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Capstan AG Systems, Inc. v. Raven Industries, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

February 20, 2018

CAPSTAN AG SYSTEMS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
RAVEN INDUSTRIES, INC. and CNH INDUSTRIAL AMERICA, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DANIEL D. CRABTREE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a patent infringement case involving precision agricultural spraying technology. Plaintiff Capstan AG Systems, Inc. filed this lawsuit, alleging that defendants Raven Industries, Inc. and CNH Industrial America, LLC have infringed on two of plaintiff's patents. The two patents-U.S. Patent Numbers 8, 191, 795 (“the '795 patent”) and 8, 523, 085 (“the '085 patent”)-cover plaintiff's PinPoint® agricultural spraying technology.

         This matter comes before the court on the parties' request that the court construe six terms in the '795 and '085 patents as a matter of law under Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995), aff'd, 517 U.S. 370 (1996). The parties each have submitted claim construction briefs urging the court to adopt their proposed constructions of the six disputed terms in the '795 and '085 patents. Doc. 63-1 (defendants' Opening Claim Construction Brief); Doc. 64-3 (plaintiff's Opening Claim Construction Brief). The parties also have responded to each other's claim construction briefs. Doc. 72 (plaintiff's Responsive Markman Brief); Doc. 73 (defendants' Responsive Claim Construction Brief). The court has considered the information submitted in the parties' briefs and responses as well as the oral arguments presented at the Markman hearing on November 15, 2017, and construes the six disputed terms in the fashion explained below.

         I. Legal Standard

         A patent must describe the “exact scope of an invention” so that the patentee secures his or her right to “‘all to which he [or she] is entitled'” and informs “‘the public of what is still open to them.'” Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 373 (1996) (quoting McClain v. Ortmayer, 141 U.S. 419, 424 (1891)). To achieve these objectives, a patent document contains two distinct elements: (1) a specification which “describ[es] the invention ‘in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person skilled in the art . . . to make and use the same;'” and (2) one or more claims which “‘particularly poin[t] out and distinctly clai[m] the subject matter which the applicant regards as his [or her] invention.'” Id. (quoting 35 U.S.C. § 112 (further citations omitted)).

         A patent's claims define the invention. Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005). “A claim covers and secures a process, a machine, a manufacture, a composition of matter, or a design, but never the function or result of either, nor the scientific explanation of their operation.” Markman, 517 U.S. at 373 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The claims serve “to forbid not only exact copies of an invention, but [also] products that go to the heart of an invention but avoid[ ] the literal language of the claim by making a noncritical change.” Id. at 373-74 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In a patent infringement case, the court must determine whether the patent claims cover the alleged infringer's product. Id. at 374 (citation omitted). To do so, the court must decide what the words in the claim mean. Id. (citation omitted); see also Bushnell, Inc. v. Brunton Co., 673 F.Supp.2d 1241, 1250 (D. Kan. 2009) (explaining that “[p]roof of infringement requires construction of the patent claims to determine their scope and comparison of the construed claims to the accused device.” (citing Elbex Video, Ltd. v. Sensormatic Elecs. Corp., 508 F.3d 1366, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (further citations omitted))).

         The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals established guiding principles for claim construction in Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005). Claim construction begins by considering the language of the claims themselves. Id. at 1312 (citing Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (further citations omitted)). When constructing claim terms, the court generally should give terms their ordinary and customary meaning. Id. (citation omitted). That 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.” Id. at 1313 (citations omitted). The claims themselves provide “substantial guidance” for determining “the meaning of particular claim terms.” Id. at 1314. Both “the context in which a term is used in the asserted claim” and the “[o]ther claims of the patent in question” also help the court determine the ordinary meaning of a term. Id.

         The patent's claims, however, “do not stand alone.” Id. at 1315. Instead, the claims “are part of a fully integrated written instrument consisting principally of a specification that concludes with the claims.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, the court must read the claims “in view of the specification, of which they are a part.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The Federal Circuit has described the specification as “the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term, ” and “[u]sually it is dispositive.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         The specification may contain “a special definition given to a claim term by the patentee that differs from the meaning it would otherwise possess.” Id. at 1316. When this occurs, the patentee's definition controls. Id. Alternatively, the specification “may reveal an intentional disclaimer, or disavowal, of claim scope by the inventor.” Id. When this occurs, the patentee “has dictated the correct claim scope, and [his or her] intention, as expressed in the specification, is regarded as dispositive.” Id. (citation omitted). But the Federal Circuit has “expressly rejected the contention that if a patent describes only a single embodiment, the claims of the patent must be construed as being limited to that embodiment.” Id. at 1323. In the end, the court must construe the claim in a way that “‘stays true to the claim language and most naturally aligns with the patent's description of the invention.'” Id. at 1316 (quoting Renishaw PLC v. Marposs Societa' per Azioni, 158 F.3d 1243, 1250 (Fed. Cir. 1998)).

         The court “should also consider the patent's prosecution history, if it is in evidence.” Id. at 1317 (citation and internal quotation omitted). The prosecution history is considered “intrinsic evidence” and it includes “the complete record of the proceedings before the [Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”)] and includes the prior art cited during the examination of the patent.” Id. (citation omitted). Like the specification, the prosecution history helps demonstrate how the inventor understood the patent during the process of explaining and securing the patent. Id. But “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. Still, the prosecution history may enhance the meaning of the claim language by showing how the patentee understood the invention and whether the patentee limited the claim language during the prosecution, thereby narrowing the scope of the claim. Id. (citations omitted).

         Last, the court may rely on extrinsic evidence when construing the claims. Id. (citation omitted). Extrinsic evidence includes “all evidence external to the patent and prosecution history, including expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Dictionaries and treatises can provide useful tools to help a court determine the meaning of a term to those skilled in the art in question. Id. at 1318. But the Federal Circuit has cautioned that extrinsic evidence is less reliable than the patent and prosecution history. Id. It is useful only if considered in the context of the intrinsic evidence. Id. at 1319. The court thus has discretion to admit and use extrinsic evidence but “should keep in mind the flaws inherent in each type of evidence and assess that evidence accordingly.” Id.

         II. Analysis

         The parties ask the court to construe the following six terms, phrases, or clauses from the '795 and '085 patents: (1) “overall application rate, ” (2) “flow related individual control value, ” (3) “flow factor, ” (4) “a controller in communication with each of the valves, ” (5) “corporate duty cycle percentage, ” and (6) “normalized duty cycle percentage.”[1]

         The disputed terms appear in Claims 1-6, 8-9, 12-14, 16-17, and 34-35 of the '795 patent and Claims 1-4, 6, 8, 12, 14-16, and 19 of the '085 patent . Doc. 69-1 at 27-28 ('795 patent); Doc. 69-3 at 26-27 ('085 patent). The technology disclosed in the two patents- described generally-is a system for spraying liquid agrochemical products (such as fertilizers and pesticides) on an agricultural field. The system sprays the agrochemical using a series of valves or nozzles positioned along a boom attached to a commercial farming vehicle. The technology disclosed in the two patents allows agrochemical-application rates to vary “across the width of the [spraying] system in response to one or more conditions or parameters that may exist in the field.” Doc. 69-1 at 18 ('795 patent, col. 1 ll. 59-62); Doc 69-3 at 17 ('085 patent, col. 1 ll. 64-66). For example, as a tractor carrying a spraying system turns corners in a field, the nozzles on the outside of the system speed up, while the nozzles closer to the tractor slow down. To maintain even coverage of the agrochemical being applied, the flow rate of the outer nozzles must increase, while the flow rate of the inner nozzles must decrease. The technology described in the patents allows the user to adjust the spray rate for each nozzle to compensate for this phenomenon, while controlling the amount of product dispensed from the spraying system as a whole.

         The first of plaintiff's asserted patents to issue was the '795 patent. The '085 patent is a “continuation” of the '795 patent, meaning that it issued from the same original patent application. So, the written description portions of the two patents are nearly identical. The differences between the two patents are found in the patents' claims.

         The independent claims of the '795 patent and the '085 patent are similar. They both recite a sprayer system with a controller, individual control values, individual nozzle control, and a flow factor based on the individual control values. The patents' dependent claims recite specific, narrower embodiments of the inventions, including recitations of specific types of individual control values for use with specific field conditions.

         The parties have identified two important differences between the claims of the two patents. First, the '795 patent's independent claims recite a specific algorithm for determining the “flow factor.” The '795 patent requires the “flow factor” to be calculated by: (1) multiplying all of the individual control values together to create a multiplied value for each valve, and (2) dividing each resulting multiplied value by an average of all the multiplied values. The '085 patent's claims contain no such restriction. Second, the independent claims of the '085 patent require that the system maintain an “overall application rate.” This limitation is not in the independent claims of the '795 patent, but it appears in one dependent claim.

         The court now turns to address the six disputed claim terms. This discussion, below, begins by providing the parties' proposed constructions in table format. The court then explains the parties' reasoning for their proposed constructions in the accompanying text. And last, the court determines the appropriate construction, applying the guiding principles recited by Part I of this Order.

         A. “overall application rate”

Term

Plaintiff's Construction

Defendants' Construction

overall application rate

Volume of liquid agricultural product applied per area of land

The measured total volume of liquid emitted from all of the valves in the system per unit of time (measured in volume per time)

         The parties' dispute about this term questions whether the claim's application rate is measured in volume per area or volume per time. Plaintiff asserts the court should construe this claim as one that measures volume per area while defendants argue that the claim properly is construed as measuring volume per time.

         Plaintiff relies on three things to support its argument. First, plaintiff asserts that the specification's language supports its construction. Plaintiff contends that the specification explains that “the flow of the system is independently controlled for parameters such as application rate (gallons/acre).” Doc. 69-1 at 18 ('795 patent, col. 1 ll. 22-24). But, as defendants explain, this passage in the specification refers to the prior art-not the disclosed invention of these patents. The “background” section of the specification begins by explaining that “[c]ommercially available independent flow and pressure control systems for dispensing agrochemicals onto fields exist and are well documented in the prior art.” Id. ('795 patent, col. 1 ll. 14-16) (emphasis added). The specification continues:

These systems utilize a plurality of solenoid actuated valves that pulse according to a on/off ratio which determines the flow from the group of nozzles at any given pressure. Therefore, the pressure of the system can be controlled for such parameters as droplet size, system flow capacity, stream dynamics, injection penetration, etc., while the flow of the system is independently controlled for such parameters as application rate (gallons/acre). These systems are commercially available for agricultural liquid applications of pest control sprays and crop nutrient systems.

Id. ('795 patent, col. 1 ll. 16-26) (emphasis added). In context, plaintiff's quoted language refers to prior art and the systems used by those earlier inventions. The language is not specific to the disclosed invention. Thus, this particular sentence does not help the court construe the disputed term.

         Plaintiff also contends that the specification explains the relationship between flow rate for the valves and overall application rate for the field-that is, the system varies flow rates (volume/time) from the valves while maintaining the overall application rate (volume/area) of the system. Plaintiff asserts that the specification describes this relationship in this fashion:

In one particular embodiment, the plurality of valves can be designed to emit an overall application rate of the liquid agricultural product based upon volume of the product per area of land. The controller can be configured to vary the rate at which the liquid agricultural product is emitted from each valve based upon changing flow factors without changing the overall application rate of the agricultural product.

Id. ('795 patent, col. 2 ll. 37-43) (emphasis added). But, as defendants correctly assert, this language describes only one particular embodiment. See Id. ('795 patent, col. 2 ll. 37 (“In one particular embodiment . . . .”). And, when a specification discloses multiple embodiments- like this one does-courts “have interpreted claims to exclude embodiments where those embodiments are inconsistent with unambiguous language in the patent's specification or prosecution history.” Sinorgchem Co., Shandong v. Int'l Trade Comm'n, 511 F.3d 1132, 1138 (Fed. Cir. 2007); see also Alloc, Inc. v. Int'l Trade Comm'n, 342 F.3d 1361, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (explaining that courts must examine “whether the specification refers to a limitation only as a part of less than all possible embodiments or whether the specification read as a whole suggests that the very character of the invention requires the limitation be a part of every embodiment.”). As explained below, the specific embodiment that plaintiff references here conflicts with other language in both the specification and the prosecution history. The other language unambiguously describes the overall application rate as something based on volume per time.

         Second, plaintiff asserts that the claim language supports its construction. Plaintiff contends that the '795 patent recites the concept of “valve flow rate” in Claim 1 and introduces “overall application rate” in Claim 2. Claim 2 reads:

2. A system as defined in claim 1, wherein the plurality of valves emit an overall application rate of the liquid agricultural product and wherein the controller is configured to vary the rate at which the liquid agricultural product is emitted from each valve based on changing flow factors without changing the overall application rate.

Id. at 27 ('795 patent, Claim 2) (emphasis added). Plaintiff asserts that the inventor combined the two concepts into a single claim in the '085 patent. Claim 1 of the '085 patent reads:

1. A system for applying liquids, the system comprising:
a plurality of individually controlled valves that are configured to emit liquid at an overall application rate based on volume per time; and
a controller in communication with each of the valves, the controller being configured to receive a plurality of flow related individual control values for each valve, the controller being further configured to determine a flow factor for each valve based on the individual control values,
wherein the controller is configured to vary the rate at which the liquid is emitted from each valve as the flow factor for each valve changes without changing the overall application rate.

Doc. 69-3 at 26 (Claim 1) ('085 patent, emphasis added). Plaintiff contends that Claim 1 of the '085 patent describes the relationship between the “valve flow rate” and the “overall application rate, ” and thus supports its proposed construction. According to plaintiff, Claim 1 shows that the “overall application rate” is based on the “valve flow rate” and that the system is configured to vary the “valve flow rate” in a way to maintain the “overall application rate.” But the plain language of the claim doesn't say that. As defendants assert, plaintiff's argument asks the court to reach its proposed construction based solely on an attorney's argument-something the court cannot do. See, e.g., Verinata Health, Inc. v. Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc., 830 F.3d 1335, 1341 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (rejecting a party's proposed interpretation of an agreement because it had presented no extrinsic evidence to support it, just attorney argument) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)); Va. Innovation Scis., Inc. v. Samsung Elec. Co., Ltd., 614 F. App'x 503, 511 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (explaining that when a court construes a patent's claim terms “attorney arguments are not relevant intrinsic or extrinsic evidence”); Phillip M. Adams & Assocs., LLC v. Dell, Inc., No. 1:05-cv-64 TS, 2008 WL 7959085, at *23 (D. Utah Sept. 29, 2008) (finding that it is “insufficient” for plaintiff to offer “only pure attorney argument” to support its proposed construction of a claim term).

         Finally, plaintiff asserts that defendants have argued to the PTO and in their Invalidity Contentions that “overall application rate” is a rate expressed in volume per unit area. So, plaintiff contends, the court should preclude defendants from making the opposite argument in their claim construction brief here. The court disagrees. Defendants may have made certain arguments in other proceedings, but those arguments are specific to those particular proceedings-not the claim construction at issue here. See Doc. 69-8 at 15 (reciting in defendants' Petition for Inter Partes Review filed with the PTO that defendants were asserting a certain construction “for purposes of this inter partes review”); see also Doc. 69-11 at 2 (asserting in defendants' Invalidity Contentions that its contentions “are not, and should not be seen as, admissions or adoptions as to any particular claim scope or claim construction”). Also, even if the court could consider defendants' arguments elsewhere as some form of extrinsic evidence supporting plaintiffs claim construction, such evidence is certainly “less reliable” than the patents and their prosecution history. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1318.

         In contrast, defendants' arguments assert that the court should adopt their proposed construction because the plain language of the claims supports it. The court agrees. Defendants assert that the claim language expresses the overall application rate as a rate based on volume per time in three separate places:

• “A system for applying liquid agricultural products to a field comprising ] a plurality of individually controlled pulse width modulated valves that are configured to emit a liquid agricultural product at a rate based on volume per time . . . .” Doc. 69-1 at 27 ('795 patent, Claim 1) (emphasis added).
• “A system for applying liquids, the system comprising [ ] a plurality of individually controlled valves that are configured to emit liquid at an overall application rate based on volume per time . . . ” Doc. 69-3 at 26 ('085 patent, Claim 1) (emphasis added).
• “. . . the plurality of valves being configured to emit liquid at an overall application rate based on volume per time” Doc. 69-3 at 26 ('085 patent, Claim 14) (emphasis added).

         Plaintiff counters, arguing that the first two examples don't apply here because they discuss valve flow rate-not overall application rate. But the claim language won't support plaintiffs reading. The first passage never explains whether it is discussing valve flow rate, overall application rate, or something else. But the second passage unambiguously states that the “values . . . are configured to emit liquid at an overall application rate based on volume per time . . . .” Doc. 69-3 at 26 ('085 patent, Claim 1) (emphasis added). Plaintiff also can't avoid the plain and unambiguous language of Claim 14 in the '085 patent. It explicitly and specifically discloses a “method for applying liquids using a plurality of individually controlled valves, the method comprising . . . an overall application rate based on volume per time.” Id. (emphasis added). If these particular claims are meant to describe valve flow rate, then the inventor could have said as much-expressly-in the claim language. But the inventor didn't. Instead, the plain language of the '085 patent expressly discloses “an overall application rate based on volume per time.” A natural and plain reading of this language conveys the idea that the “overall application rate” is something “based on volume per time” and not volume per area.

         Defendants also cite the specification to support their proposed construction. Summarizing the invention, it provides: “The plurality of individually controlled valves are configured to emit the liquid agricultural product at a rate of volume per time.” Doc. 69-1 at 18 ('795 patent, col. 2 ll. 7-10). Again, this language doesn't specify whether it refers to valve flow rate or overall application rate. But, in the'085 patent-a continuation of the '795 patent-the inventor clarified in the claim language that the “plurality of individually controlled valves” are configured to emit agrochemical “at an overall application rate based on volume per time.” Doc. 69-3 at 26 ('085 patent, Claims 1 & 14). Reading the '085 patent's claim language and the specification together supports defendants' proposed construction.

         Also, defendants assert, the patent's file history shows that the patent's applicant affirmatively adopted and communicated defendants' proposed construction to the Examiner to overcome a prior art rejection. During the application process, the applicant submitted an amendment in response to non-final PTO action. Doc. 69-4 at 108-115. It amended Claim 1 to require “a plurality of valves configured to emit liquid at an overall application rate based on volume per time.” Id. at 112.[2] As defendants note, evidence of an amendment to overcome a prior art rejection is highly significant. See Convolve, Inc. v. Compaq Computer Corp., 812 F.3d 1313, 1322-23 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“In determining the scope of the claims, we . . . pay[ ] particular attention to the examiner's focus in allowing the claims after amendment. When an amendment is made during the reexamination proceedings to overcome a prior art rejection, that is a ‘highly influential piece of prosecution history.'” (quoting Laitram Corp. v. NEC Corp., 163 F.3d 1342, 1348 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (further citation omitted))).

         Plaintiff responds to defendants' arguments supporting their proposed construction by asserting that one having ordinary skill in the art would understand that “overall application rate” means the rate at which an agrochemical is applied on a volume per acre basis-and not volume per time, as defendants assert. Plaintiff's brief provides several “real world” examples of how defendants' reading conflicts with how the technology actually works. Doc. 72 at 23-25. But these descriptions are simply attorney argument. And they aren't consistent with the plain language of the patents' claims.

         After considering the plain language of the claims, the specification, and the prosecution history, the court concludes that the intrinsic evidence supports defendants' proposed construction. The court thus adopts their construction and construes the term “overall application rate” to mean: “The measured total volume of liquid emitted from all of the valves in the system per unit of time (measured in volume per time).”

         B. “flow related individual ...


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