary to the Office's assertion, Miller et al. contains no mention of "good thermal characteristics." Regardless, this phrase is undefined and ambiguous, and therefore, devoid of any suggestive content. Miller et al. provides no particular reason why compression molded EVA would be desired over any of these other materials in any particular circumstances.
(Internal citations omitted.)
The Applicant then attacked the Examiner's reliance on inherency:
     Here, the Office has not shown that the EVA foam mentioned by Miller et al. would necessarily have only a particular range of Effusivity (falling within the range of Applicant's claims), or that this would be recognized by a person of ordinary skill in the art. Further, data in Table l of Applicant's specification, and the associated explanatory text, show that compression molded EVA foam as taught by Miller et al. may have an Effusivity Value outside of the recited range. ... This [data] shows that the Effusivity of compression molded EVA foam is not necessarily 200-300, contrary to the Office's assertion of inherency.(Emphasis added, internal citations omitted.)
The Examiner maintained his position in the Answer. After reiterating the previously stated rationales (design choice; and Miller's brief mention that EVA has thermal characteristics), the Examiner then brought up a new benefit of an EVA foam liner, as taught by Miller: "protect the contents carried in the resulting kit from being damaged or crushed."

With regard to the Applicant's argument that the Office Action had failed to show inherency, the Examiner responded as follows:
It has been held that in the case where the claimed ranges "overlap or lie inside ranges disclosed by the prior art" a prima facie case of obviousness exists. [Citing to In re Wertheim, In re Woodruff, and In re Geisler.] Similarly, a prima facie case of obviousness exists where the claimed ranges and prior art ranges do not overlap but are close enough that one skilled in the art would have expected them to have the same properties.
The Appeal Brief had referred to the specification as evidence that EVA foam doesn't necessarily have the properties claimed. In the Answer, the Examiner noted that "Miller et al. may also have an Effusively Value inside the recited range" and explained that prima facie obviousness exists when claimed ranges "overlap or lie inside ranges disclosed by the prior art." Finally, the Examiner stated again that the burden of proof on inherency had shifted to the Applicant.

The Board reversed the Examiner's rejection, finding several errors. First, the data in the Applicant's specification was "persuasive evidence" that Miller's EVA foam may have effusivity values outside the claimed range, which meant the Examiner's use of inherency was improper. Next, the Examiner had relied on the same Applicant data as evidence that some EVA foams have an effusivity value overlapping the claimed range. This was also error: "because sample 12C is part of Appellant's Specification, it does not constitute prior art against the claimed effusivity range subject matter. Finally, the Examiner's use of design choice was also in error:
... the Examiner's mere reliance on In re Leshin amounts to a per se rule that  eliminates the need for fact-specific analysis of claims and prior art and is legally incorrect. Our precedents do not establish any rules of obviousness, just as those precedents themselves expressly declined to create such rules. In re Ochiai, 71F.3d 1565, 1572 (Fed. Cir. 1995).  
The Board did, however, make a new ground of rejection that found the claim obvious over the primary reference Reinke in combination with the tertiary reference Ishakawa. (The Board's rejection did not rely on Miller.) Reinke disclosed upper and lower shells and a lid, and Ishakawa taught a lid made of a different material. And although neither reference taught the claimed effusivity range, the Board found that "the selection of a suitable material is a matter of obvious design choice."

The Board supported the rejection with additional findings, and provided additional explanation. First, the Board noted that the relevant issue for design choice is whether the alleged differences between the claimed invention and the prior art "result in a difference in function or give unexpected results" (citing In re Rice, 341 F.2d 309, 314 (CCPA 1965)). Next, the Board noted that the materials described in Applicant's Table I were commercially available, and found that the material properties of effusivity and thermal conductivity were well known. In making this "well known" finding, the Board relied the specification's characterization of effusivity as a "commonly known" property, as well as case law that "[a]n artisan must be presumed to know something about the art apart from what the references disclose." In re Jacoby, 309 F .2d 513, 516 (CCPA 1962).

The Board then found there was "no evidence of record to express the criticality of the claimed ranges." The specification merely identified any value less than 550 – whether inside the claimed range or outside –  as "suitable" for holding wipes. The effusivity and temperature ranges weren't critical, and did not "result in a difference in function or give unexpected results." "Accordingly, the mere selection of a known plastic material having the claimed ranges for effusivity and thermal conductivity to make Reinke's plastic container, as modified by Ishikawa, would have been an obvious design choice for a person skilled in the art."

My two cents:  It was clear from the very first Office Action that the Examiner wasn't relying on a specific teaching for the claimed effusivity range, but was instead relying on other rationales  – first inherency, then design choice, then overlapping ranges. Yet the Applicant narrowed the range not once, but twice, without even addressing these rationales.

Huh? If the Examiner took the position that "less than 500" was inherent in the reference, what reason did the Applicant have to think that a narrower range would not be viewed as inherent?

Seems to me the Applicant could have ended prosecution sooner and just gone to appeal on the claimed range. I think the Examiner's rejection had plenty of holes in it, so I'd probably appeal. Wouldn't have changed the end result – the Board fixes the Examiner's mistake by issuing a new rejection –  but would have saved an RCE fee and attorney fees for two responses.

It's also true that the claims were vulnerable to a properly articulated design choice rejection – which is exactly what the Board did. Was it wise to appeal such a vulnerable claim? Not a clear call. Sometimes the Board does the extra work to enter a new rejection, but sometimes the Board just reverses the Examiner. I think I would have appealed – but probably without narrowing the originally claimed range.