Solicitor General Counsels against Certiorari Grant on Claim Construction

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[author: Kevin E. Noonan]

Department of Justice (DOJ) SealThere are more issues in patent law that the Supreme Court may consider than those raised by Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, and as if to illustrate that point, the Solicitor General filed his brief at the end of November in Retractable Techs., Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co.  The Questions Presented by Petitioner Retractable Technologies are these:

1.  Whether a court, in construing a disputed term in a patent claim, may draw inferences from the patentee's use of the same term elsewhere in the patent's specification.

2.  Whether, in reviewing a district court's interpretation of a patent claim, the court of appeals should give deference to the district court's resolution of subsidiary factual questions.

In the Solicitor General's view, "neither of the questions set forth in the petition for a writ of certiorari warrants review in this case."

To recap the proceedings below, Retractable Technologies sued Becton Dickinson for infringing claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 5,632,733; 6,090,077; and 7,351,224.  These patent claims were directed to syringes configured to retract the needle into the body of the syringe after use, to reduce the likelihood of needle-stick injury.  The claim term at issue was "body," specifically whether the term should be construed to be limited to single-piece versus multiple piece embodiments.  The District Court construed "body" as "a hollow outer structure that houses the syringe's components," and concluded that the term "body" was not limited to a one-piece structure.

The Federal Circuit reversed, in a decision by Judge Lourie joined by Judge Plager and (in part) by Chief Judge Rader.  The panel reversed the District Court with regard to meaning of "body," finding that the term should be limited to a one-piece structure.  The panel found that the claim language was not determinative, and disclosure in the specification supported its one-piece body construction.  The specification described the claimed invention as comprising a one-piece body, all the figures illustrated syringes comprising a one-piece body, and the specification disparaged prior art syringes made of multiple piece bodies.  Moreover, there was no disclosure of a multiple piece syringe body in specification.  In reversing the District Court's construction, the majority said:

There is a fine line between construing the claims in light of the specification and improperly importing a limitation from the specification into the claims.  In reviewing the intrinsic record to construe the claims, we strive to capture the scope of the actual invention, rather than strictly limit the scope of claims to disclosed embodiments or allow the claim language to become divorced from what the specification conveys is the invention.

(citations omitted)

Judge Plager filed a concurring opinion expanding on this theme, saying that "the claims cannot go beyond the actual invention that entitles the inventor to a patent" and that "the [patentee's] obligation [was] to make full disclosure of what is actually invented, and to claim that and nothing more."  Chief Judge Rader, dissenting-in-part, argued the primacy of the claim language, and that it is impermissible to read limitations from the specification into the claims.

These disagreements regarding both the proper claim construction here and the proper method for performing claim construction generally also arose in the Federal Circuit's decision not to grant en banc review.  Two dissents were filed in the Court's decision not to hear the claim construction decision en banc:  one by Judge Moore, joined by Chief Judge Rader, and another by Judge O'Malley.  Judge Moore's dissent characterized claim construction as "the single most important event in the course of a patent litigation."  However, the Federal Circuit's rules for making claim construction determinations remain "ill-defined and inconsistently applied," even by the Court in her view.  While citing commentators to support this conclusion, this dissent focused on the question at issue in Retractable Technologies and, according to Judge Moore, arose generally from a deficiency in the Court's application of the law:  where to draw the "fine line" between "construing the claims in light of the specification and improperly importing a limitation from the specification into the claims."  Her dissent contended that this was the case to consider the issues of "the role of the specification in construing the claims and whether deference should be given to the district court in the claim construction process."

Judge Moore relied principally on Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc), and the "bedrock principle" that "the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude."  She discounted the concerns voiced by the Retractable Technologies majority, including that "the metes and bounds of what the inventor claims extend beyond what he has invented or disclosed in the specification."  In that case, the question would be one of validity rather than claim construction, she stated, and it is not the role of the court to "tailor the claim language to the invention disclosed."  Citing Phillips, the dissent relies on the mantra that the "plain meaning" of the clams controls (and the dissent voiced surprise that this question was not resolved in Phillips).  Judge Moore stated her (stringent) standard for the relationship between the claims and the specification:  "the specification cannot be used to narrow a claim term -- to deviate from the plain and ordinary meaning -- unless the inventor acted as his own lexicographer or intentionally disclaimed or disavowed claim scope," citing Phillips and Teleflex, Inc. v. Ficosa N. Am. Corp., 299 F.3d 1313, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2002).  Any deviation from this procedure should be applied narrowly, in her opinion, and specifically, her dissent opined that the choice of an overbroad term may affect validity but should not be considered for claim construction.  Following a detailed recitation of the facts and legal principles enunciated in Phillips, the dissent contrasted the majority decision in Phillips with the panel decision here:  in the absence of "disclaimer or special lexicography," the plain meaning standard must be applied.  And the evidence, according to this dissent, failed to support a claim limited to single-body embodiments.

Judge Moore identified the problem with the panel decision with particularity:

The error in Retractable is the majority's attempt to rewrite the claims to better conform to what it discerns is the "invention" of the patent instead of construing the language of the claim.  Indeed, the majority candidly explained that its construction, limiting "body" to a one-piece body, "is required to tether the claims to what the specifications indicate the inventor actually invented."

While agreeing that the specification and claims must comply with the requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 112, her dissent stated simply that the Court "does not rewrite claims"; this is not a case, Judge Moore contended, where "the majority is choosing between two equally plausible plain meanings and adopting the one that comports with the disclosure in the specification."  Rather, this case was illustrative that there is "a fundamental split within the court as to the meaning of Phillips and Markman as well as the proper approach to claim interpretation."  That was enough to convince Judge Moore and Chief Judge Rader that claim construction required reconsideration by the court en banc.  Judge Moore also wrote that this case had a procedural posture that would permit the court to set forth the extent to which the "mongrel practice" of claim construction would permit or require deference to a district court's factual determinations under Markman v.Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 378 (1996).

Judge O'Malley dissented separately, a posture reflecting her singular experience as a district court judge tasked with performing factual determinations in support of claim construction decisions.  She was forthright:  "[i]t is time to revisit and reverse our decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc)," if only because "the court's decision necessarily would change if even minimal deference were afforded to the trial judge's claim construction."  Her dissent noted that the Court's decision to give no deference to district court factual determinations was not required by the Supreme Court in Markman, and indeed the High Court "did not affirm this court's earlier conclusion that resort to a jury was unnecessary because claim construction is a pure question of law."  She believes the appellate court's decision to be "ill considered" when it was enunciated thirteen years ago and that it has not proven "beneficial" to patent jurisprudence "in the long run."

Reflecting her own experience, Judge O'Malley opined that:

[D]istrict judges have been trained to -- and do -- engage in detailed and thoughtful analysis of the claim construction issues presented to them.  They conduct live hearings with argument and testimony, sometimes covering several days, and certainly always extending beyond the mere minutes that courts of appeals have to devote to live exchanges with counsel.  Simply, "the trial court has tools to acquire and evaluate evidence that this court lacks."  Cybor, 138 F.3d at 1477 (Rader, J., dissenting).

She went on to say that "[w]hile no one would urge deference to cryptic, unthinking rulings born of little or no real inquiry, where, as here, the trial court has thoroughly vetted all relevant aspects of the claim constructions at issue, 'careful consideration of the institutional advantages of the district court would counsel deference.'"  Reciting the history of the case, she noted that these claims had been construed by two separate district court judges and that the asserted "wrongdoing" reversed by the panel decision "did not promote the consistency and uniformity in patent law that Cybor was intended to foster; the decision here accomplished the opposite."

In Judge O'Malley's view, the panel did not misapply the claim construction canons in Phillips; rather, she merely disagreed with their application.  But this fact, and the experience of the panel members that they "could not agree on the proper claim construction in this case, despite careful consideration of their respective obligations under Phillips," strongly suggested to Judge O'Malley that the "complicated and fact-intensive nature of claim construction" mandates "the need to rethink our approach to it."  For her, the "review of extensive documentary evidence" and possibly expert testimony suggest factual, not legal questions are being posed to the Court.  And:

Where, as here, there is fair debate about the scope of the invention after application of Phillips's principles, we should defer to reasoned district court choices.  Reasonable minds can -- and do -- differ over the correct interpretation of the term "body" as used in the patent in suit.  These are not the circumstances under which we should be reversing carefully reasoned claim constructions and putting aside years of litigation in the process.

Against this backdrop, the Solicitor General's brief concluded that, first, "Petitioners identify no unsettled question of claim construction methodology warranting this court's review," and second, "[t}his case is not an appropriate vehicle for determining what standard of appellate review should apply to a district court's subsidiary factual findings in claim construction."  The brief based its first argument, that there is no unsettled question, on the majority's reliance on Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc), cert. denied, 546 U.U. 1170 (2006).  There is no dispute between the Federal Circuit judges and thus nothing for the Court of review, according to the brief, because there is "broad agreement" in the Federal Circuit that both plain meaning and specification should be considered.  The brief characterizes a patent as an "integrated legal document," and thus, although the claims are what defines the scope of the right to exclude, claims must be interpreted according to the specification, citing United States v. Adams, 383 U.S. 39 (1966); Schriber-Schroth Co. c. Cleveland Trust Co., 311 U.S. 211 (1940); Brooks v. Fiske, 56 U.S. 212 (1854).  "At bottom, then, the task of claim construction is to ascertain the meaning of the actual claim language approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as "explained by and read in connection with the specification" in the Solicitor's view, citing Carnegie Steel Co. v. Cambria Iron Co., 185 U.S. 403, 432 (1902).  Again citing Phillips, the Solicitor General asserts that "[t]he Federal Circuit has faithfully implemented those principles in considering questions of claim construction."  Curiously, the brief accentuates the near unanimity achieved by the Federal Circuit in Phillips, ignoring the different views enunciated by the Federal Circuit in this case (and ignoring the changed composition of the lower court in the intervening time since Phillips).  Instead of different doctrinal camps, the Solicitor General sees the differing results as merely reflecting the "case-by-case" nature of claim construction.  Turning to the case at bar, although acknowledging that the question is "close," the brief maintains that the Federal Circuit came to the right decision in this case.

Even if the Court believes that Federal Circuit jurisprudence in this area is in need of reconciliation by the Court, the Solicitor General asserts that "[t}his case is not an appropriate vehicle for determining what standard of appellate review should apply to a district court's subsidiary factual findings in claim construction."  The reason is simple:  there is no factual determination by the district court at issue here.  Indeed, "[i]n an appropriate case, this court's intervention might be warranted to determine the proper standard of appellate review of district court factual determinations that bear on the interpretation of disputed patent claims" according to the Solicitor General's brief.  But this is not that case.  Here, the District Court relied "solely" on the parties' legal arguments, thus not raising the issue the petitioners ask the Court to resolve.  Moreover, the Federal Circuit's decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1998), that factual determinations by a district court were due no deference on review, is "amply support[ed]" by the Court's Markman decision in the Solicitor's view.  The brief engages in the fiction that Cybor does not preclude deference to a district court's factual findings, but maintains its position that, regardless of the Federal Circuit's treatment in other cases there is no basis warranting review on this question in this case.

The Solicitor General maintains that "the question whether deferential review is appropriate in those circumstances is of substantial and ongoing importance in patent law" but "[t]hat issue is not properly presented in this case, however, because the district court did not make any factual findings or resolve any evidentiary disputes in interpreting the patent claims at issue here."

Taking into account the five "active" judges who voted to grant rehearing in Amgen Inc. v. Hoechst Marion Rousell, Inc., 469 F.3d 1039 (Fed. Cir. 2006), and contrary to the Solicitor General's views on the matter, the evidence suggests that the active members of the Federal Circuit are almost evenly split on the question of whether to grand en banc review, and by implication revisit the Court's decision in Cybor.  And an honest assessment of the Federal Circuit's jurisprudence supports the Petitioner's view that the Federal Circuit is split, at least loosely, into those judges who believe that claims must be strictly construed according to the specification in order to limit their scope to "what the inventor has invented," and those judges who believe that the plain meaning of the claim language is the primary determinant of the scope and meaning of the claims.  The Solicitor General discounts this evidence in encouraging the Supreme Court not to grant cert.  In view of the cases where the Supreme Court has already granted certiorari this term, and the continuing pattern of the Court to ignore the recommendations of the Solicitor General's Office, and the apparently unsettled posture of the question of claim construction in the Federal Circuit, there is a fair likelihood that the Supreme Court will decide that its supervision is required in yet another area of patent law.