We frequently receive questions regarding the experience levels of Examiners. How can an Applicant know the seniority of the Examiner examining their case?
First, it is important to understand that having “partial signatory authority” or being a Primary Examiner is an achievement. So, there are very experienced Examiners that have not completed these achievements.
Additionally, it is almost impossible to know an Examiner’s achievement level without directly asking the Examiner. Examiners typically do not seem to mind answering this question. This question directly relates to the Examiner’s ability to perform particular tasks, such as conducting an interview on their own. So, the question is appropriate when calling an Examiner to schedule an interview. (Examiners will typically answer questions about how many years they have worked at the USPTO, as well. However, this question is less relevant and can sound arrogant.)
Generally speaking, Office Actions always identify whether the Examiner is a Primary Examiner. The reason is that certain actions require the attention of a Primary Examiner. E.g., MPEP 1004. So, Primary Examiners designate their status via their signatures.
Examiners are typically proud of achieving Primary Examiner status. Therefore, in most cases, an Examiner is a Primary Examiner only if their signature says “Primary Examiner.”
In other situations, the achievement level is even less clear.
For example, some new Examiners sign Office Actions with only their initials. This signature is almost always accompanied by the signature of a SPE or a Primary Examiner.
Supervisory Patent Examiner
The logic is that these Examiners are inexperienced and have not achieved “partial signatory authority.” Therefore, their Office Actions reflect an incomplete signature: only their initials are reflected.
Once these Examiners have completed the first part of the Signatory Authority Program, they are granted “partial signatory authority.” Typically, these Examiners sign with their name, rather than their initials.
Sometimes, this signature is accompanied by the signature of a SPE or a Primary Examiner.
Primary Patent Examiner
The type of Office Action can dictate the type of signature. For example, an Examiner with partial signatory authority can sign a non-final Office Action by themself. However, such an Examiner cannot properly sign a final Office Action alone. MPEP 1005. So, the status of the case can provide a hint about the seniority of the Examiner.
In any case, the signature practices vary across the USPTO. Some Examiners sign with their full name, even when they first begin examining (i.e., significantly before they achieve partial signatory authority). Other times, a Primary Examiner might sign a Notice of Allowance with only their initials.
Still, the above discussion reflects trends we have noticed by working closely with Examiners from across the USPTO for well over 10 years. In a notable example, we worked with an Examiner as she progressed from signing her initials, to signing with her name, to achieving Primary Examiner status. Her most recent Office Actions included all three signatures to reflect her progression:
Primary Patent Examiner
If Modal PLLC can assist you with assessing the experience level of an Examiner, please contact us.
(Thanks to D.T. and Nüni for their assistance with this post.)