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PRO-TECH WELDING AND FABRICATION, INC. v. LAJUETT

April 13, 2005.

PRO-TECH WELDING AND FABRICATION, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS P. LAJUETT, both individually and doing business as R.C.S. SNO-PRO, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DAVID LARIMER, Chief Judge, District

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Pro-Tech Welding and Fabrication, Inc. ("Pro-Tech"), commenced this action against three of its former employees and four corporations, alleging claims based on patent infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract, and other theories. Five of the defendants — Thomas P. LaJuett (both individually and d/b/a R.C.S. Sno-Pro), Gerald S. LaJuett, Steven Sepaniak, RCS Manufacturing and Development, LLC, and Rochester Custom Steel, Inc. (collectively "the moving defendants") — have moved for summary judgment dismissing all of plaintiff's claims against them, and granting judgment in favor of the moving defendants on their counterclaims against Pro-Tech. Pro-Tech has cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the moving defendants' counterclaims. BACKGROUND

Pro-Tech is a New York corporation engaged in the manufacture and sale of a variety of types of metal equipment for application in various uses. One of its products is a snow removal device which has the trade name "Sno Pusher." The Sno Pusher is similar to a conventional snowplow, except that it is designed to push snow forward rather than off to one side. This type of device (sometimes referred to generically as a "snow pusher" or "box plow") has certain advantages over conventional plows in certain applications, such as removing snow from parking lots, where the presence of "side spill" from a conventional plow would required the snowplow operator to make more passes than would be required with a snow pusher.

  Pro-Tech is also the owner of United States Patent No. 5,724,755 ("the '755 patent"), which claims a "snow pusher [that] includes a blade with horizontal and vertical reinforcing channels, a reversible and removable rubber edge fastened to the blade and extending below its bottom edge, and a side plate extending forward from each end of the blade." Pro-Tech alleges that defendants have infringed upon that patent by selling a snow pusher that incorporates all of the claimed elements of plaintiff's patented design.

  In this action, Pro-Tech alleges, in short, that during their employment at Pro-Tech, defendants Thomas and Gerald LaJuett ("the LaJuetts") were privy to certain confidential information concerning Pro-Tech's manufacturing and marketing of the Sno Pusher, and that, in violation of their employment contracts, they set up a rival business under the name of "Rochester Custom Steel" ("RCS"). When it discovered what they had done, Pro-Tech fired the LaJuetts in May 2000.

  Pro-Tech also alleges that defendant Steven Sepaniak, while employed in Pro-Tech's sales department, began working — at first surreptitiously and later overtly — with the LaJuetts, who by 2001 had begun marketing a snow pusher of their own, under the name "Sno-Pro." Because Sepaniak's activities, which allegedly included diverting customers from Pro-Tech to RCS, were allegedly in breach of his employment agreement, Pro-Tech fired him in 2001.

  Pro-Tech alleges that by manufacturing and selling the Sno-Pro snow pusher, the moving defendants have infringed upon the '755 patent. Pro-Tech also alleges that defendants have misappropriated Pro-Tech's trade secrets, breached certain confidentiality and non-solicitation agreements that they had entered into with Pro-Tech, and committed various torts, such as breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, and tortious interference with contract.*fn1 In their counterclaims, defendants allege that Pro-Tech has interfered with defendants' relationships with their customers and suppliers, by threatening to sue or otherwise take action against those customers and suppliers if they continued doing business with RCS. DISCUSSION

  Defendants make two arguments in support of their motion for summary judgment. First, defendants contend that there is no evidence of patent infringement. Second, in the alternative, defendants contend that the '755 Patent is invalid as a matter of law for a number of reasons. Both arguments relate to the patent's claim of a "blade including a plurality of horizontal and vertical reinforcing channels on the back thereof. . .". '755 Patent, Col. 3, Lines 4-5. In support of their contention that defendants' product does not infringe the patent in issue, defendants maintain that their Sno-Pro Pusher does not use vertical reinforcing channels, but rather "boxed gussets."

  Concerning invalidity, defendants contend that the inventor of the invention claimed in the '755 Patent, Michael Weagley, a principal of Pro-Tech, did not disclose to the patent examiner two known items of prior art: that is, two other snow pushers that incorporated nearly all of the elements set forth in the listed claims of the '755 Patent, including the use of reinforcing channels.

  I turn first to the question of infringement. If plaintiffs have failed to establish patent infringement, then there is no need to explore issues relating to the patent's validity.

  I. Patent Infringement

  A. General Principles

  A determination of patent infringement requires a two-step analysis. "First, the claim must be properly construed to determine its scope and meaning. Second, the claim as properly construed must be compared to the accused device or process." Carroll Touch, Inc. v. Electro Mech. Sys., Inc., 15 F.3d 1573, 1576 (Fed. Cir. 1993). "In order for a court to find infringement, the plaintiff must show the presence of every element or its substantial equivalent in the accused device." Wolverine World Wide, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 38 F.3d 1192, 1199 (Fed. Cir. 1994).

  The first step, then, is to construe any disputed claim terms. In a patent infringement case that is to be tried to a jury, it is the court's task to construe the claims of the patent. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 388-91 (1996); see also Apex Inc. v. Raritan Computer, Inc., 325 F.3d 1364, 1370 (Fed. Cir.) ("claim construction . . . is a question of law"), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1073 (2003). In determining the meaning of disputed terms, the court should look first to the language of the claims themselves. Bell & Howell Document Mgmt. Prod. Co. v. Altek Sys., 132 F.3d 701, 705 (Fed. Cir. 1997); Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996). There is a "strong presumption" that the words of the claims should be given their ordinary and customary meaning as understood by one of ordinary skill in the art, unless the patent or its file history makes clear that a particular special definition is intended. Apex, 325 F.3d at 1371; K-2 Corp. v. Salomon S.A., 191 F.3d 1356, 1362-63 (Fed. Cir. 1999); Multiform Desiccants, Inc. v. Medzam, Ltd., 133 F.3d 1473, 1477 (Fed. Cir. 1998); Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582; Hoechst Celanese Corp. v. BP Chems. Ltd., 78 F.3d 1575, 1578 (Fed. Cir.), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 911 (1996). "Additionally, dictionary definitions may be consulted in establishing a claim term's ordinary meaning." Apex, 325 F.3d at 1371.

  "[S]econd, it is always necessary to review the specification to determine whether the inventor has used any terms in a manner inconsistent with their ordinary meaning. The specification acts as a dictionary when it expressly defines terms used in the claims or when it defines terms by implication." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582; Markman, 52 F.3d at 979. Because the specification contains a written description of the invention which must be clear and complete enough to enable those of ordinary skill in the art to practice the invention, the specification "is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582.

  "Third, the court may also consider the prosecution history of the patent, if in evidence." Id. The Federal Circuit has described the prosecution history as "often of critical significance in determining the ...


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