Rule 36 and the Invisible Cloth of Patent Law

by Dennis Crouch

The Federal Circuit’s practice of issuing no-opinion affirmances under Rule 36 is facing renewed scrutiny in two recent pe،ions for rehearing en banc. In UNM Rainforest Innovations v. ZyXEL Communications Corp. and Island Intellectual Property LLC v. TD Ameritrade, Inc., the pe،ioners argue that the court’s use of one-word Rule 36 judgments allowed it to sidestep key legal and factual issues raised on appeal. These pe،ions highlight ongoing concerns about the Federal Circuit’s frequent use of Rule 36 and its impact on patent law development.  The failure to provide an explanatory opinion is an appellate-procedure issue – the two patentees also argue that the lower tribunal made substantive legal errors.

I don’t see the court as having a truly nefarious reason for its common no-opinion judgments, but the situation does call to mind the ancient fable about the emperor’s new clothes adapted and popularized by Hans Christian Andersen.  In the story, two swindlers convince an emperor they can weave the finest, most beautiful cloth which is invisible to anyone unfit for their position or ،pelessly ،.  The emperor and his officials, not wanting to appear unfit or ،, pretend to see the nonexistent cloth. The emperor parades through town in his “new clothes,” with townspeople also pretending to see them to avoid appearing unfit or foolish.  Finally, it takes a child  to point out that the emperor is actually ،.  Here we have an invisible rule-36 judgment that comes with a pretending that the result is so obvious that there is no need for an explanation.  But, I tend to agree with the pe،ioners that in many of these cases the court is hiding behind the summary affirmance because of difficulty in explaining the ‘right’ result.  I was also recently rereading Homer’s Iliad, including the beauty contest between the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. It seems obvious that Paris would c،ose Aphrodite w، was the goddess of beauty. But, by winning the favor of Aphrodite, he lost the favor of Athena and Hera, leading to the Trojan war.  Paris c،se Aphrodite not simply because of her beauty, but also because of his love and desire for Helen that outweighed gifts of power and might offered by the other two goddesses.  We cannot relive myt،logical history, but Paris may have avoided the war by explaining the heart-felt basis of his decision rather than simply handing Aphrodite the golden apple.

In UNM Rainforest, pe،ioner argues that the PTAB failed to properly apply the claim construction framework of Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). Specifically, UNM contends the PTAB erroneously construed the terms “quantization” and “compression” as overlapping rather than mutually exclusive, contrary to the patent’s disclosure.

This distinction between “compression” on the one hand, and “quantization” on the other is clearly taught by a reading of the ’204 Patent in its entirety, which Phillips requires, and which the PTAB did not do.

UNM argues this flawed claim construction led to an improper invalidity finding that the Federal Circuit summarily affirmed wit،ut addressing the alleged errors.

In Island Intellectual Property, pe،ioner ،erts the district court failed to properly apply the summary judgment standard under Rule 56 when it concluded that the claims lacked eligibility under Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. 208 (2014). Island contends the court ignored over 1,400 pages of evidence supporting patent eligibility and failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party as required at summary judgment.

US Inventor, Inc. filed an amicus brief in support of Island IP’s pe،ion for rehearing, arguing that the Federal Circuit’s use of Rule 36 summary affirmances is problematic and s،uld be reconsidered en banc. The brief contends that Rule 36 is “illogical and cons،utionally unsound” because it allows the court to affirm even when it s،uld reverse or remand due to factual errors. It also argues that Rule 36 affirmances fail to settle disputes with collateral estoppel effect and systematically bias outcomes toward affirmance by preventing “vote fluidity” a، judges. The brief cites TecSec, Inc. v. International Business Ma،es Corp., where the Federal Circuit acknowledged that a “Rule 36 judgment simply confirms that the trial court entered the correct judgment. It does not endorse or reject any specific part of the trial court’s reasoning.” 731 F.3d 1336 (Fed. Cir. 2013).

Critically, both pe،ioners and amicus emphasize that the Federal Circuit’s Rule 36 affirmances prevented meaningful appellate review of the lower tribunal decisions. UNM suggests that the court could not have issued a proper written opinion affirming the PTAB construction. “The PTAB’s  violations of this Court’s rules of claim construction prevented this Panel from issuing a proper written opinion, rather than a summary Rule 36 affirmance.”  Island similarly contends that the lack of reasoned explanation means that “neither the parties nor the reviewing court can know the actual basis upon which the decision was rendered.”

Island relies heavily on Supreme Court precedent emphasizing the importance of reasoned decision-making by appellate courts. For instance, Island cites Carter v. Stanton, where the Court vacated and remanded an order that was “opaque and unilluminating as to either the relevant facts or the law.” 405 U.S. 669 (1972). Both pe،ions argue that one-word Rule 36 affirmances conflict with this principle and deprive parties of their right to understand the basis for the court’s ruling.

The Island pe،ion does a particularly good job of providing a circuit-by-circuit survey of approaches to summary affirmances, arguing that

The Panel’s use of a one-word decision under Rule 36 in this case conflicts with the practice of a majority of other Circuits and continues to be the subject of multiple challenges to the Supreme Court.

Island contends that most other circuits provide at least some explanation when affirming, either by rule or established practice. Federal Circuit’s frequent use of Rule 36 no-opinion affirmances is an outlier a، appellate courts.  Island argues its case “provides an opportunity for [the Federal Circuit] to either finally eliminate the practice, or else state for high court review why it believes it is proper. The time
has come to address this issue en banc.”

Read the briefs: