Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit

The Scotusblog had an article the other day indicating that Tenth Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch was on the three-judge short-list for Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court.  I was writing a paper earlier this month where I came across one of Judge Gorsuch’s trademark opinions that he authored for the Tenth Circuit.  In that opinion, there is a rather humorous discussion of the weight to be given the TTAB’s Manual of Procedure:

At this juncture, Hatch Chile and Mizkan reply by directing us to a sub-regulatory manual. And whether by virtue of the operation of § 23 or thanks only to judge-made doctrines of deference like Chevron or Auer, they suggest we owe this subregulatory manual our obeisance. And, they say, this manual does forbid TTAB parties from issuing document subpoenas to nonparties unless they are accompanied by a demand for a needless deposition. It seems the district court found this argument most persuasive for it is the one on which its opinion appears to rest.

But here too we just don’t see it. The relevant portion of the manual, called the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board Manual of Procedure (TBMP), says this:

Requests for production may not be served on a non-party. [Note 4[: See Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(a).]] However, if a discovery deposition deponent is a non-party witness residing in the United States, production of designated documents by the witness at the deposition may be obtained by means of a subpoena duces tecum. [Note 5[: 35 U.S.C. § 24; Fed. R. Civ. P. 45. But see Dan Foam ApS v. Sleep Innovations Inc., 106 U.S.P.Q.2d 1939, 1942-43 (TTAB 2013)(discussing notice requirement to adverse party under Fed. R. Civ. P. 45(b)(1) for a subpoena duces tecum (without deposition) issued to nonparty and noting that respondent could have sought its own subpoena of the nonparty to obtain additional documents and/or a discovery deposition).]]

TBMP § 406.01 (June 2014).

What exactly does this language mean? Hatch Chile and Mizkan suggest that the first sentence generally prohibits a party from seeking documents from nonparties and that the second sentence provides a limited exception for situations when the nonparty is being deposed. Maybe. But El Encanto offers another plausible reading that yields a very different conclusion. On this reading, the first sentence alerts parties to the truism that requests for production of documents under Rule 34 may be directed only to parties, not nonparties. And the second sentence proceeds to explain how to get documents from nonparties. Allowing, on El Encanto’s view, parties to seek documents from nonparties either at a deposition or, as the footnote seems to explain, however permitted by Rule 45. After all, El Encanto notes, the footnote expressly acknowledges that a party used a Rule 45 subpoena without an attendant deposition in the Dan Foam litigation before the TTAB.

Who is right about the optimal reading of this most opaque of sub-regulatory guidance? In the end, we think this is just another debate that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the TBMP itself disavows any suggestion that it seeks to offer authoritative interpretive guidance about § 23 or § 24 that might possibly command our deference. The manual states quite plainly that it doesn’t purport to “bind[]” the TTAB or the PTO or anyone else and doesn’t purport to “have the force and effect of law.” TBMP Introduction (June 2014). Instead the TBMP says it aspires only to serve as a sort of rough-and-ready handbook, supplying some “basic information” that may prove “generally useful” to TTAB practitioners. Id. And we are aware of nothing that might require a federal court to afford deference to such a self-effacing agency document, one that not only doesn’t demand deference but actually disclaims it. Maybe especially when another circuit has already found this manual not “particularly persuasive.” Rosenruist-Gestao, 511 F.3d at 448. And maybe especially when, if we were to read the TBMP as Hatch Chile and Mizkan suggest, it would only wind up creating a conflict between this sub-regulatory handbook and the PTO’s promulgated Administrative Procedure Act notice-and-comment regulations that clearly permit the use of document-only subpoenas. For surely if the agency is indeed so confused that it has spoken out of both sides of its regulatory mouth, it has to be the side speaking unambiguously through formal rulemaking, rather than the side speaking in garbled terms so quickly disavowed, that speaks the more loudly.

El Encanto, Inc. v. HATCH CHILE COMPANY, INC., 825 F.3d 1161, 1165-66 (10th Cir. 2016).

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