sanctions : CAFC Alert

The Patent Trial and Appeal Board has discretion in issuing sanctions and is not limited by the Sanctions Regulations under Rule 42.12

| November 5, 2020


September 25, 2020

Prost, Reyna and Hughes. Opinion by Reyna.


After being sued by Voip-Pal, Apple filed separate IPR petitions against the two patents asserted against Apple. During the IPRs, Voip-Pal sent letters to PTAB judges and the USPTO, among others, criticizing the IPR process and requesting either dismissal of the IPRs or favorable judgment. These letters were not sent to Apple. The PTAB issued a final written decision upholding the validity of the claims. Apple then filed a motion for sanctions due to the ex parte communications. The PTAB held that the letters sent by Voip-Pal were sanctionable and the remedy was to provide a new PTAB panel to review Apple’s request for rehearing. On appeal at the CAFC, but before the oral arguments, a separate CAFC decision issued affirming the invalidity of some of the same claims from the same patents. The CAFC stated that for the same claims involved in the prior case, the claims are invalid, and thus, the appeal is moot. However, for the claims that do not overlap with the claims involved in the prior case, the appeal is not moot. Regarding sanctions, the CAFC stated that the PTAB did not abuse its discretion in the remedy provided to Apple. The CAFC also affirmed the PTAB’s determination of non-obviousness.


Voip-Pal sued Apple for infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 8,542,815 and 9,179,005 to Producing Routing Messages for Voice Over IP Communications. The patents describe routing communications between two different types of networks. Apple filed two separate IPR petitions for the patents. Apple agued that the patents were obvious over the combination of U.S. Patent No. 7,486,684 (Chu ‘684) and U.S. Patent No. 8,036,366 (Chu ‘366). The original PTAB panel instituted the IPRs. Later the original PTAB panel was replaced with a second PTAB panel. No reason for the change in panels was provided in the record.

While the IPRs were proceeding, the CEO of Voip-Pal sent six letters to various parties copying members of Congress, the President, federal judges, and administrative patent judges at the PTAB. The letters were not sent to Apple. The letters criticized the IPR system and requested judgment in Voip-Pal’s favor or dismissal of Apple’s IPRs.

The second PTAB panel then issued its final written decision for both IPRs. The claims were found to be not invalid as obvious over Chu ‘684 and Chu ‘366. Specifically, the PTAB said that Apple did not provide evidentiary support for their argument on motivation to combine.

Apple moved for sanctions against Voip-Pal due to the CEO’s ex parte communications with the PTAB and the USPTO arguing that the communications violated the Administrative Procedure Act and violated Apple’s due process rights. Apple requested an adverse judgment against Voip-Pal or that the final written decision be vacated and assigned to a new panel with a new proceeding. Apple also appealed the final written decision by the second PTAB panel.

The CAFC stayed the appeal and remanded to the PTAB to consider Apple’s sanctions motions. A third and final PTAB panel replaced the second PTAB panel for the sanctions proceedings. The final PTAB panel found that Voip-Pal’s ex parte communications were sanctionable. But the final PTAB panel rejected Apple’s request for a directed judgment or a new proceeding with a new panel. The final PTAB panel provided their own sanctions remedy of presiding over Apple’s request for rehearing. The final PTAB panel stated that this “achieves the most appropriate balance when considering both parties’ conduct as a whole.”

After briefing for the rehearing, the final PTAB panel denied Apple’s petition for rehearing because Apple had “not met its burden to show that in the Final Written Decision, the [Interim] panel misapprehended or overlooked any matter.” The final PTAB panel also stated that “even if [the final PTAB panel] were to accept [Apple’s] view of Chu ‘684 … [the final PTAB panel] would not reach a different conclusion.” The CAFC then lifted the stay on the appeal.

Prior to oral argument at the CAFC, Apple filed a post-briefing document entitled “Suggestion of Mootness.” Apple raised the issue of mootness because in a separate proceeding involving the same patents (, Inc. v. Twitter, Inc., 798 F. App’x 644 (Fed. Cir. 2020), the CAFC affirmed that some of the claims of the patents are invalid as ineligible subject matter.

At the oral argument, Apple argued that the appeals for the overlapping claims are moot. Voip-Pal did not dispute mootness of the appeals for the overlapping claims. Since these claims were rendered invalid as ineligible subject matter in the Twitter case, the CAFC stated that appeals for these claims are rendered moot. For the remaining, 15 non-overlapping claims, Apple argued that they are essentially the same as the claims held ineligible in the Twitter case and that “basic principles of claim preclusion (res judicata) preclude Voip-Pal from accusing Apple” of infringing the non-overlapping claims in future litigation.

The CAFC stated that:

Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, “a judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving the same parties or their privies bars a second suit based on the same cause of action.” Lawlor v. Nat’l Screen Serv. Corp., 349 U.S. 322, 326 (1955). The determination of the “precise effect of the judgment[] in th[e] [first] case will necessarily have to be decided in any such later actions that may be brought.” In re Katz Interactive Call Processing Pat. Litig., 639 F.3d 1303, 1310 n.5 (Fed. Cir. 2011).

Thus, any res judicata effect of a first proceeding is “an issue that only a future court can resolve” and any preclusive effect that the Twitter case could have against the same or other parties must be decided in any subsequent action brought by Voip-Pal. The CAFC concluded that the question of obviousness for the non-overlapping claims is not moot.

Regarding the sanctions order, the CAFC stated that the final PTAB panel’s sanction order was not an abuse of discretion. Apple argued that the final PTAB panel’s sanction order violated the administrative procedure act (“APA”) because the PTAB panel issued a sanction not explicitly provided by 37 C.F.R. § 42.12(b), and thus, the PTAB panel exceeded its authority. However, the CAFC pointed out that § 42.12 provides that:

(a) The Board may impose a sanction against a party for misconduct, . . . .

(b) Sanctions include entry of one or more of the following [eight enumerated sanctions]:

The CAFC stated that because of the term “include,” the list of sanctions is non-exhaustive. The use of “may” in the rule also indicates that the PTAB has discretion to impose sanctions in the first place. Therefore, the PTAB is not limited to the eight listed sanctions in § 42.12(b). The CAFC also stated that the PTAB’s decision to allow Apple to petition for rehearing before a new panel was a reasonable course of action that provided Apple with a meaningful opportunity to respond to Voip-Pal’s letters.

Regarding Apple’s due process argument, the CAFC stated that Apple failed to identify any property interests in the course of its due process arguments, and that property interests identified for the first time on appeal are waived. An argument of a due process violation requires identification of a property interest that has been deprived. The CAFC also stated that the PTAB introduced the six letters into the record and gave Apple an opportunity to respond during the panel rehearing stage, but Apple chose not to address the substance of the letters.

Apple also argued that the PTAB erred when it determined that Apple failed to establish a motivation to combine Chu ‘684 with Chu ‘366 stating that the PTAB improperly applied the old teaching, suggestion, motivation test rather than the flexible obviousness analysis required under KSR. However, the CAFC stated that Apple’s argument was that a skilled artisan would have viewed Chu ‘684’s interface as less intuitive and less user friendly than that of Chu ‘366, and thus, a skilled artisan would have a desire to improve Chu ‘684’s system. But the PTAB determined that Apple’s expert did not provide adequate support for the proposition that a skilled artisan would have regarded Chu ‘684’s teachings as deficient. Thus, Apple failed to “articulate reasoning with some rational underpinning.” The CAFC stated that the PTAB applied the proper evidentiary standard in determining non-obviousness of the claims.


This decision shows that the PTAB has discretion in issuing sanctions and they are not limited to the list enumerated in 37 C.F.R. § 42.12. Also, issue preclusion can only be applied to a future action. The effect of a judgment in a first case must be decided in any later actions that may be brought. For demonstrating obviousness, make sure you include evidentiary support for an argument of obviousness.

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