by Dennis Crouch
Lighting Ballast v. Philips Electronics (Fed. Cir. 2015)
In its 2014 en banc decision in Lighting Ballast, the Federal Circuit confirmed that all aspects of claim construction are reviewed de novo on appeal without giving any deference to findings made by the District Court in its original judgment. While Lighting Ballast was pending certiorari, the Supreme Court decided Teva v. Sandoz that altered claim construction appeals by ruling that a district court’s factual conclusions regarding extrinsic evidence should be given deference on appeal. (All other aspects of claim construction decisions will continue to be reviewed de novo). Following Teva, the Supreme Court issued a G-V-R for the pending Lighting Ballast petition for certiorari with an order that the Federal Circuit reconsider its position based upon the outcome of Teva.
On remand to the original panel*, the Federal Circuit has flipped its original decision — now affirming the district court’s claim construction that was supported by its now undisturbed factual findings.
As with many recent cases, this one also focuses on the difficulty of defining the scope of a functionally claimed element. Here, the Lighting Ballast patent at issue claims a “voltage source means” and the question is whether that limitation should be deemed a means-plus-function element to be interpreted under 35 U.S.C. 112(6). The problem for the patentee is that the specification does not spell-out any embodiments of a voltage-source-mean – and that resulted in the Federal Circuit originally holding that the claim term was indefinite and the claim invalid.
The district court had a different opinion. In particular, the district court heard expert testimony that one of skill in the art would easily understand a “voltage source means” to be an AC/DC rectifier or similar structure. As such, the district court found that the term had sufficient structure to avoid the limits of Section 112(6).
In this new appeal of the same issue, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the lower court findings. In particular, the Federal Circuit found no clear error with the district court’s conclusion that the “voltage source means” is “understood by persons of skill in the lighting ballast design art to connote a class of structures, namely a rectifier, or structure to rectify the AC power line into a DC voltage for the DC input terminals” because it was supported by the evidence of record. Further the extrinsic evidence and resulting factual conclusions were allowed based upon the Federal Circuit’s de novo conclusion that and the conclusions were not contradicted by the intrinsic record. The court writes:
Under the circumstances, it was not legal error for the district court to rely on extrinsic evidence, because the extrinsic evidence was “not used to contradict claim meaning that is unambiguous in light of the intrinsic evidence.” Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005). For example, the district court determined that “while the ‘voltage source means’ term does not denote a specific structure, it is nevertheless understood by persons of skill in the lighting ballast design art to connote a class of structures, namely a rectifier, or structure to rectify the AC power line into a DC voltage for the DC input terminals.” The district court went on to note that the language following “voltage source means” in the claim—“providing a constant or variable magnitude DC voltage between the DC input terminals”—“when read by one familiar with the use and function of a lighting ballast, such as the one disclosed by the 529 Patent, [sic] would understand a rectifier is, at least in common uses, the only structure that would provide ‘a constant or variable magnitude DC voltage’”. The district court further noted that “[i]t is clear to one skilled in the art that to provide a DC voltage when the source is a power line, which provides an AC voltage, a structure to rectify the line is required and is clear from the language of the ‘voltage source means’ term.” We defer to these factual findings, absent a showing that they are clearly erroneous.
The district court’s factual findings are supported by the record. Specifically, these factual findings are supported by the testimony of Dr. Roberts and Mr. Bobel. Mr. Bobel testified in his deposition that the “voltage source means” limitation connotes a rectifier to one skilled in the art. Mr. Bobel further explained that a battery could likewise provide the necessary DC supply voltage described in the patent. Similarly, Dr. Roberts explained that the “voltage source means” limitation suggests to him a sufficient structure, or class of structures, namely a rectifier if converting AC from a “power line source” to DC for a “DC supply voltage” or a battery if providing the DC supply voltage directly to the DC input terminals. This expert testimony supports a conclusion that the limitations convey a defined structure to one of ordinary skill in the art. See Rembrandt Data Techs., LP v. AOL, LLC, 641 F.3d 1331 (Fed. Cir. 2011). Because the district court’s factual findings demonstrate that the claims convey sufficient structure, the district court was correct to conclude that the term “voltage source means” is not governed by § 112 ¶ 6. As such, we affirm the district court’s decision concerning “voltage source means.”
The analysis here is confusing on a number of levels. How does the presumption of 112(6) applicability to ‘means’ elements fit in the analysis? What impact of Williamson? A factual finding is never the claim construction – thus how does the factual finding fit into the ultimate claim construction decision? . . .
This case does again raise the likelihood of testimony-intensive claim construction hearings as predicted post Teva.
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This affirmance reinstates the $3 million in damage verdict going to Lighting Ballast. (Plus pre- and post- verdict interest).