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McGinley v. Luv N' Care, Ltd.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Monroe Division

May 15, 2019

MICHAEL L. McGINLEY, ET AL.
v.
LUV N' CARE, LTD., ET AL.

          KAREN L. HAYES MAG. JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON CLAIM CONSTRUCTION

          TERRY A. DOUGHTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On April 3, 2019, the Court held a hearing to determine the proper construction of the disputed claim terms in United States Patent No. 8, 636, 178 (“the '178 Patent”). Having considered the arguments made by the parties at the hearing and in the parties' briefing[1], having considered the intrinsic evidence, and having made subsidiary factual findings about the extrinsic evidence, the Court hereby issues this Claim Construction Memorandum and Order. See Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1314 (Fed. Cir. 2005); Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 831, 841 (2015).

         I. BACKGROUND

         The '178 Patent was filed on October 22, 2008, issued on January 28, 2014, and is directed to a container or pitcher “having a flexible side wall portion and rim portion . . . which can conform to the shape of an object.” '178 Patent at Abstract. The specification indicates that the primary purpose of the container is for rinsing shampoo or soap from the head of a child. Id. at 2:57-63. Figures 3 and 6 illustrate different embodiments of the container with and without divider 40.

         (Image Omitted)

         Id. at Figs. 3 & 6. The specification states that the container has continuous sidewalls (12) with one of the sidewalls having a sidewall portion (24) with a flexible panel portion (28). Id. at 4:4- 61. The specification further states that the flexible panel portion is constructed of a thin flexible plastic or a flexible rubber panel that is capable of conforming to the shape of the head of a child. Id. at 4:43-61. In operation, the flexible panel portion is pressed against the front of the head above the eyes and the rinse water pours over the top of the head. Id. at 2:57-63. The specification indicates that the flexible panel portion prevents the rinse water from flowing into the child's eyes or face. Id.

         As illustrated above, the specification discloses embodiments of the container without a divider (Figure 3) and with a divider (Figure 6). Id. at 3:29-34, 3:42-46, Figs. 3 & 6. The specification states that the divider is provided so that the rinse water flows over the head more evenly. Id. at 7:11-18. Figure 9 illustrates an embodiment having a sidewall section that is shown to be flat with a flat flexible panel (28) flexed slightly inward.

         (Image Omitted)

         Id. at Fig. 9. As illustrated in Figure 9, this embodiment also includes “a generally curved divider panel (50) which separates container (10) into two fluid holding compartments.” Id. at 6:58-59.

         The specification discloses that “that the curvature of panel (50) thereby directs the fluid contained in second compartment (44) generally onto the center of the head of the child and avoids even distribution of the water across the width of curved divider panel (50) as the water is being poured out of second compartment (44).” Id. at 7:6-12.

         Claim 1 of the '178 Patent recite the following elements (disputed term in italics):

         1. A container comprising:

a generally continuous sidewall terminating in an upper sidewall end and a lower sidewall end and defining an inward fluid holding space bounded by said continuous sidewall, said continuous sidewall having a flexible portion thereof that defines a generally flat sidewall section and a generally non flexible portion joined on either end to the flexible portion, a bottom closing said lower sidewall end with said upper sidewall generally flat sidewall section end being generally open,
a generally flat inwardly flexible panel forming a portion of said generally flat sidewall section and extending to form at least a portion of said upper sidewall end, the flexible panel facing outwardly and being sized, shaped and sufficiently pliable to matingly mold to the head of a person during use; said flexible panel having a generally smooth inward surface for unobstructed fluid flow out of said open upper sidewall end, and
a handle located on the non flexible portion opposite the flexible panel to allow a user to lift and pour the container when filled with liquid.

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         A. Claim Construction

         “It is a ‘bedrock principle' of patent law that ‘the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude.'” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312 (quoting Innova/Pure Water Inc. v. Safari Water Filtration Sys., Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1115 (Fed. Cir. 2004)). To determine the meaning of the claims, courts start by considering the intrinsic evidence. Id. at 1313; C.R. Bard, Inc. v. U.S. Surgical Corp., 388 F.3d 858, 861 (Fed. Cir. 2004); Bell Atl. Network Servs., Inc. v. Covad Commc'ns Group, Inc., 262 F.3d 1258, 1267 (Fed. Cir. 2001). The intrinsic evidence includes the claims themselves, the specification, and the prosecution history. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314; C.R. Bard, Inc., 388 F.3d at 861. The general rule-subject to certain specific exceptions discussed infra-is that each claim term is construed according to its ordinary and accustomed meaning as understood by one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention in the context of the patent. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312-13; Alloc, Inc. v. Int'l Trade Comm'n, 342 F.3d 1361, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 2003); Azure Networks, LLC v. CSR PLC, 771 F.3d 1336, 1347 (Fed.Cir. 2014), vacated on other grounds 135 S.Ct. 1846 (2015) (“There is a heavy presumption that claim terms carry their accustomed meaning in the relevant community at the relevant time.”)

         “The claim construction inquiry . . . begins and ends in all cases with the actual words of the claim.” Renishaw PLC v. Marposs Societa' per Azioni, 158 F.3d 1243, 1248 (Fed. Cir. 1998). “[I]n all aspects of claim construction, ‘the name of the game is the claim.'” Apple Inc. v. Motorola, Inc., 757 F.3d 1286, 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (quoting In re Hiniker Co., 150 F.3d 1362, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 1998)). First, a term's context in the asserted claim can be instructive. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. Other asserted or unasserted claims can also aid in determining the claim's meaning because claim terms are typically used consistently throughout the patent. Id. Differences among the claim terms can also assist in understanding a term's meaning. Id. For example, when a dependent claim adds a limitation to an independent claim, it is presumed that the independent claim does not include the limitation. Id. at 1314-15.

         “[C]laims ‘must be read in view of the specification, of which they are a part.'” Id. (quoting Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (en banc)). “[T]he specification ‘is always highly relevant to the claim construction analysis. Usually, it is dispositive; it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term.'” Id. (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)); Teleflex, Inc. v. Ficosa N. Am. Corp., 299 F.3d 1313, 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2002). But, “‘[a]lthough the specification may aid the court in interpreting the meaning of disputed claim language, particular embodiments and examples appearing in the specification will not generally be read into the claims.'” Comark Commc'ns, Inc. v. Harris Corp., 156 F.3d 1182, 1187 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (quoting Constant v. Advanced Micro-Devices, Inc., 848 F.2d 1560, 1571 (Fed. Cir. 1988)); see also Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1323. “[I]t is improper to read limitations from a preferred embodiment described in the specification-even if it is the only embodiment-into the claims absent a clear indication in the intrinsic record that the patentee intended the claims to be so limited.” Liebel-Flarsheim Co. v. Medrad, Inc., 358 F.3d 898, 913 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

         The prosecution history is another tool to supply the proper context for claim construction because, like the specification, the prosecution history provides evidence of how the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) and the inventor understood the patent. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317. However, “because the prosecution history represents an ongoing negotiation between the PTO and the applicant, rather than the final product of that negotiation, it often lacks the clarity of the specification and thus is less useful for claim construction purposes.” Id. at 1318; see also Athletic Alternatives, Inc. v. Prince Mfg., 73 F.3d 1573, 1580 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (ambiguous prosecution history may be “unhelpful as an interpretive resource”).

         Although extrinsic evidence can also be useful, it is “‘less significant than the intrinsic record in determining the legally operative meaning of claim language.'” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317 (quoting C.R. Bard, Inc., 388 F.3d at 862). Technical dictionaries and treatises may help a court understand the underlying technology and the manner in which one skilled in the art might use claim terms, but technical dictionaries and treatises may provide definitions that are too broad or may not be indicative of how the term is used in the patent. Id. at 1318. Similarly, expert testimony may aid a court in understanding the underlying technology and determining the particular meaning of a term in the pertinent field, but an expert's conclusory, unsupported assertions as to a term's definition are entirely unhelpful to a court. Id. Generally, extrinsic evidence is “less reliable than the patent and its prosecution history in determining how to read claim terms.” Id. The Supreme Court recently explained the role of extrinsic evidence in claim construction:

In some cases, however, the district court will need to look beyond the patent's intrinsic evidence and to consult extrinsic evidence in order to understand, for example, the background science or the meaning of a term in the relevant art during the relevant time period. See, e.g., Seymour v. Osborne, 11 Wall. 516, 546 (1871) (a patent may be “so interspersed with technical terms and terms of art that the testimony of scientific witnesses is indispensable to a correct understanding of its meaning”). In cases where those subsidiary facts are in dispute, courts will need to make subsidiary factual findings about that extrinsic evidence. These are the “evidentiary underpinnings” of claim construction that we discussed in Markman, and this subsidiary factfinding must be reviewed for clear error on appeal.

Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 831, 841 (2015).

         B. Departing from the Ordinary Meaning of a Claim Term

         There are “only two exceptions to [the] general rule” that claim terms are construed according to their plain and ordinary meaning: “1) when a patentee sets out a definition and acts as his own lexicographer, or 2) when the patentee disavows the full scope of the claim term either in the specification or during prosecution.”[2] Golden Bridge Tech., Inc. v. Apple Inc., 758 F.3d 1362, 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (quoting Thorner v. Sony Computer Entm't Am. LLC, 669 F.3d 1362, 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2012)); see also GE Lighting Solutions, LLC v. AgiLight, Inc., 750 F.3d 1304, 1309 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“[T]he specification and prosecution history only compel departure from the plain meaning in two instances: lexicography and disavowal.”). The standards for finding lexicography or disavowal are “exacting.” GE Lighting Solutions, 750 F.3d at 1309.

         “To act as his own lexicographer, the patentee must ‘clearly set forth a definition of the disputed claim term,' and ‘clearly express an intent to define the term.'” Id. (quoting Thorner, 669 F.3d at 1365); see also Renishaw, 158 F.3d at 1249. The patentee's lexicography must appear “with reasonable clarity, deliberateness, and precision.” Renishaw, 158 F.3d at 1249.

         To disavow or disclaim the full scope of a claim term, the patentee's statements in the specification or prosecution history must amount to a “clear and unmistakable” surrender. Cordis Corp. v. Boston Sci. Corp., 561 F.3d 1319, 1329 (Fed. Cir. 2009); see also Thorner, 669 F.3d at 1366 (“The patentee may demonstrate intent to deviate from the ordinary and accustomed meaning of a claim term by including in the specification expressions of manifest exclusion or restriction, representing a clear disavowal of claim scope.”). “Where an applicant's statements are amenable to multiple reasonable interpretations, they cannot be deemed clear and unmistakable.” 3M Innovative Props. Co. v. Tredegar Corp., 725 F.3d 1315, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2013); see also Avid Tech., Inc. v. Harmonic, Inc., 812 F.3d 1040, 1045 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“When the prosecution history is used solely to support a conclusion of patentee disclaimer, the standard for justifying the conclusion is a high one.”).

         Although a statement of lexicography or disavowal must be exacting and clear, it need not be “explicit.” See Trs. of Columbia Univ. v. Symantec Corp., 811 F.3d 1359, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“a patent applicant need not expressly state ‘my invention does not include X' to indicate his exclusion of X from the scope of his patent”). Lexicography or disavowal can be implied where, e.g., the patentee makes clear statements characterizing the scope and purpose of the invention. See On Demand Mach. Corp. v. Ingram Indus., Inc., 442 F.3d 1331, 1340 (Fed. Cir. 2006) (“[W]hen the scope of the invention is clearly stated in the specification, and is described as the advantage and distinction of the invention, it is not necessary to disavow explicitly a different scope.”). Nonetheless, the plain meaning governs “[a]bsent implied or explicit lexicography or disavowal.” Trs. of Columbia Univ., 811 F.3d at 1364 n.2.

         III. LEVEL OF ORDINARY SKILL IN THE ART

         It is well established that patents are interpreted from the perspective of one of ordinary skill in the art. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1313 (“[T]he ordinary and customary meaning of a claim term is the meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention, i.e., as of the effective filing date of the patent application.”). The Federal Circuit has advised that the “[f]actors that may be considered in determining the level of skill in the art include: (1) the educational level of the inventors; (2) the type of problems encountered in the art; (3) prior art solutions to those problems; (4) the rapidity with which innovations are made; (5) sophistication of the technology; and (6) education level of active workers in the field.” Env'tl Designs, Ltd. v. Union Oil Co. of California, 713 F.2d 693, 696 (Fed. Cir. 1983). “These factors are not exhaustive but are merely a guide to determining the level of ordinary skill in the art.” Daiichi Sankyo Co. Ltd. v. Apotex, Inc., 501 F.3d 1254, 1256 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

         Plaintiffs suggest that the level of ordinary skill in the art is “that level of skill possessed by an ordinary individual having at least a high school education or the equivalent, with knowledge and experience of household and consumer goods like the rinse cup products at issue and familiarity with plastic, rubber, foam and other flexible materials as of February 2003. The level of ordinary skill does not require any ‘formal' education or licensure as an engineer or design professional, or a degree in mechanical engineering or product or mechanical design.” [Doc. No. 218 at 1].[3]

         Defendants contend that “a person of ordinary skill and a person of skill in that art would be a person with either (1) a mechanical engineering or design degree and two years actual product experience or (2) a person with no formal degree who had at least five years of practical experience in mechanical or product design of consumer products.” [Doc. No. 223 at 1].

         Having considered the parties' proposals, and the factors that may be considered in determining the level of skill in the art, the Court finds that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have either: (1) a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering or equivalent thereof, and at least two years of experience designing consumer products, or (2) familiarity with plastic, rubber, foam and other flexible materials, and at least five years of experience designing consumer products.

         IV. CONSTRUCTION OF DISPUTED TERMS

         The parties' dispute focuses on the meaning and scope of five terms/phrases of the '178 Patent.

         1. “comprising”

Disputed Term

Plaintiffs' Proposal[4]

Defendants' Proposal[5]

“comprising”

“including but not limited to”

No construction provided by Defendants

         a) The Parties' Positions

         Plaintiffs argue that the word “comprising” as used in the claims means “including but not limited to.” [Doc. No. 136-33 at 24-25] (citing McGinley v. Munchkin, Inc., No. 09-257, 2010 WL 128053 (W.D. Mo., Apr. 2, 2010); In re Skvorecz, 580 F.3d 1262, 1267 (Fed. Cir. 2009)). According to Plaintiffs, “comprising” simply means that a device “may contain elements in addition to those explicitly mentioned in the claim.” [Id. at 25]. Defendants do not provide any arguments related to the term “comprising, ” or provide a proposed construction. [Doc. No. 223 at 2].

         b) Analysis

         A patent claim has three major sections: (1) a preamble; (2) a transitional phrase; and (3) a body. Transitional phrases, such as “comprising, ” “consisting of, ” and “consisting essentially of, ” are terms of art in patent law that “define the scope of the claim with respect to what unrecited additional components or steps, if any, are excluded from the scope of the claim.” Manual Of Patent Examining Procedure § 2111.03. Here, the claims use the transitional phrase “comprising.” See, e.g., '178 Patent at 8:23 (Claim 1: “A container comprising:”), 8:52 (Claim 6: “A container comprising:”).

         It is well established that the transitional phrase “comprising, ” is inclusive or open-ended and does not exclude additional, unrecited elements or method steps. Genentech, Inc. v. Chiron Corp., 112 F.3d 495, 501 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“‘Comprising' is a term of art used in claim language which means that the named elements are essential, but other elements may be added and still form a construct within the scope of the claim.”). Specifically, “[i]n the patent claim context the term ‘comprising' is well understood to mean ‘including but not limited to.'” CIAS, Inc. v. Alliance Gaming Corp., 50 ...


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