Retractable Techs., Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co. (on petition for certiorari 2012)
As its company name suggests, Retractable Technologies makes safety syringes that retract after completing a drug injection. Retractable sued BD for patent infringement and won $5 million in damages and permanent injunctive relief. This was the second time that Retractable had filed a lawsuit to enforce its patent. In both cases, the district court interpreted the claim term syringe "body" as encompassing a body "composed of one or multiple pieces." (In the first case, the accused infringer agreed to stop making its product and to pay a $1 million settlement).
On appeal here, BD was able to convince a two-member majority of its Federal Circuit panel to modify the claim construction in a way that limits the "body" element to a "one-piece body." (Majority opinion by Judges Lourie and Plager). The appellate panel narrowly construed the term based upon its reading of the patent specification and the notion that the claims should be limited to what "the inventor actually invented." In dissent, Chief Judge Rader argued that the majority had improperly confined claim scope to the specific embodiments of the invention." Chief Judge Rader also argued in favor of giving more weight to the doctrine of claim differentiation. Here, some of the non-asserted claims in the patent included an explicit "one-piece body" limitation – suggesting that the asserted claim without the "one-piece" limitation must be broader.
After losing the appeal, Retractable filed a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc. The petition was denied, but Judges Moore and O'Malley each filed dissents.
Supreme Court Petition: Retractable has now filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. The petition raises two questions:
1. Whether a court may depart from the plain and ordinary meaning of a term in a patent claim based on language in the patent specification, where the patentee has neither expressly disavowed the plain meaning of the claim term nor expressly defined the term in a way that differs from its plain meaning.
2. Whether claim construction, including underlying factual issues that are integral to claim construction, is a purely legal question subject to de novo review on appeal.
First Question Goes Nowhere: In my view, the first question presented is not well stated. Of course a court can use context to provide meaning to claim language. A formalistic and restrictive view of patent doctrine was rejected by the Supreme Court in virtually every recent decision, including Mayo, Bilski, KSR, eBay, and MedImmune. Further, many members of the Supreme Court have identified a problem with vague and over-broad claim limitations, and the majority opinion here provides a simple tool for limiting scope: interpret the claims within the context of what was demonstrably understood by the inventor and the examiner and by what would have been known by a reasonably skilled artisan.
Use Specification to Narrow (or Broaden): There are times when the context of the specification is used to broaden the scope of a claim term beyond its ordinary meaning. However, the Federal Circuit judges appear to believe that greater reliance on the specification will usually result in a narrowing of claim scope. Thus, the debate on the role of the specification in claim construction is at least partially a proxy for the debate on whether patents should be given a broad scope or narrow scope. I would again criticize the petition – this time for wholly agreeing that reliance on the specification results in a narrowed scope. Retractable frames the debate on trying to understand "the circumstances in which the language of the specification should narrow the plain meaning of a claim term."
The Second Question is more well framed, although I would have tweaked it slightly to ask: "Whether claim construction, including underlying factual issues that are integral to claim construction, is a purely legal question [that is therefore] subject to de novo review on appeal." The tweak here is important because Retractable is not challenging the Supreme Court's Markman decision but rather challenging the Federal Circuit's Cybor decision. In Markman, the Supreme Court recognized the reality that claim construction includes a number of factual determinations – calling the process a "mongrel" of fact and law. However, the court ruled that claim construction should be treated as an issue of law to be decided by a judge. In Cybor, the Federal Circuit applied its usual formalistic if-then approach to rule that appellate review must be de novo because claim construction is an issue of law. From the petition:
In Markman, this Court held that, for purposes of the Seventh Amendment, the task of construing patent claims falls to trial judges rather than juries. Markman did not decide the standard of review that an appellate court should apply to a district court's claim construction. The Court noted, however, that the process of construing a claim is a "mongrel practice," that "falls somewhere between a pristine legal standard and a simple historical fact." In holding that trial judges are "better suited" for this task than juries, the Court recognized that claim construction requires trial judges to exercise a "trained ability to evaluate the testimony in relation to the overall structure of the patent." Accordingly, the Court held that "there is sufficient reason to treat construction of terms of art like many other responsibilities that we cede to a judge in the normal course of trial, notwithstanding its evidentiary underpinnings." Thus, Markman recognized that claim construction involves underlying factual questions, and said nothing to indicate that the Federal Circuit should displace the district court's resolution of those questions.
There are lots of doctrines that receive de novo review that do not have a reversal rate anywhere near that of claim construction. I think that everyone agrees that claim construction is inherently difficult. Claim construction rulings do not provide a yes-no answer like you might find in an obviousness judgment. Rather, a judge is required to identify the best interpretation of all possible interpretations of each contested claim term. And, unlike statutory interpretation, we do not have the benefit of the scope being developed over time through a series of cases. Rather, in most instances, a court's construction is in the first instance. In addition to the inherent difficulty, claim construction is made more difficult because of the open panel dependence of claim construction decisions. For many years the Federal Circuit refused to admit any panel dependence in its decision making, that has changed.
Where to Focus Assurances?: District court judges complain about claim construction because of the high likelihood that their decisions will be reversed on appeal. Giving deference to district court judgments would likely mean fewer reversals. This approach gives us certainty earlier in the process, but only once the district court issues a final claim construction. That date still seems very late. The scope of patent claims is of critical importance to almost all patent monetization transactions. However, very few of those transactions take place in conjunction with a district court claim construction decision. We need a process for substantially understanding claim scope at a much earlier stage and without relying on a federal court.
One answer for an early understanding of claim scope: Define terms during prosecution. If applicants fail to define terms, examiners should provide their own definitions as part of the office action. In the short-term, the focus should be on terms that are (1) frequently debated in court (such as "server" or "coupled to"; (2) used in the specification in a way that is in tension with the ordinary meaning of a term; or (3) inherently imprecise (such as "about").
- Download the Retractable Cert Petition.
- Amicus briefs in support will be due at the Supreme Court by April 23.