Failure to Identify Structure of Means-Plus-Function Limitation Results in Denial of Ground

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Parties have tried different strategies in addressing claim construction in inter partes review petitions. Some have relied strictly on a generic “broadest reasonable interpretation” argument; others have followed a more traditional Phillips analysis – both strategies having achieved varying levels of success.  What is clear, however, is that when a challenged claim is in means-plus-function format, the IPR rules require that a Petitioner set forth the structure that corresponds to the recited function of the challenged claims.  Panel Claw, Inc. v. SunPower Corp., IPR2014-00388.

Among the limitations at issue in Panel Claw were “means for interengaging adjacent photovoltaic assemblies into an array of photovoltaic assemblies.” and “means for interlocking one said photovoltaic assembly to another said photovoltaic assembly.”  Of course, recitation of the term “means” in a claim limitation creates a rebuttable presumption that 35 U.S.C § 112, ¶ 6 governs construction of the claim. Further, when the presumption is that a limitation is a means-plus-function limitation, under 37 C.F.R. § 42.104(b)(3), Petitioner is required to identify the structure in the specification that corresponds to the recited function.

In Panel Claw, however, Petitioner argued first that the limitations which recited the term “means” were purely functional and therefore cover any suitable means for accomplishing the stated function. This argument contradicted a determination in a related lawsuit (SunPower Corp. v. Sunlink Corp., Case No. 08-Case IPR2014-00388 cv-2807 (N.D. Cal.)) which deemed the limitations at issue to be means-plus-function limitations. Further, Petitioner then failed to assert a back-up argument identifying any corresponding structure to the limitations-at-issue.

The Board found that limitations at issue were means-plus-function limitations, the constructions of which were governed by 35 U.S.C § 112, ¶ 6. By failing to identify corresponding structures, Petitioner violated 37 C.F.R. § 42.104(b)(3) and, as such, the challenged claims containing the means language were deemed patentable.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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