Guest Post by Professor Shubha Ghosh. Prof. Ghosh is the Vilas Research Fellow & George Young Bascom Professor in Business Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he is also the Associate Director of the Initiatives for Studies in Transformational Entrepreneurship (INSITE).
I was fortunate to be able to attend oral argument in Teva v Sandoz before the Supreme Court on October 15. At issue was a highly technical issue at the intersection of civil procedure and patent law: Is the standard of appellate review for patent claim construction de novo or clearly erroneous? The Justices’ engagement with this dry, but fundamental, question extended from hypos about bus crashes and South African Yellow Canaries (don’t ask) to elusive distinctions between facts and law in construing scientific terms like “average molecular weight.”
While the discussion was lively, the big question of what is the appropriate methodology for claim construction was avoided. The Federal Circuit presumably answered that question in Phillips v. AWH, but the Supreme Court has never addressed that issue. Even a lively oral argument cannot cure the failure to address claim construction methodology. I will address that problem at the end of this post after setting forth these highlights.
(1) Justice Alito stated the issue as one of whether a patent is analogous to a statute (for which there is no deference to legislative facts) or to a private contract (for which there is deference on factfinding). That may be just restating the question, but gives some indication on how some of the justices are approaching the matter. The question of right analogy is a bit of a red herring. Which analogy you choose depends on how you view the mix of law and fact in patent claims.
(2) Justice Roberts came out clearly, from my listening, on the side of patent as statute and emphasized the importance of uniformity (and implicitly the need to avoid forum shopping). Go Federal Circuit! Justice Scalia was hard to read although he did make a comparison between a patent and a deed. Also, given his opinion in Medimmune in 2007, he may come out on the side of a patent as a statute.
(3) Justice Breyer came out on the side of 52(a) and pushed back on Sandoz’ argument that the Court had already resolved the question of deference in Markman by concluding that claim construction is a matter of law. Justice Ginsburg pointed out the different context of the 7th Amendment in Markman. I think there were at least four Justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Kennedy) who seemed to be skeptical about special rules regarding fact finding for Markman hearings (which is one way of phrasing Sandoz’ argument). In addition, Justice Scalia’s strict constructionism would lead him to agree with Justice Breyer. Justice Sotomayor’s questions were more searching, but indicated some skepticism with Sandoz’ position.
(4) Even when there was sympathy for the Teva argument, there seemed to be some pushback on how to separate subsidiary facts from legislative facts (a big distinction for Teva and for the SG). I did not find a completely great answer although the SG brief and argument came close to a methodology for parsing facts.
Based on this reading of the oral arguments, I would predict a victory for Teva on the 52(a) issue with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Kennedy and possibly Scalia or Sotomayor voting for a reversal. The open question is how to distinguish facts and law in patent claims. This question may just be left for another day.
Looming in the background of this case is the issue of how claim construction should be done. Although Philips offers the accepted methodology (and one that seems to have reduced the reversal rate on claim construction by the Federal Circuit), the Supreme Court has neither endorsed the decision nor addressed how district courts should construe claims. But the law/fact question is intimately connected with the methodology of construction.
Treating claim construction as purely a question of law is consistent with the plain meaning approach to construing claims, as endorsed by the Philips decision. The more courts rely on sources other than the words of a claim, such as prosecution history or expert witnesses, the more fact-based claim construction becomes. It is no coincidence that Teva in its arguments emphasized the role of experts and prosecution history in construing the meaning of “average molecular weight.” A ruling in favor of Teva would suggest that claim construction relies more heavily on factors extrinsic to the language of the claims, a position different from the plain meaning approach of Philips.
Of course, the ruling in Teva will just be the start and perhaps the first step in the Supreme Court examining claim construction methodology head on.