Justia Summary

The Patent Act provides two methods for challenging an adverse decision by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO): direct appeal to the Federal Circuit, 35 U.S.C. 141, or a new civil action against the PTO Director in the Eastern District of Virginia, section 145. Under section 145, the applicant must pay “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings.” NantKwest filed a section 145 civil action after its patent application was denied. The Federal Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the PTO, which moved for reimbursement of expenses, including the pro-rata salaries of PTO attorneys and a paralegal who worked on the case. The Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the motion, concluding that the statutory language referencing expenses was not sufficient to rebut the “American Rule” presumption that parties are responsible for their own attorney’s fees. Reading section 145 to permit an unsuccessful government agency to recover attorney’s fees from a prevailing party “would be a radical departure from longstanding fee-shifting principles adhered to in a wide range of contexts.” The phrase “expenses of the proceeding” would not have been commonly understood to include attorney’s fees at the time section 145 was enacted. The appearance of “expenses” and “attorney’s fees” together across various statutes indicates that Congress understands the terms as distinct and not inclusive of each other.