Michelle Lee has been director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2015.

Michelle Lee has been director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2015. Commerce Department file photo

Patent Office Chief Suddenly Resigns

Michelle Lee grappled with patent “trolls” and telecommuting problems.

Michelle Lee, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2015, on Tuesday surprised her staff with an agencywide email announcing her resignation, Government Executive has confirmed with the agency.

After struggling with uncertain job security during the early months of the Trump administration, the former Google attorney told staffers, “I am confident that the leadership team in place will serve you well during this transition,” according to the brief text obtained by The Washington Post.

“We thank Michelle Lee for her service to her country and to the Department of Commerce,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a statement. “As the first woman in our country’s history to serve as director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Michelle has worked tirelessly to serve our stakeholders and the American public. We wish her well in her next endeavor.”

An agency spokesman did not elaborate on Lee’s reasons for leaving.

Lee had joined the agency in 2012 at a time when it was struggling with what some say were low quality standards in granting some patents to what are derisively called “trolls.” The agency’s once-vaunted telecommuting program was also under fire for lax supervision of information technology contracts and of examiners’ time and attendance records. She was credited by industry with cracking down on unmerited software patents that increase litigation.

Lee was named interim director in 2013 before President Obama nominated her for the permanent slot. The Post and a patent blog reported that the USPTO in March had sent a letter to a law professor confirming her continued status as director under Trump.

Reuters reported that more than 50 technology companies had written to Ross urging that Lee be kept on as director. The administration has given no indications of potential successors.