United States District Court, N.D. New York
BRIGGS & STRATTON CORP. and BRIGGS & STRATTON POWER PRODUCTS GROUP, LLC, Plaintiffs,
CHONGQING RATO POWER CO., LTD.; RATO NORTH AMERICA; and DENVER GLOBAL PRODUCTS, INC., Defendants.
LAWRE E. KAHN, District Judge.
Before the Court are Defendants Chongqing Rato Power Co. Ltd., Rato North America, and Denver Global Products, Inc.'s (collectively, "Defendants") Motions for summary judgment, as well as both parties' claim construction Briefs. Dkt. Nos. 82 ("Defendants' '678 Motion"); 82-1 ("Defendants' '678 Memorandum"); 83 ("Defendants' '746 Motion"); 83-1 ("Defendants' '746 Memorandum"); 91 ("Plaintiffs' CC Brief'); 94 ("Defendants' CC Brief'); 95 ("Defendants' Indefiniteness Motion"); 95-1 ("Defendants' Indefiniteness Memorandum"). Plaintiffs Briggs & Stratton Corp. and Briggs & Stratton Power Products Group, LLC (collectively, "Plaintiffs") have responded to each Motion, and Defendants have replied. Dkt. Nos. 92 ("Plaintiffs' '678 Response"); 93 ("Plaintiffs' '746 Response"); 98 ("Defendants' '678 Reply"); 99 ("Defendants' '746 Reply"); 102 ("Plaintiffs' Indefiniteness Response"); 105 ("Defendants' Indefiniteness Reply"). The Court further permitted Plaintiffs to file a combined Sur-Reply Memorandum addressing both the '678 and '746 Motions. Dkt. Nos. 101-1 ("Plaintiffs' Sur-Reply"); 103. Additionally, each side has submitted a rebuttal to the other's CC Brief. Dkt. Nos. 106 ("Plaintiffs' CC Rebuttal"); 107 ("Defendants' CC Rebuttal"). For the following reasons, the Court grants Defendants' '678 Motion, and denies their '746 and Indefiniteness Motions.
At issue in this case is whether Defendants' production and sale of a multi-purpose vehicle known as the RAVEN infringes on two of Plaintiffs' patents, U.S. Patent Nos. 6, 510, 678 (the "'678 patent") and 7, 107, 746 (the '746 patent"). The '678 patent refers to a suspension system employing a "load compensation adjuster."678 patent col. 2:45-50. According to the specification, the '678 patent primarily strives to solve the problem of full compression of the suspension's weight-bearing spring, which causes discomfort to the rider and can reduce the life of the suspension's spring due to "coil bind." Id . col. 2:31-40. Claim 34 of the '678 patent further defines a method for constructing a mower that contains the claimed independent suspension. Id . col. 11:22-12:6. The '746 patent refers to the overall design of a mower implementing the independent suspension that Plaintiffs claim also appears in the RAVEN. See generally '746 patent.
Plaintiffs filed this action and moved for a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from manufacturing or selling the RAVEN unit. Dkt. Nos. 1 ("Complaint"); 27 ("PI Motion"). In their PI Motion, Plaintiffs alleged that they were likely to succeed in showing that the RAVEN infringed one claim, Claim 39, from the '678 patent and another, Claim 6, from the '746 patent, and that they were facing irreparable harm. Dkt. No. 27-1 ("PI Memorandum") at 10-24. The Court found that Defendants were likely to show that Claim 39 was invalid, and therefore Plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on the merits of that claim. Dkt. No. 70 ("PI Order") at 10-25. But, although the Court disagreed with Plaintiffs' construction of "central longitudinal beam, " it nevertheless found that Plaintiffs had raised a sufficiently serious question going to the merits of their claim that the RAVEN infringed Claim 6 of the '746 patent. Id. at 25-33. However, the Court declined to grant preliminary injunctive relief because Plaintiffs had not shown irreparable harm. Id. at 37-42. Following discovery, both parties filed their CC Briefs, and Defendants simultaneously moved for summary judgment.
III. CLAIM CONSTRUCTION
The construction and interpretation of patent claims is an issue of law for courts to decide. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 390 (1996). Although some summary judgment motions may be appropriate for decision without a full and complete construction of the claims at issue, see Vivid Techs., Inc. v. Am. Science & Eng'g, Inc., 200 F.3d 795, 803 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (holding that construction need only be completed "to the extent necessary to resolve the controversy"); Peter S. Menell, et al., Patent Claim Construction: A Modern Synthesis and Structured Framework, 25 BERK. TECH. L.J. 711, 806-13 (2010) (suggesting that some obviousness motions may be decided without claim construction), courts often simultaneously undertake a complete claim construction and decide summary judgment motions, see, e.g., V-Formation, Inc. v. Benetton Grp. SpA, 401 F.3d 1307, 1310 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (affirming as proper district court's simultaneous claim construction and grant of summary judgment). Because the majority of Defendants' Motions rely on either the construction of certain claims or the scope of the patent, the Court shall first construe the disputed claims outlined in the parties' Joint Claim Construction Statement. Dkt. No. 81 ("JCCS").
A. Legal Standard
The Federal Circuit has set forth a framework for claim construction. See generally Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005). Courts should first determine if the terms of a claim would have "ordinary and customary meaning' to "a person of ordinary skill in the art." Id. at 1312-13 (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). In cases where a claim's "ordinary and customary meaning" is apparent, courts should credit that meaning except where the inventor's own lexicography elsewhere in the patent contradicts that customary meaning; in such circumstances, the inventor's definition controls. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1316.
Where one of ordinary skill in the art would not find a clear meaning in the claim terms alone, courts should turn to intrinsic and extrinsic evidence. Id. at 1317-19. Intrinsic evidence consists of the parts of the patent file itself-the specification, the other claims, and the prosecution history-and carries more weight in determining the meaning of uncertain claim terms. Id. at 1317. Extrinsic evidence includes expert testimony, dictionaries, and technical treatises and should be granted less weight than intrinsic evidence. Id. at 1318-19. There is no order or structure for considering these types of evidence; courts simply must grant appropriate weight to each piece of evidence in view of the overall construction of a claim. Id. at 1324.
In cases where a claim term simply cannot be construed by a person of ordinary skill in the art, that claim is considered to be indefinite. Previously, the standard for showing indefiniteness was whether the term was "not amenable to construction" or was "insolubly ambiguous." Datamize, LLC v. Plumtree Software, Inc., 417 F.3d 1342, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2005). However, Supreme Court recently revised the standard for indefiniteness to whether a claim "infonn[s] those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty." Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instrs., Inc., Case No. 13-369, slip op. at 11-12 (2014) ("To tolerate imprecision just short of that rendering a claim insolubly ambiguous' would diminish the definiteness requirement's publicnotice function and foster the innovation-discouraging zone of uncertainty."). Additionally, because indefiniteness is a form of invalidity, the burden is on the defendant to prove that the claim is indefinite by clear and convincing evidence. Eli Lilly & Co. v. Barr Labs., Inc., 251 F.3d 955, 962 (Fed. Cir. 2001).
B. Person of Ordinary Skill in the Art
The Court previously found that the parties were in agreement that a person of ordinary skill in the art in question would have at least a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, as well as experience in the design or analysis of dynamic systems. PI Order at 7. The parties' experts have revised their definitions of a person with ordinary skill in the art; they agree that such a person would have experience in the design or development of suspension systems. See, e.g., Dkt. No. 84 ("Radcliffe Declaration") ¶ 19. However, they disagree on whether or not a person of ordinary skill in the art need also have experience in the design and development of lawnmowers. Id . ¶ 20; Dkt. No. 92-2 ("Hicks Declaration") ¶ 24. Plaintiff's expert, Mr. Timothy M. Hicks ("Hicks") states, in support of his definition, that experience with lawnmowers is important in that the essential mower function' is cutting grass to a uniform height, '" and therefore particular attention must be paid to preserving that function in light of the tendency of a vehicle with suspension to "pitch and roll as it passes over bumps." Id . (quoting '678 patent). To the extent this dispute is meaningful in claim construction, the parties do not argue it in their CC Briefs. See generally Pls.' CC Br.; Defs.' CC Br. Accordingly, the Court makes no judgment at this time regarding whether a person of ordinary skill in the art would need to have experience in the design of lawnmowers.
1. '678 patent
The parties disagree on the construction of seven relevant terms in the '678 patent. These terms appear in Claim 34, an independent claim from which all other putatively infringed claims depend. Claim 34 reads:
A method for assembling a mower, the method comprising:
providing a main frame with a cutter deck and at least one rotatable cutter in the cutter deck;
placing two wheels on opposite sides of the main frame;
coupling each wheel to the main frame with a respective independent suspension, each independent suspension having a spring and a load compensation adjuster, wherein each independent suspension and wheel is movable vertically up and down relative to the main frame, respectively against and with force exerted by the spring and by the load compensation adjuster when compressed, independently of movement of the other wheel;
positioning the spring of each independent suspension to bias a respective wheel of the two wheels in a downward direction, the spring having a range of compression between uncompressed and fully compressed states;
positioning the load compensation adjuster of each independent suspension in a location inside a respective spring of the independent suspension, the load compensation adjuster having a range of compression;
preventing full compression of the spring with the load compensation adjuster;
placing two additional wheels on opposite sides of the main frame;
coupling each additional wheel to the main frame; and
coupling the cutter deck to the main frame.
'678 patent col. 11:22-12:6.
a. "load compensation adjuster"
Central to the scope and effect of the '678 patent as a whole is the definition of "load compensation adjuster, " a mechanism present in the independent suspension. As a preliminary matter, the parties agree that the "load compensation adjuster" has no customary or usual meaning to a person of ordinary skill in the art. See Defs.' CC Br. at 2. As a result, the Court must examine and weigh the intrinsic and extrinsic evidence.
Plaintiffs assert that a plain-English reading of "load compensation adjuster" suggests that the mechanism "is adjustable to compensate for loads of differing weights." Pls.' CC Br. at 12. The Court reads this phrase differently. Plaintiffs' textual interpretation would make sense if the mechanism were dubbed an "adjustable load compensator." A more natural reading, however, leads to the definition that a "load compensation adjuster" is a part of the system that adjusts the way the system compensates for loads of differing weights. The '678 patent's specification supports this reading.
The specification puts into context what a "load compensation adjuster" is in view of the entire suspension:
A load compensation adjuster is employed as part of the rear wheel suspension system that compensates for riders having significantly differing weights, as well as for weight changes occurring during the mowing operation, such as from grass clippings accumulating in a grass catcher bag.
'678 patent col. 2:46-50. The description makes clear that the rear wheel suspension system as a whole-not the load compensation adjuster itself, per se-is what compensates for riders of differing weights. Rather, consistent with the lay-English meaning of "load compensation adjuster, " the role of the load compensation adjuster is to adjust the way that the suspension compensates for differing loads. Cf. Hicks Decl. ¶ 38; '678 patent col. 2:31-40. The specification's descriptions of Figures 14-16 further state that the role of the embodiments is "load compensation adjustment, " not simply load compensation.
All embodiments listed in the specification are fully consistent with this definition. The identified embodiments include an "Overload Spring 100, " a "Shock Absorber 102, " an "Air Shock 104, " and an "Airbag 106." Id . cols. 6:40-49; 7:9-11; 7:14-15; 7:24-25. Each of these embodiments adjusts the way that the suspension's main weight-bearing spring compensates for different weights-i.e., the amount of tension created in the spring-slightly differently. The preferred embodiment, the Overload Spring 100, is an inch shorter than the main suspension spring 72 such that "spring 72 [may] operate at its existing rate, but when spring 72 is compressed more than one inch, overload spring 100 begins to help carry the extra weight." Id . col. 6:46-49. Shock Absorber 102, Air Shock 104, and Airbag 106 provide essentially similar functionality in that they adjust the tension in the spring in at least some levels of compression.
Plaintiffs maintain, however, that because each load compensation adjuster is itself adjustable, that functionality is vital and should be read into the term's construction. Pls.' CC Br. at 12-13; Pls.' CC Rebuttal at 10. Not only is this assertion contrary to the plain-English meaning of "adjuster, " it also lacks any basis in the claim language and the specification. An adjuster, by definition, adjusts; that an object adjusts provides no context for whether it may also be adjusted. Furthermore, Overload Spring 100-which alone is the preferred embodiment of a load compensation adjuster-is not itself adjustable. Hicks explains that Nut 98 may be tightened or loosened to adjust the tension in Overload Spring 100. Hicks Decl. 14. However, the patent language does not claim that Nut 98 is part of the load compensation adjuster, and its stated purpose is to pre-compress Spring 72, not Overload Spring 100. See '678 patent col. 6:19-29. Indeed, for the purposes of the patent, Nut 98 need not be adjustable. See id. ("Nut 98 is preferably adjustable so that the amount of pre-compression can be changed when required." (emphasis added)). "[A] claim interpretation that excludes a preferred embodiment from the scope of the claim is rarely, if ever, correct." Accent Packaging, Inc. v. Leggett & Platt, Inc., 707 F.3d 1318, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2013). Accordingly, the Court will not read adjustability into the claim construction.
Defendants claim that a load compensation adjuster should "carry part of the weight placed on the main frame." Defs.' CC Br. at 2. However, that construction is inaccurate. The preferred embodiment, the Overload Spring 100, only carries weight when the main suspension spring is compressed more than one inch. '678 patent col. 6:46-49. Again, because "[a] claim construction that excludes the preferred embodiment is rarely, if ever, correct and would require highly persuasive evidentiary support, " Adams Respiratory Therapeutics, Inc. v. Perrigo Co., 616 F.3d 1283, 1290 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1583-84 (Fed. Cir. 1996)), and Defendants have provided no such support, the Court rejects the proposed definition.
Finally, Defendants argue that "load compensation adjuster" is indefinite. Defs.' CC Br. at 5-6. As basis, Defendants argue that a hydraulic shock absorber, such as Shock Absorber 102, never "carries part of the weight" and therefore does not fit the description. To the extent Defendants argue that the load compensation adjuster must always carry some of the weight, the Court has shown above that the position is misguided. To the extent Defendants wish to impose a restriction that the load compensation adjuster must sometimes carry part of the weight, they overgeneralize the description of what one embodiment of a load compensation adjuster, the Overload Spring 100, does. '678 patent col. 6:48-49. Meanwhile, all embodiments perform a common function, adjusting the tension in the spring at some levels of compression, that is consistent with the plain-English meaning of "load compensation adjuster" and the stated aim of the load compensation adjuster in the specification. Defendants have not, therefore, satisfied their burden to show invalidity for indefiniteness.
Accordingly, the Court construes "load compensation adjuster" to mean "a component of the suspension that adjusts the tension in the suspension spring that compensates for different loads at some or all levels of compression."
b. "each independent suspension and wheel is movable vertically up and down relative to the main frame, respectively against and with force exerted by the spring and by the load compensation adjuster when compressed."
The parties disagree on the interpretation of the second half of this phrase. Plaintiffs argue that "force" refers to the combined force of the load compensation adjuster and the suspension spring as a system on the wheel. Pls.' CC Br. at 14-15. Defendants interpret "force" to refer to each of the individual forces exerted by both the spring and the load compensation adjuster on the wheel. Defs.' CC Br. at 6-7.
The parties dispute the plain-English meaning of the claim language. Defendants assert that, if the inventor had meant a combined force, the claim would read, in relevant part, "force exerted by the spring and the load compensation adjuster when compressed." Defs.' Br. at 6. Plaintiffs assert that a combined force is implied by the use of a singular "force, " rather than "forces." Pls.' CC Br. at 14-15. The language leans in favor of Defendants' interpretation. The use of the singular "force" would be proper sentence construction if each of the spring and the load compensation adjuster exerted one relevant force. As Defendants point out, the use of the second "by" refers "force" to each of the spring and the load compensation adjuster individually.
However, Plaintiffs' reading is more consistent with the specification. While Plaintiffs' reading of the claim would include all embodiments listed in the specification, Defendants' reading would exclude the hydraulic shock absorber. This is because a shock absorber always exerts a force that is counter to motion. So, while the shock absorber and spring would both exert a downward force on the wheel as it moves upward, the shock absorber and the spring would exert an upward and a downward force on the wheel, respectively, as the wheel moves ...