Guest Post by Jonas Anderson, Assistant Professor at American University, Washington College of Law.
This morning, the Federal Circuit sat en banc in the case of Lighting Ballast Control v. Philips. The case is the latest and most significant challenge to the court’s de novo standard of review in claim construction cases. In taking the case en banc, the Federal Circuit asked the parties to brief three questions:
- Should the Federal Circuit overrule Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs. Inc., 138 F.3d 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (in which the Federal Circuit held that “as a purely legal question, we review claim construction de novo on appeal including any allegedly fact-based questions relating to claim construction.”)?
- Should the Federal Circuit afford deference to any aspect of a district court’s claim interpretation?
- If so, which aspects should be afforded deference?
Both parties in this case agree that de novo review is not the appropriate standard of review for all aspects of claim construction. The parties’ positions differ, however, as to the proper scope of appellate deference: Lighting Ballast argues that the court should completely abandon its practice of de novo review and afford deference to all aspects of claim construction decisions; Universal Lighting Technologies (the appellee), on the other hand, argues that deference is appropriate only in resolving “disputed issues of historical fact.” The PTO echoes ULT’s stance. In a recent paper forthcoming in the Northwestern University Law Review co-authored with Professor Peter Menell of Berkeley Law School, we argue that de novo review has already been replaced at the Federal Circuit with a more deferential standard, albeit informally. We find evidence for out theory in the significant drop in reversal rate that has occurred over the past decade: from a high of 44% of terms in 2004 to 20% reversed in 2011.
Despite both parties arguing that Cybor should be modified to some degree and numerous Federal Circuit judges having expressed that belief in prior cases, the tone of the arguments today was certainly one of skepticism. The three main topics addressed:
National Uniformity Concerns - Judge Lourie’s initial question was whether deference would disrupt the national uniformity of patent law that the Federal Circuit was designed to achieve. ULT admitted that the possibility of non-uniform claim construction decisions would be a negative outcome of overruling Cybor, but FRCP 52(a) is in tension with a pure de novo review of claim construction. The acting Solicitor of the PTO, Nathan Kelley, closed his argument by addressing the non-uniformity concern. Kelley argued that any non-uniformity that occurred in light of a lowered deference standard would be a benefit to the public because it would result in reduced patent scope in some parts of the country. While that is obviously not ideal, Kelley’s point was that the concern should not be an overriding one for the court since any non-uniformity is a benefit, not a burden, to the public.
Line-drawing Problems between Issues of Fact and Issues of Law – The issue that perhaps most captivated the Judge’s attention was whether a deferential standard was workable. Judge Moore, perhaps one of the court’s most vocal critics of Cybor, was clearly troubled with the solution offered by ULT and the PTO. She asked for a precise definition of a “historical fact” no less than three times, and never received an answer that satisfied her. Because claim construction is ultimately an effort to decipher the meaning that a PHOSITA would ascribe to a claim term, she feared that every claim construction decision (other than when the patentee acts as his own lexicographer) would be considered a question of fact. Despite the PTO and appellee’s repeated assurances that their preferred level of deference would amount to no more than a “small change” in the law, Judge Moore and others (including Judge Dyk, Lourie, and Reyna) seemed troubled by the potential implications of the change. Judge Lourie asked whether every case would now involve litigants attempting to frame legal determinations as factual determinations.
The Impact of Stare Decisis – This issue, pursued extensively by Judge Taranto, seemed to take the litigants by surprise. Judge Taranto repeatedly asked about the court’s ability to revisit a clearly established en banc precedent with no intervening Supreme Court case or other change in the law. Neither side seemed to have a ready answer to his question.
Judge O’Malley, who was on the original panel decision, played a pivotal role in the argument, attempting to clarify the position of the PTO and ULT. She interpreted their position as one in which a district court judge’s decision as to the historical meaning of a claim that was based on extrinsic evidence would be given deference, but if that interpretation runs counter to the Federal Circuit’s de novo review of the intrinsic evidence the district court’s decision would not impact the case. This middle position was clearly not satisfactory to a number of judges. In light of the skepticism, ULT’s counsel essentially backed away from his position that Cybor should be modified; on rebuttal he suggested that the court may well not want to modify Cybor.
Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if the court decides to maintain the de novo standard or tries to find a way to disentangle factual issues from legal ones. As a skeptical Judge Dyk quipped about the latter option, “let’s just experiment and see how difficult it would be.” I sense that some on the court would like to make those distinctions (Judge O’Malley in particular), but I’m unsure whether enough votes exist to make the change. I don’t think the court will gravitate to Lighting Ballast’s position of a pure legal error standard. Characterizing all claim construction decisions as factual seems too radical of a departure to the court. Judge Lourie appeared taken aback when Lighting Ballast’s counsel suggested that the specification should be treated as parole evidence: “That is an extraordinary argument.” Indeed, switching from de novo review to complete deference to all district court claim construction decisions appears, at this stage, very unlikely.
Ed.: You can listen to the oral argument here.