55 F.3d 606 (Fed. Cir. 1995), 94-1236, Ray v. Lehman

Docket Nº:94-1236.
Citation:55 F.3d 606
Party Name:34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1786 Ralph D. RAY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Bruce LEHMAN, Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:May 17, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Page 606

55 F.3d 606 (Fed. Cir. 1995)

34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1786

Ralph D. RAY, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Bruce LEHMAN, Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks,

Defendant-Appellee.

No. 94-1236.

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

May 17, 1995

Page 607

Charles E. Bruzga, New York City, argued, for plaintiff-appellant.

Richard Torczon, Asst. Sol., Office of the Solicitor, of Arlington, VA, argued, for defendant-appellee. With him on the brief was Albin F. Drost. Nancy J. Linck, Sol., Office of the Sol., Arlington, VA, represented defendant-appellee.

Before RICH, PLAGER, and LOURIE, Circuit Judges.

RICH, Circuit Judge.

Ralph D. Ray (Ray) appeals the January 25, 1994 decision of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granting the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Commissioner's motion for summary judgment affirming the PTO's denial of Ray's petition to reinstate his patent for failure to pay a maintenance fee. We affirm.

I. Background

Ray, with the assistance of a patent agent, Tom Sherrard (Sherrard), filed a patent application on July 8, 1983 which issued as U.S. Patent No. 4,466,797 ('797 patent) on August 21, 1984. Upon issuance of the '797 patent, in section 1A of the issue fee transmittal notice, Sherrard listed his own address for receipt of further correspondence from the PTO.

The PTO mailed a letter to Sherrard on March 22, 1988 reminding him that the first maintenance fee, required 3 years and 6 months after issuance of the '797 patent, was soon due. Under 35 U.S.C. Sec. 41(b) (1988), a grace period of 6 months is provided to pay each maintenance fee. Therefore, the first maintenance fee for the '797 patent was due at the latest, 4 years after the issue date, August 21, 1988. Sherrard, who had retired from practice sometime after the '797 patent issued, forwarded the PTO's letter to the last address he had for Ray. The letter was returned to Sherrard as undeliverable. Sherrard did not pay the maintenance fee and the '797 patent expired.

Ray did not discover that the '797 patent expired until March 1990. Soon thereafter he attempted pro se to have the patent reinstated by filing a paper entitled "Petition to Accept Delayed Payment of Maintenance Fee in an Expired Patent 37 CFR 1.378" (the petition) in the PTO. In the petition, Ray asserted that he had "no knowledge whatsoever that any maintenance fee would be due in connection" with the '797 patent. Ray maintained that Sherrard had not told him of the maintenance fee requirement and that he "knew of no reason to keep in contact with Mr. Sherrard after his retirement."

Page 608

In a decision dated June 26, 1990, the PTO dismissed the petition stating that Ray's alleged lack of knowledge of the requirement to pay the maintenance fee was inadequate to establish unavoidable delay. Ray, assisted by a second patent agent, William F. Frank, filed a petition for reconsideration of the PTO's decision on August 27, 1990. The petition for reconsideration was also denied by the PTO. In its reconsideration opinion, the PTO reiterated that Ray's lack of knowledge of the need to pay maintenance fees does not constitute unavoidable delay. The PTO also opined, in response to Ray's argument that Sherrard failed to apprise him of the necessity to pay maintenance fees, that "the PTO is not the proper forum for resolving disputes between patentees and their representatives." The PTO also stated that there was no need to determine the obligation between Ray and Sherrard because "the record fails to show that either took adequate steps to ensure timely payment of the maintenance fee." Ray then sought injunctive relief against the Commissioner in the D.C. District Court.

The district court affirmed by summary judgment the Commissioner's decision, finding Ray's arguments precluded by Rydeen v. Quigg, 748 F.Supp. 900, 16 USPQ2d 1876 (D.D.C.1990), aff'd 937 F.2d 623 (Fed.Cir.1991) (table), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1075, 112 S.Ct. 974, 117 L.Ed.2d 138 (1992). Ray appeals. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1295(a)(1) (1988).

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Johnston v. IVAC Corp., 885 F.2d 1574, 1576-77, 12 USPQ2d 1382, 1383 (Fed.Cir.1989). We review the district court's grant of summary judgment "to determine whether any genuine issues of material fact are in dispute, and whether any errors of law were made." Haynes Int'l, Inc. v. Jessop Steel Co., 8 F.3d 1573, 1576, 28 USPQ2d 1652, 1654 (Fed.Cir.1993). Agency action may be set aside if it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." 5 U.S.C. Sec. 706(2)(A) (1988). The scope of review under the arbitrary and capricious standard is narrow and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43, 103 S.Ct. 2856, 2866-67, 77 L.Ed.2d 443 (1983).

III. Maintenance Fees

Under 35 U.S.C. Sec. 41(b), enacted in 1980, maintenance fees are due on issued patents at certain times during their maximum terms. Failure to pay a maintenance fee within six months of one of the required times results in expiration of the patent. Under 35 U.S.C. Sec. 41(c) (1988), the Commissioner can accept late payment of a maintenance fee if the delay is shown to be unavoidable. 1 The Commissioner may not, however, exercise his discretion in determining what qualifies as unavoidable delay in a way that "contradicts the purposes of the statute or is completely contrary to reason." Rydeen, 748 F.Supp at 904, 16 USPQ2d at 1880, (citing Commissariat a L'Energie Atomique v. Watson, 274 F.2d 594, 596-97, 124 USPQ 126, 128 (D.C.Cir.1960)).

Pursuant to PTO regulations, a delay in paying a maintenance fee can be shown to be unavoidable if ...

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