By Jason Rantanen
Fenner Investments, Ltd. v. Cellco Partnership (Fed. Cir. 2015) Download Fenner v Cellco
Panel: Newman (author), Schall, Hughes
In Fenner v. Cellco Partnership, Judge Newman adds another voice to the chorus of Federal Circuit judges reading Teva v. Sandoz as having little effect on the court’s routine review of district court claim constructions. Here, the panel affirms the district court’s construction of the term “personal identification number” under what appears to be a de novo standard of review Frustratingly, the opinion never states which standard of review it is applying either generally or to any given issue, but I read all of the issues it addresses as either consisting of intrinsic evidence or going to the “ultimate question” of claim construction.
Judge Newman’s Articulation of the Post-Teva standard of review. The appellate analysis begins with the established reading of Teva as reinforcing a largely de novo standard of review for claim construction:
We review de novo the ultimate question of the proper construction of patent claims and the evidence intrinsic to the patent. Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 831, 841 (2015); id. (“[W]hen the district court reviews only evidence intrinsic to the patent (the patent claims and specifications, along with the patent’s prosecution history), the judge’s determination will amount solely to a determination of law, and the Court of Appeals will review that construction de novo.”). The district court’s determination of subsidiary facts based on extrinsic evidence is reviewed for clear error. Id. at 835, 841.
After noting that the appellant’s argument rested on a plain meaning versus the specification & prosecution history tension, the opinion summarizes the claim construction process:
The terms used in patent claims are not construed in the abstract, but in the context in which the term was presented and used by the patentee, as it would have been understood by a person of ordinary skill in the field of the invention on reading the patent documents. See Biogen Idec, Inc. v. GlaxoSmithKline LLC, 713 F.3d 1090, 1095 (Fed. Cir. 2013) (“[A] term’s ordinary meaning must be considered in the context of all the intrinsic evidence, including the claims, specification, and prosecution history.”). Thus, a claim receives the meaning it would have to persons in the field of the invention, when read and understood in light of the entire specification and prosecution history. Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312– 1317 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). Any explanation, elaboration, or qualification presented by the inventor during patent examination is relevant, for the role of claim construction is to “capture the scope of the actual invention” that is disclosed, described, and patented. Retractable Techs., Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., 653 F.3d 1296, 1305 (Fed. Cir. 2011).
In this articulation of the process, both the specification and the prosecution history play an important role. But Judge Newman does not stop with this summary; she digs into the meaning of claim construction itself:
Words are symbols, linguistic embodiments of information sought to be communicated, and, as such, can be imperfect at representing their subject. The Supreme Court recently observed this challenge to patent claim interpretation, stating in Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2120, 2128-29 (2014), that “the definiteness requirement must take into account the inherent limitations of language,” and that clarity is required although “recognizing that absolute precision is unattainable.” When the disputed words describe technology, the terse usage of patent claims often requires “construction” in order to define and establish the legal right. Judicial “construction” of patent claims aims to state the boundaries of the patented subject matter, not to change that which was invented.
Beginning with the written description issue, the opinion concludes that the district court used that portion of the patent properly:
The foundation of judicial claim construction is the “written description” in the specification. The patent statute requires that the claims “particularly point out
and distinctly claim the subject matter” that the applicant regards as the invention. 35 U.S.C. §112(b). The district court appropriately consulted the description in the ’706 specification “for the purpose of better understanding the meaning of the claim.” White v. Dunbar, 119 U.S. 47, 51 (1886).
The prosecution history further bolstered the district court’s construction even though the examiner did not appear to have relied upon the relevant statements by the applicant in granting the patent:
Fenner argues that these purportedly limiting statements he made during prosecution do not limit the claims, arguing that the statements and the limitations discussed were not the basis for grant of the patent. However, the interested public has the right to rely on the inventor’s statements made during prosecution, without attempting to decipher whether the examiner relied on them, or how much weight they were given. See Microsoft Corp. v. Multi-Tech Sys., Inc., 357 F.3d 1340, 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (“[A] patentee’s statements during prosecution, whether relied on by the examiner or not, are relevant to claim interpretation.”); Laitram Corp. v. Morehouse Indus., Inc., 143 F.3d 1456, 1462 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“The fact that an examiner placed no reliance on an applicant’s statement distinguishing prior art does not mean that the statement is inconsequential for purposes of claim construction.”)
The court also rejected the appellant’s arguments based on interoperability (concluding that the district court’s construction did not render the claim inoperable) and claim differentiation:
Although claim differentiation is a useful analytic tool, it cannot enlarge the meaning of a claim beyond that which is supported by the patent documents, or relieve any claim of limitations imposed by the prosecution history. See, e.g., Retractable Techs., 653 F.3d at 1305 (“[A]ny presumption created by the doctrine of claim differentiation ‘will be overcome by a contrary construction dictated by the written description or prosecution history.’” (quoting Seachange Int’l, Inc. v. C-COR, Inc.,413 F.3d 1361, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2005))); Toro Co. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 199 F.3d 1295, 1302 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“[T]he doctrine of claim differentiation does not serve to broaden claims beyond their meaning in light of the specification, and does not override clear statements of scope in the specification and the prosecution history.” (citation omitted)).