Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director Rejected:

I blogged about this suit in July:

The complaint ... alleges that Deputy PTO Director Margaret Peterlin lacks the statutorily required "professional background and experience in patent or trademark law."

I can't speak to whether the deputy director in fact lacks such background and experience.... I'm more interested in the institutional question here: What should courts do with vague criteria such as "shall ... [have] a professional background and experience in patent or trademark law," criteria that give no instructions about the level of background and experience required? I'm not an administrative law expert, but I'm inclined to say that this is the sort of judgment that is left to the Director (and, indirectly, to the Secretary of Commerce and the President, who can decide to remove the Deputy Director), not to courts. But I'd love to hear what administrative law experts have to say about this, and about other procedural questions that this lawsuit raises.

Last week, a federal district court rejected the lawsuit, reasoning in relevant part:

Two of plaintiffs’ three claims appear to be brought directly under 35 U.S.C. § 3(b), the statute which structures the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and creates the office of the Deputy Director which is held by Ms. Peterlin. Defendant argues that there is no private cause of action under this statute, and plaintiffs have functionally conceded this argument by failing to respond. Nor would a response have made much difference: neither the text nor the legislative history of the statute evinces anything approaching the congressional intent required to establish a private cause of action -– that is, intent to create both a private right and a private remedy.

One of plaintiffs’ three claims invokes Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which ... does provide a cause of action for persons aggrieved by final agency decisions that are arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law. A claim alleging violation of the standard in 35 U.S.C. § 3(b) is unreviewable under the APA, however, because 35 U.S.C. § 3(b) lacks standards that a court could meaningfully use in evaluating this type of high-level personnel decision. Because the only statutory standard is vague and highly subjective, the decision whom to appoint Deputy Director must be considered “committed to agency discretion by law.”

The presumption must be that decisions involving high-level policymaking personnel are left primarily to the executive. In such a situation, one would expect Congress to speak in precise terms if it intended the courts to monitor the minimal qualifications for agency officers. Here, Congress has given only the broadest of instructions -– that the Deputy Director should have “a professional background and experience in patent or trademark law.” The statute is silent as to the content of those terms. Were the decision subjected to APA review, the Court -– not Congress -– would be the ultimate source of the standards by which the qualifications of Ms. Peterlin would be judged: Is a law degree necessary? Is it sufficient? Are law school courses in intellectual property a requirement? Is certification to practice before the USPTO? Is law firm experience? How many years? If Congress had intended the extraordinary situation in which judicial review would reach to the very qualifications of agency officers for their policymaking positions, its statute would not be drawn “in such broad terms that ... there is no law to apply.”

Thanks to reader Michael Hall for the pointer.

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