Attorney Fees not Available in Appeals from Patent Office

The Supreme Court has recently ruled, in Peter v. Nantkwest, Inc., that in appeals from proceedings at the Patent Office, the patent applicant will not be responsible for the fees of the Patent Officer’s attorneys and paralegals. This decision provides clarity in an important factor when considering how to seek review of a patent application.

A patent application is initially filed with the Patent Office. Generally, all applications are rejected, and the process of receiving and responding to rejections is called prosecution. Prosecution can take quite a bit of time, but in certain cases, an applicant can appeal an Examiner’s decision in prosecution to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board. If the Board finds against the applicant, the applicant has the opportunity to request further review of the decision, either to District Court or the Federal Circuit. When this occurs, the applicant hires an attorney on its behalf, and the Patent Office is represented by in-house attorneys who argue its case against the applicant.

Recently, a district court held that an applicant, after losing its appeal, would have to pay the attorney and paralegal fees incurred by the Patent Office. This amounted to about $80,000. The applicant, not too excited, appealed that decision to the Federal Circuit and then to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court denied the Patent Office, finding that it should follow the “American Rule,” which has litigants bearing their own costs whether they win or lose. While patent statutes do allow the Patent Office to recover some expenses – expert costs, travel costs, docketing fees, for example – that did not extend so far as to cover attorney and paralegal fees.

Of course, attorney’s fees can be substantial in an appeal, and so the potential imposition of those fees could present a chilling effect on the pursuit of a patent grant. The Supreme Court recognized this, noting that such a rule would limit access to methods of redress from unfavorable Patent Office decisions.