Guest Post by Andrew Dhuey
The U.S. Solicitor General has recommended that the Supreme Court deny certiorari in Retractable Technologies, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson and Co. The key issues in Retractable concern i) the role of the specification in interpreting patent claim language and ii) the level of deference, if any, the Federal Circuit should give to trial court claim constructions. The SG's recommendation is a setback for those who hope the Court will address these two fundamental questions of patent law and procedure. In recent years, the Court has followed about 80% of the SG's recommendations that certiorari be denied. See, e.g., p. 276 of this 2009 George Mason Law Review article.
A Supreme Court decision in Retractable could fundamentally alter the way trial courts construe patent claims and how the Federal Circuit reviews claim constructions. If the Court decides to review the case, it might limit or overrule the Federal Circuit's en banc decisions in both Phillips v. AWH Corp. and Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc. Or the Court might deny review and leave the status quo intact.
Pertinent Facts and Procedural History
Retractable Technologies, Inc. ("RTI") and Becton, Dickinson ("BD") manufacture retractable medical syringes that are designed to reduce the risk of needlestick injuries and infections to health care workers. RTI accuses BD of infringing U.S. Patents 5,632,733 and 7,351,224. The disputed issue of greatest precedential importance concerns the meaning of the claim term "body" as it is used in both patents to describe the structure of RTI's claimed retractable syringe. BD's accused syringe has a two-piece body, so the question of literal infringement hinges largely on whether "body" is limited to a one-piece structure.
Judge David Folsom (E.D. Tex.) sided with RTI on the construction of "body" as not being limited to a single-piece structure. Judge Folsom gave the construction short treatment in his claim construction order, adopting the reasoning and conclusion of his fellow Eastern District of Texas jurist, Leonard Davis, who construed the same term in related patents in earlier litigation RTI brought against New Medical Technologies.
In the earlier case, Judge Davis observed that the specifications of the patents-in-suit did suggest a one-piece structure limitation. Still, he opined, the claims themselves pointed in the opposite direction:
In sum, the Court finds that "body" . . . simply means "hollow outer structure that houses the syringe's components." . . . The only construction of "body" that is consistent with the . . . claim language is a structure that may be one or more pieces. This reading is consistent with the specification, despite some indications to the contrary.
A divided Federal Circuit panel reversed based on the district court's claim construction of "body". Circuit Judge Alan Lourie wrote the Court's opinion, joined by Senior Circuit Judge S. Jay Plager. The majority "agree[d] with BD that the claimed 'body' is limited to a one-piece structure in light of the specifications." Chief Judge Randall Rader dissented: "Because the language of the claims make clear that 'body' does not contain [a one-piece structural] limitation, and it is improper to import limitations from the specification into the claims, I respectfully dissent."
Judge Plager wrote a short concurrence to underscore the majority's position that claims must not be interpreted in ways that go beyond what the inventor disclosed:
However much desired by the claim drafters, who want claims that serve as business weapons and litigation threats … the claims cannot go beyond the actual invention that entitles the inventor to a patent. For that we look to the written description.
RTI petitioned for rehearing en banc, which the Court denied. Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore, joined by Chief Judge Rader, dissented from the denial of the petition. Judge Moore opined that the panel majority "attempt[ed] 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." This ran afoul of proper claim construction under Phillips, she contended, and it has happened with such frequency to warrant en banc review.
Judge Moore also suggested that the Court should reconsider Cybor en banc.
We have waited five years (since Amgen Inc. v. Hoechst Marion Roussel, Inc., 469 F.3d 1039 (Fed. Cir. 2006), where six judges claimed a willingness to review Cybor) for that ever-elusive perfect vehicle to review the issue of deference to the district court's claim construction. The Supreme Court held that claim construction was a "mongrel practice." Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 378 (1996). As such it is clearly a mixed question of law and fact and deference should be given to the factual parts.
Circuit Judge Kathleen O'Malley also dissented from the denial of RTI's petition, but her concern was limited to the de novo standard of review mandated by Cybor.
The SG's Denial Recommendation
In response to RTI's petition for a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court solicited the SG's views on whether to review the case. The SG recommended a denial of the petition, opining that "[n]either of the questions set forth in the petition for a writ of certiorari warrants review in this case."
On the first question concerning the role of the specification in interpreting patent claim language, the SG contends that there is general doctrinal agreement among Federal Circuit judges:
There is broad agreement among the judges on the Federal Circuit about the principles of law that govern that inquiry, and the Federal Circuit's claim-construction jurisprudence is fully consistent with this Court's precedents. Although different judges sometimes disagree about the proper interpretation of particular claim terms, that is simply the inevitable result of case-by-case adjudication, not a reason for this Court's intervention.
Regarding the second question about the standard of appellate review for claim constructions, the SG agreed that the issue might warrant review in a future case, but not this one:
In an appropriate case, this Court's intervention might be warranted to determine the appropriate standard of review when a district court makes subsidiary factual findings in the course of construing a disputed patent claim. The district court in this case, however, did not make any factual findings about the meaning of the term "body," the state of the relevant art, or any other matter…. Nor did the court consider any expert testimony, make any credibility determinations, or receive any documentary evidence. Rather, the district court's hearing consisted entirely of the oral argument of counsel regarding the claim language, the specification, and pertinent legal authorities…. Because the district court's claim-construction ruling did not depend on the resolution of any questions of fact, this case does not present the question whether a claim-construction ruling that is predicated on factual determinations should nevertheless be subject entirely to de novo appellate review.
RTI may now file a brief responding to the SG's recommendation. The Court will likely decide whether to grant or deny RTI's petition in one of its January conferences.
Andrew Dhuey is an appellate lawyer in Berkeley, California.