By Dennis Crouch
Synthes USA v. Spinal Kinetics (Fed. Cir. 2013)
In a split opinion, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the jury verdict that Synthes’ asserted patent claims are invalid for lack of written description and has also affirmed the district court’s denial of SK’s request for exceptional-case attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285. Judge O’Malley penned the majority opinion that was joined by Judge Prost. Judge Taranto dissented – arguing that the evidence presented at trial was – as a matter of law – insufficient to prove that the claims lacked adequate written description.
Synthes’ U.S. Patent No. 7,429,270 is directed to an intervertebral implant invented by a team of Swiss researchers. The original application was placed on file as an international application (PCT) in 2003. The U.S. national stage application was then filed in 2006. Five-years into prosecution, the patentee substantially amended the claims and added a new set of claims that were then asserted against SK. Claims 29-31. As part of these new claims, Synthes included the new terms “opening” and “plurality of openings” that had not been used previously in the patent application document. The original disclosure was directed more particularly toward grooves rather than the seemingly broader term openings. According to SK, Synthes added these limitations to the claims only after the accused SK product was on the market in a calculated attempt to shift the scope of the patent to cover SK’s improved technology. Under US patent law, that sort of intentional shifting of patent claim scope is permissible so long as the amended claim is sufficiently supported by the original disclosure. See See Liebel-Flarsheim Co. v. Medrad, Inc., 358 F.3d 898, 909 n.2 (Fed. Cir. 2004).
It is not surprising that the infringement litigation turned on the proper construction of the “plurality of openings.” As is usual for patent litigation, the patentee was working to find a “right-sized” patent that was broad enough to cover the accused product but narrow enough to still be valid. Here, the approach was to create a term “opening” in an implant-plate that was generic enough to both (1) be described by the disclosed radial plate grooves and (2) capture the elongated circle slots of the accused device. However, the jury sided with the accused infringer and found the claims invalid under the written description doctrine.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed – finding that the substantial evidence supported the jury verdict.
Sufficiency of written description requires that the original disclosure reasonably convey to PHOSITA that the inventor had possession of the claimed subject matter at the time of filing. The exact level of detail required depends upon “the nature and scope of the claims and on the complexity and predictability of the relevant technology.” See Ariad Pharms., Inc. v. Eli Lilly & Co., 598 F.3d 1336, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (en banc).
In affirming the jury verdict, the basically followed the precedent of Leibel-Flarsheim to find that increased breadth-of-claim was not supported by the more narrow original specification. In particular, the court noted that the original disclosure only included “groove” examples, not slots or openings on the plate. (“The written description, however, never discloses anything broader than using grooves to anchor the fiber system to the cover plates.”) That intrinsic evidence was then bolstered by expert testimony regarding the important differences between grooves, slots and other openings. Based upon this evidence, the court found substantial evidence for the jury verdict of invalidity.
[T]he jury was asked to determine whether the written description disclosure of “grooves” “reasonably convey[ed] to those skilled in the art that the inventor had possession of [an intervertebral implant that could utilize any sort of opening located anywhere on the cover plates to anchor the fiber system] as of the filing date.” Ariad, 598 F.3d at 1351. The jury did not believe so and, when all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the jury verdict, we must affirm that decision.
One tricky issue here is the various burdens. On review, the appellate court looks for substantial evidence (more than a mere scintilla) but the jury had to find clear and convincing evidence of invalidity.
Writing in dissent, Judge Taranto framed this case is one where the “structural claim language … is broader than the specific embodiments disclosed in the written description.” Of course, Federal Circuit precedent allows claims to be broader than the specific embodiments. See In re Rasmussen, 650 F.2d 1212, 1215 (CCPA 1981). According to Taranto, in this type of situation (alleged over-breadth), the challenger must show that the “particular difference” between the claim and the disclosure “has a material effect on whether the product or process would achieve the aims of the claims at issue, with materiality of the effect not the same as non-obviousness but related to predictability.” In other words, broader conceptions of the invention that would be predictable by PHOSITAs mind after reading the specification should be deemed to fit within the written description.
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On the concept of attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 – the court reiterated its rule sanctions against a losing patentee can only be imposed after a showing of clear and convincing evidence of either (1) litigation misconduct; (2) bringing the litigation in subjective bad faith; or (3) bringing objectively baseless litigation. Here, the appellate court agreed with the district court that SK had failed to demonstrate clear-and-convincing evidence of any one of those three justifications for fees.