On February 21, 2014, the Federal Circuit released its widely-anticipated decision in Lighting Ballast Control LLC v. Phillips Electronics North America Corporation. The decision renews the Court's commitment to fifteen years of precedent that holds claim construction is a matter of law that is reviewed de novo on appeal. For companies that may be involved in patent litigation, this decision may provide a sense of continuity and stability in an area of law that is otherwise continually evolving.
In a 6-4 decision, the Court rejected calls for a modified standard of review that would afford some formal deference to a District Court's construction. Judge Newman, writing for the majority, expressed concern that a modified review dependent on distinguishing legal from factual aspects of the District Court's decision would introduce a new and uncertain inquiry that would not promote clarity and consistency. The dissent criticized adherence to de novo review as ignoring the factual component of a District Court's claim construction process. The en banc rehearing attracted considerable interest from technology companies and research institutions.
As a result of this recent decision, the cost of litigation may be decreased in cases where a final appellate decision has previously construed the claims. On the other hand, as the dissent recognized, de novo review encourages appeals, which can increase the expense of patent litigation and chill opportunities for settlement. Given the narrow margin of the decision by the en banc court and the significant pressure—from not only academics and the bar, but also some vocal District Court judges—this issue may be ripe for Supreme Court review.