Friday, 30 January 2015

T 1101/14 - Don't put the blame on your secretary, if you as a representative failed yourself!


A representative  mistakenly signed a statement of grounds of appeal having most of its pages missing. As a result, the statement of grounds of appeal, did not indicate the reasons for setting aside the impugned decision or the extent to which it was to be amended - and the Board came to the preliminary conclusion that the appeal appeared to be  inadmissible. The representative tried to argue all due care, referring to the secretary's reliability (trying to put all the blame on her), but ignoring the representative's own lack of particular care when checking and signing the documents to be submitted. But: no excuses for not having checked that carefully! 

Summary of Facts and Submissions
I. The appeal lies against the decision of the examining division [...]
II. The appellant filed a notice of appeal on 31 Janu­a­ry 2014 and paid the appeal fee on the same day. On 11 April 2014, the appellant submitted, electro­nically, amended claims and description pages accor­ding to a main request and auxiliary requests 1-3, accom­panied by a letter stating the following:
"In the matter of the Appeal, we enclose herewith the Grounds of Appeal, to­gether with amended description pages and claims in re­lation to a Main Request and First to Third Auxiliary Re­quests. We request that the decision of the Examining Division be set aside in its entirety, and that a pa­tent be granted based on the application in the form of the Main Request. If the Appeal Board considers that the Main Request is not permissible, we respectfully request an opinion in relation to the allowability of the First to Third Auxiliary Requests. We request Oral Proceedings in the event that any of the Requests are not considered allow­able by the Appeal Board."
No fur­ther reasons were received with that submission, nor did the letter contain a list of intended enclosures.
III. With a summons to oral proceedings, the board informed the appellant of its preliminary opinion that the letter of 11 April 2014, which the board considered to constitute the statement of grounds of appeal, did not indicate the reasons for setting aside the impugned decision or the extent to which it was to be amended. The board therefore came to the preliminary conclusion that the grounds of appeal did not satisfy the require­ments of Rule 99(2) EPC so that the appeal appeared to be inadmissible pursuant to Rule 101(1) EPC. The appellant was also informed that the oral pro­ceedings would be limited to the question of admissibility.
IV. In response to the summons, received on 26 September 2014, the appellant argued that "the Grounds of Appeal which were filed were not the 'full' intended Grounds" and reques­ted re-establishment of the applicant's right in the application under Article 122 EPC in view of the fact that, in spite of all due care required by the cir­cum­stances having been taken, the Applicant was unable to observe the deadline for filing the grounds of appeal under Article 108 EPC.
V. In a communication dated 8 October 2014, the board in­formed the appellant that the request for re-establish­ment would be dealt with in the planned oral procee­dings and raised a number of questions. Since a sub­mission rela­ting to the grounds of appeal was re­ceived in time, it appeared questionable whether a time limit had been missed at all and therefore whe­ther the re­quest for re-establishment was admissible. The board also noted that the appellant had, in res­ponse to its electronic sub­mission, received an imme­di­ate acknow­ledge­ment of re­ceipt from which the omission of a sepa­rate document con­tai­ning the grounds of appeal should have been appa­rent. In view of this it seemed that the cause of non-compliance had been re­moved directly after trans­mission and that consequently the request for re-establish­ment was not filed within the two-month period pre­scribed by the EPC. Moreover, even if the request for re-estab­lish­ment had been made in good time, the presence of the receipt would appear to have a bea­ring on the assessment of whether all due care re­quired by the circumstances had been taken.
VI. The appellant provided further arguments in a letter dated 23 October 2014.
VII. The appellant's case, insofar as it is relevant to the present decision, can be summarized as follows.
a) By 1 April 2014, the appellant and the repre­sen­tative had come to an agreement as to which do­cu­ments were to be filed as and with the grounds of appeal.
b) On 11 April 2014, a bundle of documents was pre­pared for uploading to the electronic filing sys­tem including, in particular, a letter relating to the appeal procedure comprising a cover letter and a twelve-page annex containing the actual grounds of appeal.
c) The procedure normally followed by the represen­ta­tive and her secretary for an electronic filing con­sisted of five steps:
  1. The representative would instruct the secretary which documents were to be filed.
  2. The secretary would upload these documents to the local end of the electronic filing system.
  3. The representative would click through every page of the uploaded documents and, once verified, electronically sign them.
  4. The secretary would perform the "send" function of the electronic filing system and thus have the signed documents transmitted to the EPO.
  5. The secretary would receive the electronic receipt of transmission and check whether the documents enclosed for transmission were properly transmitted.

d) This procedure was also followed in the present case. However, two errors occurred. The se­cretary failed in step ii) to upload the twelve-page annex containing the grounds of appeal, and the repre­sen­tative failed to notice in step iii) that this annex was missing before elec­tronically signing the documents for trans­mission.
VIII. The oral proceedings were held on 12 December 2014, at the end of which the chairman announced the decision of the board.
Reasons for the Decision
The admissibility of the request for re-establishment
1. According to Article 122(1) EPC, the remedy of re-estab­lishment is available to an applicant or pro­­pri­e­tor who was unable to observe a time-limit vis-à-vis the European patent office. Given that a statement of grounds of appeal was received in time on 11 April 2014, it might be considered that no time limit was missed at all.
1.1 The appellant argued that the letter received on 11 April 2014 did not constitute the grounds of appeal. This was obvious from the letter because it referred to grounds of appeal which were meant to be "enclose[d] herewith" but which were, in fact, not. The appellant also referred to Rule 99(2) EPC which required the statement of grounds of appeal to contain "the reasons for setting aside the decision impugned [...] and the facts and evidence on which the appeal is based" and argued that the submission of 11 April 2014 clearly did not contain reasons, facts or evidence. According to the appellant, therefore, no grounds of appeal were received at all and hence the time limit under Article 108 EPC for filing the grounds of appeal was missed.
1.2 The board is not convinced by the appellant's argument. Rule 99(2) EPC provides that the statement of grounds of appeal "shall indicate the reasons for setting aside the decision impugned, or the extent to which it is to be amen­ded" (emphasis by the board). When an appellant does not maintain the claims as refused but files amen­ded claims, it is a priori reasonable to assume that the appellant may not want to challenge the rea­sons of decision under appeal but rather wants it to be amen­ded. Thus the absence of reasons in the letter of 11 Ap­ril 2014 does not allow the conclusion that the letter does not constitute grounds of appeal in the sense of Article 108 EPC.
1.3 However, even though something was filed within the appropriate time limit which could be understood to be the statement of grounds of appeal, the board accepts that the submission was incomplete with respect to what was meant to be filed at the time. The appellant poin­ted out that not admitting the request for re-estab­lish­­­ment would, in the present case, be tantamount to denying the appellant its access to the boards of appeal and therefore its only remedy against the deci­sion under appeal, and argued that this would be a dis­proportional consequence of the representative's pro­cedural slip.
1.4 The board agrees with the appellant that Article 122 EPC is intended to provide a remedy for the type of error that occurred in the present case.
2. According to Rule 136(1) EPC, the request for re-es­tablishment of rights shall be filed in writing with­in two months from the removal of the cause of non-com­pli­­ance with the time limit. According to the juris­pru­dence of the boards of appeal, the cause of non-compli­ance is removed on the date on which the person respon­sible for the application is made aware of the fact that a time limit has not been observed or when the per­son concerned ought to have noticed the error if all due care had been taken (see Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 7th ed. 2013, III.E.3.1.1 a)).
2.1 The representative argues that she became aware of her error only when she received the board's communication dated 5 August 2014, so that the two months period started at that point.
2.2 The statement of grounds of appeal was filed electro­nically on 11 April 2014. In immediate response to this filing, the appellant received an acknowledgement of re­ceipt for the submitted documents (see also annex G, filed on 26 September 2014). The pertinent list men­tions a letter of appeal ("APPEAL-LETT-1.pdf") having merely two pages and, apart from that, only amended claims and description pages. In particular, receipt of a twelve-page document containing a statement of grounds was not acknowledged. The board is of the opin­ion that the omission would have been directly apparent to the representative had she checked the acknowledge­ment of receipt.
2.3 The representative has however argued that she [= the representative] does not - and is not required to - check the electronic acknowledgement of receipt, as this is a secretarial task. She explained that, according to the procedure for elec­tronic filing used in her office, the primary pur­pose of the acknowledgement of receipt is to confirm that the documents received at the EPO tally with the trans­mitted ones so that, in the case of a transmission problem, some or all of the documents can be sent again.
2.4 The board considers the electronic fi­ling procedure used in the representative's office and, in particular, the use made of the electronic re­ceipt according to that procedure, to be reasonable. There­fore, the board finds that the date on which the cause of compli­ance was removed was the date when the repre­sen­tative actu­ally learned from the board's summons to oral pro­cee­dings that the statement of grounds had been trans­mitted in­completely. As the board's summons was posted on 5 Au­gust 2014, the appellant's request for re-estab­lishment of rights filed on 26 September 2014 was made within the time-limit prescribed by Rule 136(1) EPC.
3. The request for re-establishment is therefore admissible.
The allowability of the request for re-establishment
4. The appellant has argued that, as required by the ju­ris­­prudence of the boards of appeal, the se­cre­tary was a suitable per­son, properly supervised in the task to be performed, and that the representative had exercised reasonable su­pervision over the secretary's work. Also the re­pre­sentative herself had a hitherto flawless record. Thus, the two errors were uncharacteristic and isolated mis­takes in an otherwise secure system. The appellant did not however give any specific reasons as to why the two errors had occurred in the present case.
5. The board has no doubts regarding the professional qua­lifi­ca­tions of the secretary and no reason to question the quality of her supervision by the representative or the reliability of the filing procedure as described. However, in view of the following, the question of whe­ther the secretary's mistake can be excused need not be decided in the present case.
6. The representative argued that, according to the de­scribed procedure, she clicks through every page of the docu­ments to be transmitted before she electronically signs them (see point VII c) above, step iii)). This corres­pon­ded to leafing through a paper submission page by page before signing it by hand.
6.1 The board agrees that this is a reasonable way of checking whether the representative is signing the right documents. More than that, the board considers that it is the representative's responsibility and ob­li­gation to make sure that what is signed is precise­ly what is meant to be signed.
6.2 The representative argued that she failed to spot the incompleteness in the documents she signed despite exer­cising all due care as required by the circum­stan­ces. The representative thus effectively asked the board, by way of re-establishment, to excuse the re­presentative's mistake of signing the wrong documents.
6.3 The representative referred to T 1095/06 in order to support her case. This decision dealt with the question of whe­ther "re-establishment may be possible even in the event of a culpable error on the part of the assis­tant, if the professional representative is able to show that he has chosen for the work a suitable person properly instructed in the tasks to be performed, and that he has exercised reasonable supervision over the work" so that the error can be considered "an isolated error in an otherwise satisfactory system" (see T 1095/06, reasons 5). The decision stated (reasons 6) that the pertinent jurisprudence could not "be extended to everything that can be described as an 'isolated mis­take'" and that, specifically, this jurisprudence could not "be relied on to ignore a failure to act by the professional representative himself, unless there are special circumstances which make the failure to act compatible with taking all due care."
6.4 The board notes that the representative's error is substantially inde­pen­dent of the specific procedure in place for elec­tro­nic filing, since it would arise in the same way if the representative worked on her own and without the support of a secretary.
6.5 The board need not decide whether the representative's mistake in question is in principle compatible with all due care. It notes however, that the signing of docu­ments is an act that requires particular care on the representative's part, especially when the signature relates to the last legal remedy against an adverse de­cision as is, in the present case, the appeal against the decision by the examining division to refuse the application. The board therefore considers that signing the wrong documents is incompatible with all due care unless special circumstances are in­voked which could justify the representative's mistake in a particular case, thus following the cited reasons of T 1095/06.
6.6 In the absence of such special circumstances the board comes to the conclusion that the representative did not take all due care required by the circumstances in the process of filing the grounds of appeal. The request for re-establishment in the time limit for filing the statement of grounds of appeal is therefore to be refused.
The admissibility of the appeal
7. According to Rule 99(2) EPC, the appellant, in the statement of grounds of appeal, shall in particular indicate the reasons for setting aside the decision impugned, or the extent to which it is to be amended (emphasis by the board).
7.1 The letter of 11 April 2014 contained no reasoning as to the substantive merits of the amended claims. The grounds of appeal do not specify whether the decision is challenged nor, if so, to what extent and why. They also fail to specify whether the amendments made to the claims are meant to overcome the reasons given in the decision or, if they do, why they are deemed sufficient in this respect.
7.2 This assessment, communicated to the appellant with the summons to oral proceedings, was not challenged by the appellant either in writing or orally.
7.3 Therefore, the board concludes that, due to the absence of any reasons, the letter filed on 11 April 2014 does not satisfy the requirements of Rule 99(2) EPC regar­ding the grounds of appeal so that the appeal has to be rejected as inadmissible.
Order
For these reasons it is decided that:
1. The request for re-establishment of rights is refused.
2. The appeal is rejected as inadmissible.

This decision has European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2014:T110114.20141212. The whole decision can be found here. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo "Signature" by Sébastien Wiertz obtained via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license.


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