Earlier today, shortly after 4pm ET, Michelle Lee sent an e-mail (see below) to employees of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) notifying recipients that she had submitted a letter of resignation.
There is no word at this hour about who will replace Lee, or whether her resignation will take place effective immediately, although the e-mail sent to USPTO employees does seem to suggest that Lee’s time at the USPTO is over.
Former Chief Financial Officer Anthony Scardino has been filling the role of Acting Deputy Director of the USPTO for several months. Although no confirmation has been received from the Communications Department of the Patent Office it would seem logical to assume he would become Acting Director or the USPTO once Lee’s resignation is effective.
Lee’s e-mail to employees of the USPTO, sent with the subject “Farewell,” reads as follows:
This afternoon, I submitted my letter of resignation from my position as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
It has been a tremendous honor to serve our country for the past several years, first as Director of the Silicon Valley office, then as Deputy Director of the USPTO, and finally as Director of the USPTO. I am tremendously proud of all that we have accomplished together, and appreciate all of your support and dedication during my tenure.
It is no exaggeration to say that the employees of the USPTO rival the best employees of any government agency or private company. The USPTO truly is a “best place to work”– because of you.
I am confident that the leadership team in place will serve you well during this transition. In the meantime, I wish you all the best in your future endeavors at the USPTO.
With affection and deep gratitude,
Currently, there are few details which would help us understand why Lee resigned, including why she resigned at this time. The Washington Post reported that a USPTO spokesperson has confirmed that Lee submitted a letter of resignation, but would give no additional comment.
The employment status of Michelle Lee has been murky ever since the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President. In the days just prior to Trump’s inauguration, reports broke that Lee was either refusing to resign as USPTO director or was attempting to revoke a letter of resignation handed in to former-President Barack Obama. On January 19th, the day before the Trump inauguration, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said that Lee would stay on as director under Trump in an address to tech industry representatives gathered in Washington. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Lee was listed as USPTO director on the USPTO’s website while that same position of USPTO director was listed as vacant on the Department of Commerce’s website.
Getting a clear answer from the USPTO on the employment status of Michelle Lee has not been simple. Both the USPTO and the Department of Commerce had declined to speak on the record about Lee’s status through the middle of February. The whole time, Lee’s signature continued to be seen on issued patents and other official documents coming out of the USPTO. On March 10th, the USPTO responded to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Lee’s employment status, finally confirming that she was indeed remaining on as director. By late March, news had broken that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had interviewed candidates to replace Lee as USPTO director.
Lee’s resignation comes after she had solicited support from industry allies to encourage the federal government to retain her as director, according to an industry source cited by The Hill. Those efforts reportedly culminated in a letter supporting Lee as USPTO director dated April 25th and addressed to Trump and Ross. The letter was signed by dozens of tech industry organizations including Amazon.com, Cisco, Google, Intel, Salesforce.com, as well as lobbying firms such as Engine and the Internet Association.
The sudden and perhaps mysterious nature of Lee’s resignation isn’t surprising given the lack of responsiveness from the USPTO on a variety of matters. The agency cited unusual circumstances as a reason to delay its response to attorney Gary Shuster’s FOIA request on Lee’s employment status, an extraordinarily peculiar response to a straightforward question on the employment status of a government official.
UPDATE 1 @ 9:17pm ET