by Chris Holman
C.R. Bard, Inc. v. Med. Components, Inc., 2023 WL 2064163 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 17, 2023)
In Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, Inc. v. University of Illinois Foundation (1971), the Supreme Court held that a judgment of invalidity in a suit against one infringer accrues to the benefit of any other accused infringer unless the patent owner shows that he did not have a fair opportunity procedurally, substantively and evidentially to pursue his patent claim the first time. Collateral estoppel (i.e., issue preclusion) under Blonder-Tongue is non-mutual. While a judgment of invalidity binds the patent owner and its successors in interest because it is a party to the suit with adequate opportunity to contest the matter, a judgment of validity cannot operate in the patent owner’s favor to bind persons who are neither parties nor in privity with parties to the suit.
Stare decisis, Latin for “to stand by things decided,” is a legal principle that directs courts to adhere to previous judgments, i.e., precedent, when resolving a case with comparable facts. According to Chisum on Patents, “Federal Circuit decisions decline to give great weight or stare decisis effect to prior validity rulings.” For example, in Gillette Co. v. S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., (1990), the court held that the fact that the validity of a patent claim has previously been upheld in an earlier litigation is not to be given stare decisis effect, citing Stevenson v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Fed. Cir. 1983).
In a recent non-precedential opinion, C.R. Bard, Inc. v. Med. Components, Inc., the Federal Circuit applied stare decisis to a prior validity ruling involving a different patent and a different accused infringer. The Bard patents at issue are directed to radiopaque markings and structural features that can be used to identify whether a venous access port is power injectable, specifically a venous access port with an alphanumeric message that can be seen on an X-ray and that identifies the port as power injectable.
Representative claim 5 of U.S. Patent No. 7,785,302 claims:
A venous access port assembly for implantation into a patient, comprising:
a housing having an outlet, and a needle-penetrable septum, the needle penetrable septum and the housing together defining a reservoir, wherein:
the assembly includes a radiopaque alphanumeric message observable through interaction with X-rays subsequent to subcutaneous implantation of the assembly, and
the alphanumeric message indicating that the assembly is power injectable.
On motion for summary judgment, the district court found the asserted claims ineligible under § 101 because the claims were solely directed to non-functional printed matter and because the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “[using] an identifier to communicate information about the power injectability of the underlying port” with no inventive concept.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed, explaining:
We are bound by our precedent in C R Bard Inc. v. AngioDynamics, Inc., 979 F.3d 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2020). There, we considered a case that is virtually identical to the one before us now. AngioDynamics also involved patents directed to radiopaque markers that could be used to identify venous access ports as power injectable, and the claims at issue were substantially similar to the asserted claims here. Furthermore, that case asked to consider the exact same question that is before us now: whether claims that include non-functional printed matter could be eligible under § 101. The court in AngioDynamics concluded that, although the asserted claims contained some non-functional printed matter, they were nonetheless eligible under § 101 because the claims were not solely directed to non-functional printed matter—they were also directed to “the means by which that information is conveyed.” Given these similarities, we must reach the same conclusion here as in AngioDynamics.
Because we are bound by our precedent, we conclude that the asserted claims in Bard’s three patents are directed to eligible subject matter under § 101.
As noted above, Chisum’s authoritative treatise on U. S. patent law states that the Federal Circuit does not give “great weight or stare decisis effect to prior validity rulings,” and does not identify any cases which this has occurred. The C.R. Bard court does not cite to any precedent, case law, or statute to justify its application of stare decisis in the present case.
Perhaps patent eligibility is uniquely amenable to stare decisis, given the amorphous nature of the Alice two part inquiry. In its opening brief, Bard argued that:
Despite acknowledging the obvious similarities between AngioDynamics and the instant case, the district court . . . declined to follow it because “the facts and procedural posture are different.” But in AngioDynamics, this Court held that Bard’s patents were valid at Alice step one. Because Alice step one presents a legal question that can be answered based on the intrinsic evidence, CardioNet, LLC v. InfoBionic, Inc., 955 F.3d 1358, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2020), any supposed differences in the record are irrelevant and thus provide no basis to depart from this Court’s holding that claims directed to features on ports for the purposes of post-implantation identification traverse Alice step one.
AngioDynamics (the company that lost on the issue of patent eligibility in the AngioDynamics decision) filed an amicus brief in C.R. Bard in support of the accused infringer, urging affirmance of the district court’s decision finding the claims patent ineligible. The company argued that the AngioDynamics decision addressed a different factual record and different legal issues, and that:
Unlike the district court in AngioDynamics, the district court here performed a full two-step Alice analysis. The district court also considered a significantly more developed record than the one in AngioDynamics, including multiple prior art references, Bard’s admissions that it did not invent radiopaque identifiers, and Bard’s admissions that adding radiopaque identifiers to ports would be trivial. . . . Bard’s reliance on AngioDynamics is misplaced.
AngioDynamics states in its amicus brief that its interest in the case stems from its involvement in litigation related to the patents asserted in C.R. Bard, as well as other Bard patents directed to “nearly identical subject matter,” which it believes would be impacted by Bard’s appeal. Presumably, the company was hoping to benefit from the collateral estoppel effect of the district court’s patent ineligibility ruling.