Larson Mfg. Co. v. Aluminart Products Ltd. (Fed. Cir. 2009)
In an earlier post, I discussed the concurring opinion in this case where Judge Linn argued for a restatement of the law of inequitable conduct that makes it more difficult to allege inequitable conduct absent evidence of fraud. This post covers the majority opinion.
Larson sued Aluminart for infringement of two claims of its patent covering a storm door with a moving glass panel. Without reaching the merits of the infringement argument, the district court found the patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during prosecution. The district court found that the patentee had improperly withheld documents from the examiners during reexamination of the patent. (The reexamination had been requested by Aluminart). The Federal Circuit provided the following description of the lower court holding:
The [district] court found that Larson failed to disclose to the Reexamination Panel three items of prior art and two office actions issued in the prosecution of a continuation application that grew out of the application that resulted in the ’998 patent [the patent being reexamined]. The court rejected Larson’s argument that the three items of prior art were cumulative of prior art which already was before the Reexamination Panel and therefore were not material, as well as its argument that the office actions were not material because all of the critical references noted in them already had been disclosed to the Reexamination Panel. After finding that Larson intended to deceive the Reexamination Panel, the court balanced its findings of materiality and intent and found inequitable conduct.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated the holding and remanded for a potential new trial on inequitable conduct.
The inequitable conduct charges stem from the PTO's parallel examination of both the reexam of the patent in suit and a continuation application. During the reexam, Larson's patent attorney submitted hundreds of references, district court proceedings, and disclosed the co-pending continuation. However, the patent attorney did not cross-cite two office action rejections from the continuation or one of the prior art references from the continuation (although every other reference from the continuation was cited). In addition, the attorney did not cite two marketing configuration sheets that were later uncovered during discovery.
Law of Inequitable Conduct: Inequitable Conduct requires clear and convincing evidence of at least a threshold level of evidence that the applicant both (1) "made an affirmative misrepresentation of material fact, failed to disclose material information, or submitted false material information" and (2) by that act "intended to deceive the PTO." The materiality of the action is determined based on a reasonable examiner standard – what would a reasonable examiner "consider important in deciding whether to allow the application to issue as a patent?" If an unsubmitted reference is cumulative to information already on hand, then it will not be seen as material. Proof of intent to withhold a reference is not sufficient. Rather, the evidence must show intent to deceive the PTO. That said, intent may be proven by circumstantial evidence. After finding both threshold materiality and intent, the court must determine if the proof is sufficient to find inequitable conduct and consequently hold the patent unenforceable.
What is Cumulative?: After reviewing the submitted and unsubmitted prior art references in detail, the Federal Circuit found that the lower court had clearly erred in finding the art non-cumulative. Notably, the only features found in the non-submitted art that were not in the submitted art were "irrelevant to the claim limitations at issue and therefore could not support a finding of materiality and non-cumulativeness." Although the unsubmitted prior art included a different embodiment than the submitted reference, that difference was not important because the claims were broadly drafted in a way that cover both embodiments.
Disclosure of Office Actions in Related Cases: The examiner of the co-pending continuation filed four office action rejections. The first was used as the basis for the reexamination request. The second was used as a basis for an initial rejection in the reexamination. However, the patentee did not submit the third or fourth office action for consideration. The Federal Circuit agreed with the lower court that the office actions should have been submitted because the rejections contained "adverse decisions about substantially similar claims" that were "not cumulative" to materials already submitted to the examiner.
Because the Third and Fourth Office Actions contained another examiner’s adverse decisions about substantially similar claims, and because the Third and Fourth Office Actions are not cumulative to the First and Second Office Actions, the district court correctly found the withheld Office Actions material.
In its analysis, the Federal Circuit reviewed Dayco Products where it found the patentee had wrongly withheld rejections from co-pending applications.
In Dayco Products, the patentee failed to disclose rejections in a copending application of claims “that were substantially similar in content and scope to claims pending in the applications that issued as the patents-in-suit.” 329 F.3d at 1367. We held “that a contrary decision of another examiner reviewing a substantially similar claim” was material. Id. at 1368. We further explained that, because a “rejection of a substantially similar claim refutes, or is inconsistent with the position that those claims are patentable, [the] adverse decision by another examiner . . . meets the materiality standard.” Id.
Thus, on remand, the district court must determine whether the patentee failure to submit the two office actions was done with sufficient intent to deceive the PTO. Although seemingly dicta, the Federal Circuit provided four points of explicit guidance to the lower court. First, the district court need not accept any additional evidence; Second, the court should remember that "material does not presume intent, and nondisclosure, by itself, cannot satisfy the deceptive intent element." Rather, if intent is inferred, it must be "the single most reasonable inference able to be drawn from the evidence." Further, intent cannot be inferred based on a decision to withhold if the patentee has plausible legitimate reasons for withholding. Third, good faith on behalf of the applicant must be considered as it "militates against a finding of deceptive intent." One element of good faith here, may be that the patentee notified the examiners of the co-pending application. Finally, although the Federal Circuit agreed that the office actions were material, the court did not opine on how material. Thus, if the lower court does find clear and convincing evidence of a threshold intent to deceive, the court must again determine whether the combined intent and materiality are sufficient to warrant a holding of inequitable conduct.
- This case is rather silly because the defendant Aluminart was closely following the reexamination. I can almost guarantee that Aluminart realized that the documents had not been submitted even before the reexamination certificate was issued. Certainly, the company could have brought the omission Larson's attention if it truly was material.