In Markman, the Supreme Court declared that determining the meaning of patent claims, i.e. “claim construction,” is a question to be decided by the court; the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 372 (1996). Shortly thereafter, in Cybor, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that de novo review applied when results from these newly-created ‘Markman hearings’ are appealed. Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies, Inc., 138 F.3d 1448, 1451 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc).
Earlier this year, the Federal Circuit granted a rehearing en banc to determine if Cybor should be overruled, and what, if any, deference should be given to a District Court’s claim construction. Lighting Ballast Control LLC v. Philips Electronics N. Am. Corp., ___F.3d___, WL 667499 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 21, 2014) (en banc). The court considered three options: (1) reaffirm Cybor and maintain de novo review, (2) overrule Cybor and declare claim construction a question of fact, or (3) adopt a “hybrid” standard of review that affords deference to the District Court’s factual determinations but preserves de novo review of the “ultimate” conclusion. Amici from industrial and technological companies advocated reaffirming Cybor. Academics and practitioners generally favored either the hybrid approach or the overruling of Cybor. Relying on stare decisis, a 6-4 majority reaffirmed Cybor.
The majority pointed out that since Cybor was decided, Congress has not acted to overturn it while enacting other patent legislation during that time. They further explained that predictability and consistency favor maintaining the status quo. Consistency is a concern particularly relevant in patent law – a concern which led to the creation of the Federal Circuit over thirty years ago. The majority feared a return of “forum shopping” because the same patent could be subject to conflicting interpretations in different District Courts. Parties would be incentivized to choose a forum with judges likely to interpret patent claims in their favor knowing that reversal on appeal is unlikely.
The dissent, appearing to favor the hybrid approach, pointed out that the parties in the present case, almost all amici, and the Supreme Court recognize that claim construction involves some questions of fact. Thus, they vehemently argued that under Rule 52(a)(6), courts of appeal can set aside only those findings of fact that are “clearly erroneous.” Rejecting stare decisis, the dissent argued that “informal deference” is already given to District Courts because they spend “hundreds of hours” learning the relevant technology, so overruling Cybor would “not upset settled expectations.” The dissent also stated that de novo review incentivizes the losing party to appeal, decreases the likelihood of settlement, and increases litigation costs.
But Lighting Ballast may not stand for long. In April, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., which presents a nearly identical question as that in Lighting Ballast. In Teva, the District Court held a Markman hearing and construed the claims in Teva’s favor, avoiding invalidity for indefiniteness. The trial judge relied heavily on Teva’s expert witness to determine the level of ordinary skill in the art at the time of invention. Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz Inc., 810 F. Supp. 2d 578, 596 (S.D.N.Y. 2011). On appeal, the Federal Circuit explicitly applied de novo review, compared the testimony of the competing expert witnesses, reversed the District Court, and held the claims indefinite. Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., 723 F.3d 1363, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2013), reh’g en banc denied. Similar to the dissent in Lighting Ballast, Teva claims that Rule 52(a)(6) should have governed the Federal Circuit’s standard of review because determining the level of ordinary skill in the art is a question of fact. Unfortunately, Teva will not be heard until the Supreme Court’s October 2014 term. Until then, Lighting Ballast remains good law; de novo review of claim construction still applies.
Guest Post Written by Brian Apel