Tag Archives: Rule 36

Claim Construction and Due Process: Examining NST Global v. Sig Sauer Inc. in the Supreme Court

by Dennis Crouch

NST Global, LLC, dba SB Tactical v. Sig Sauer Inc. (Supreme Court 2023)

This case has a low chance of being granted certiorari, but it still has some interesting elements regarding claim construction and procedure.  This is a perfect case for the Supreme Court to issue a GVR (Grant-Vacate-Remand) with an order to the Federal Circuit to explain its reasoning.

The setup is common. Tactical sued Sig Sauer for patent infringement; Sig Sauer responded with an IPR petition that was eventually successful.  Tactical appealed based upon the PTAB’s sua sponte claim construction that found the preamble to be limiting, but the Federal Circuit Affirmed without opinion.

The Supreme Court petition asks three questions:

  1. Whether the claim construction finding the preamble limiting was improper.
  2. Whether the PTAB violated due process by construing the term sua sponte and failing to give the patentee with notice or an opportunity to present evidence.
  3. Whether the Federal Circuit’s use of Rule 36 violates constitutional guarantees  of due process and the statutory protections of 35 U.S.C. 144.

The Tactical patents cover a forearm stabilizing brace that can be attached to a pistol. U.S. Patent Numbers 8,869,444 and 9,354,021. Sig Sauer initially was a distributor of Tactical’s product, but later began making its own competing product. At that point Tactical sued.

In the IPR petition, Sig Sauer did not request any claim construction. Likewise, the petition decision granting the IPR stated that no claim terms needed any express construction.  “We agree—we need not expressly construe any claim term
to resolve the parties’ dispute.”  During briefing, neither party requested construction of any aspect of the claim preambles.  Eventually though, in its final written decision, the PTAB interpreted the preambles as limiting and then used that construction to conclude that the claims were invalid as obvious.

Yes, I said that the narrow construction led to the claims being found invalid.  That is unusual — usually the addition of limitations helps to avoid the prior art. In this case though the focus was on objective indicia of non-obviousness. NST’s sales; copying by Sig; praise; etc.  But, by giving weight to the preamble terms, the PTAB was able to destroy the presumed nexus between the claims and NST’s product.  The result, those secondary indicia were found wanting because NST had not provided additional evidence “commensurate with the claims” as newly construed.

For context, the claims are directed to the attachment, but the preamble recites “a handgun” and “a support structure extending rearwardly from the rear of the handgun:”

1. A forearm-gripping stabilizing attachment for a handgun, the handgun having a support structure extending rearwardly from the rear end of the handgun, the forearm-gripping stabilizing attachment, comprising: . . .

The PTAB ruled that the claims require the handgun and also the support structure  as recited in the preamble along with the forearm attachment described in the body.  The problem for the patentee is that its objective indicia evidence focused on the forearm attachment, not the whole package.  Thus, no nexus and no weight given to those secondary factors.  In its decision, the PTAB when through the whole life and meaning analysis: “we conclude that the preambles of claims 1, 3, and 5 are ‘necessary to give life, meaning, and vitality to the claim[s],’ and, as such, are limiting.”

The case was already close because there is a long history of this sort of stabilizer going back to the 19th Century, and so the absence of secondary considerations led to the obviousness conclusion.

During the IPR trial, Sig Sauer had argued that the high sales were due to an odd regulatory scheme against semi-automatic rifles, and the pistol attachment was actually popular primarily because it allowed the pistol to be shouldered.  On appeal, that was raised as an alternative justification for the judgment. But, in my view, the PTAB did not actually rule on that issue in the first place.

The patentee appealed, but the Federal Circuit panel of Judges Reyna, Schall, and Chen affirmed without opinion.

Issue its “Mandate and Opinion”

by Dennis Crouch

The Federal Circuit regularly affirms PTAB judgments without issuing any explanatory opinion to justify the result.  Although not found in the Rules of Appellate procedure, the court has created its own local rule allowing itself to “enter a judgment of affirmance without opinion.”  In a 2017 paper, I argued that these no-opinion affirmances violated both the spirit and letter of 35 U.S.C. 144, which requires the court to issue a “mandate and opinion” in cases appealed from the USPTO.  Since that time, the Federal Circuit has continued its practice, issuing hundreds of no-opinion judgments.  Throughout this time, dozens of losing parties have petitioned for en banc rehearing with the Federal Circuit or certiorari to the Supreme Court.  Up to now, both courts have remained silent and have refused to address the issue.

A new pending petition raises the issue once again. Virentem Ventures v. Google (Supreme Court 2023).  Virentem sued Google for patent infringement, and Google responded with a set of Inter Partes Review (IPR) petitions.  The PTAB eventually sided with Google and invalidated the claims of all seven challenged patents.  Virentem appealed; but the Federal Circuit affirmed the PTAB’s judgement without opinion under its local Rule 36.

The new petition to the Supreme Court asks four related questions:

  1. Does the Federal Circuit’s use of Rule 36 to affirm without opinion PTAB invalidity determinations that are challenged based on pure questions of law violate a patentee’s due process rights through arbitrary or disparately applied results?
  2. Did the Federal Circuit’s use of Rule 36 to affirm without opinion PTAB invalidity determinations of Virentem’s patents violate its due process rights?
  3. Did the PTAB’s adoption, and Federal Circuit’s summary affirmance, of broad constructions of Time Scale Modification and other claim terms over Virentem’s explicit narrowing definitions, violate the Federal Circuit’s own law and precedents on claim construction in such circumstances?
  4. Does the Federal Circuit’s use of Rule 36 to affirm without opinion decisions from the PTAB violate the requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 144 that the Federal Circuit “shall issue to the Director its mandate and opinion”?

The Virentem patents relate to time-scale modification — the speeding-up or slowing-down of media.  You may remember Alvin, Simon, and Theodore — the Chipmunks.  That unintelligible high pitch arguably is not really time-scale modification because it is such a failure.  Rather, TSM modern impliedly requires maintaining pitch and intelligibility.  In this case though, the PTAB broadly interpreted the term to include any system that speeds-up or slows-down media.  With that broad interpretation, the tribunal then was able to find prior art rendering the claims obvious.   Virentem argued that its patents would be seen as valid under the narrower construction.  The PTAB’s response: If you wanted that limitation in the claim, you should have added it to the claim.