By Dennis Crouch
In Teva v. Sandoz, the Supreme Court is focused-in on the appellate rules that should apply to claim construction decisions. Namely, if a district court makes factual conclusions that underpin a claim construction determination, should those factual conclusions be given deference on appeal or instead reviewed de novo on appeal. The Federal Circuit’s practice is to follow the latter approach while Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(6) suggests the former.
The issue as presented to the Supreme Court:
Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires.
Here, the district court may several explicit factual findings, including resolution of conflicting expert testimony regarding how a figure should be interpreted and how one of ordinary skill in the art would understand the term “average molecular weight” in the context of size-exclusion chromatography. These findings served as precursors to the lower court’s ultimate clam construction determination. On appeal, the Federal Circuit expressly reviewed and rejected those determination — but gave them no deference in the appeal. I should note here that there is disagreement about what should count as a factual finding — the PTO suggests that anything that relies at all upon patent or prosecution related documentation is legal textual analysis and not fact finding. Teva agrees that deference should be reserved to “classic factfinding,” but that would include factfinding that also draws some inferences from patent documents in conjunction with other evidence.
The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments, and the transcript is available online. In the case, Rising Star William Jay of Goodwin Procter argued for the patentee Teva who won at the district court but lost on appeal at the Federal Circuit. Carter Phillips of Sidley argued for Sandoz and Ginger Anders represented the Solicitor’s Office as Amicus.
Much of the of debate focused on the best analogy for patent claims — should they be interpreted as we interpret statutes (fully de novo review)? Or should they instead be interpreted as we do contracts (deference for underlying factual conclusions)? Jay attempted to argue that statutes are different because they are always designed to be read by the general public whereas patents are focused on those skilled in the art.
JUSTICE ALITO: If a patent is like public law, if it’s like a statute or like a rule, then factual findings regarding the meaning of that patent are not entitled to clear error review. . . Now, on the other hand, if a patent is private law, if it’s like a deed or if it’s like a contract, then Rule 52(a) comes into play. . . .
MR. JAY: Terms of art in statutes, Justice Alito…are nonetheless written to be read by the general public. And … when they have a legal meaning, the determination of that legal meaning is still a question of law. . . .
I think when you’re interpreting a statute that it s generally clear at least what the right frame of reference is Now in the in the patent case what the frame of reference is is itself a question of fact as this Court said in Graham v John Deere. Ascertaining the level of skill in the art who is the skilled artisan who is this patent written for that is itself a factual question and then figuring out what that what that person knows is also a factual question. . . .
MR. PHILLIPS: But actually, I think Markman
answered that, because I think Markman recognized that this is a public document that is going to be binding on third parties, and that therefore ought to be construed as a matter of law in order to ensure the stare decisis component of it.
Justice Breyer seemingly announced his position in favor of deference:
JUSTICE BREYER: And [the direct viewing of witness testimony], I think, is a very powerful reason for saying in a technical case, don’t overturn the judge’s factual findings whether they are particularly scientific matters, but no particularly here unless those three judges who will not even read the whole record normally and certainly won’t hear those witnesses, don’t let them do it unless they are convinced that it is clearly erroneous. Now, that’s the argument, and I would like to say that’s different from a statute.
Of course, in this particular case there was no live testimony for the district court Markman “hearing”, but rather only submissions in briefs and declarations.
A second analogy proffered is to the patent issue of obviousness that is also a question of law but is generally based upon underlying factual findings. To that, Sandoz response is largely that claim construction should be considered unique. On that point, a number of Justices seemed to question the fundamental Markman decision and its impact on Seventh Amendment rights.
Policy goals at stake: Uniformity and Consistency?
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: If you and the government can’t agree, why should we defer to a district court? Why don’t we defer, as has been done now forever, to the Federal Circuit and let them review these things de novo? . . .
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: [With deference,] two different district courts construing the same patent could come out to opposite results based on a subsidiary factual finding, and neither of those would be clearly erroneous, and yet on a public patent that is going to bind a lot of other people, people won’t know what to do.
. . . .
MR. PHILLIPS: It’s not it’s not worth the candle because all you’re going to do is create a cottage industry of trial lawyers fighting with the judge about which bucket some particular evidence fits into.
In my view, Mr. Phillips is right that the relative impact of deference for factual findings is relatively small. The larger potential impacts will be seen if the court remarks more generally on what should count as a factual finding; whether claim construction methodology should be more aligned with statutory construction vs contract construction; and how the factual findings for claim construction might impact later parallel jury determinations.