Situating PTAB Adjudication Within the New World of Agency Adjudication

In 2011, Congress created a series of novel proceedings for private parties to challenge issued patents before the newly formed Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). While the PTAB proceedings are immensely popular, they have also been controversial. A series of legal challenges to these new adjudicatory proceedings are working their way through the federal judiciary and up to the Supreme Court, and the latter is deciding this Term the constitutionality of PTAB adjudication. Yet to date, there has been no sustained comparison of these new adjudicatory proceedings with other agency adjudications. This comparison could be provide numerous payoffs, including highlighting the unique facets of PTAB adjudication that may serve for successful legal challenges as well as providing opportunities for improving the decisional processes of adjudicatory boards.

In The New World of Agency Adjudication, we seek to begin this endeavor by situating PTAB adjudication in the modern administrate state. Every administrative law student learns the basics of “formal” adjudication under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The paradigmatic APA-governed formal adjudication involves an evidentiary hearing held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) wherein parties are entitled to oral arguments, rebuttal, and cross-examination of witnesses. The ALJ’s decision is then reviewable by the agency head, who typically can reverse the decision for largely any reason. Thus, the critical difference between APA formal adjudication—also known as Type A adjudication—and the judicial model is that the agency head has final decision-making authority.

The vast majority of agency adjudications today, however, do not take the form of APA-governed formal adjudication. The new world of agency adjudication comprises agency actions that are adjudicated by non-ALJ agency personnel that have diverse titles, such as administrative judge, administrative appeals judge, hearing officer, immigration judge—just to name a few. These non-ALJ judges have less independence and protections than ALJs. A substantial portion of these proceedings are known as Type B adjudications which still require evidentiary hearings, and hence are relatively formal. In contrast to APA governed formal adjudication, however, the APA imposes virtually no requirements on these proceedings including agency head review. Yet similar to Type A adjudication, a common feature of Type B adjudication is that the agency head has final decision-making authority.

How do the PTAB proceedings fit within this modern world of agency adjudication? Although the new PTAB proceedings have many of the hallmarks of APA formal adjudication, they lack at least two features that suggest they should not receive a Type A classification. Perhaps most saliently, the Patent Act requires these proceedings to be presided over by administrative patent judges, not administrative law judges. The second critical difference is that the Director of the Patent Office does not have final decision-making authority over PTAB determinations. Although an aggrieved party to a PTAB proceeding can file a request for a rehearing by the Board, the Director does not have the authority to review PTAB determinations as a matter of right. As a result, we argue the best understanding of PTAB proceedings is that they are Type B rather than Type A adjudication. The more difficult question is how do the new PTAB proceedings stack up to its Type B adjudication peers? We conclude quite favorably. Drawing on a recent ACUS study that focuses on identifying the best practices of Type B adjudications, we find that PTAB meets the majority of these recommendations and scores as well as most Type B proceedings.

Read more of this Patently-O blog post by Christopher J. Walker and Melissa F. Wasserman by clicking here.

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