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Sudenga Industries, Inc. v. Global Industries, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

December 3, 2019

GLOBAL INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendant. Term Plaintiff's Construction Defendant's Construction Term Plaintiff's Construction Defendant's Construction Term Court's Construction


          Daniel D. Crabtree United States District Judge

         This is a patent infringement lawsuit involving agricultural bin sweep technology. Plaintiff Sudenga Industries, Inc. filed this lawsuit, alleging that defendant Global Industries, Inc. has infringed on three of its patents. The three patents-U.S. Patent Numbers 8, 616, 823 (“the ʼ823 patent”), 9, 206, 001 (“the ʼ001 patent”), and 10, 017, 338 (“the ʼ338 patent”)-cover plaintiff's agricultural bin sweep technology.

         This case comes before the court now on the parties' request that the court construe two terms in the three 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). Defendant has submitted a claim construction brief urging the court to adopt its proposed constructions of the two disputed terms in the patents. Doc. 73. Plaintiff has responded. Doc. 77. And defendant has replied. Doc. 79. The court has considered the information submitted by the parties as well as the oral arguments presented at the Markman hearing on August 30, 2019, and construes the two 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 its right to “‘all to which [the patentee] 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)). 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 [the applicant's] 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 construing claim terms, the court generally should give terms their ordinary and customary meaning. Id. (citation omitted). The “ordinary and customary meaning” 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. And 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 determine the term's ordinary meaning. 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 the specification contains a special definition, the patentee's definition controls. Id. Alternatively, the specification “may reveal an intentional disclaimer, or disavowal, of claim scope by the inventor.” Id. When the specification contains a disclaimer, the patentee “has dictated the correct claim scope, and [the patentee's] 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 illuminate 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 claim's scope. 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 as the Federal Circuit has cautioned, 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 consider 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 two terms, phrases, or clauses from the ʼ823, ʼ001, and ʼ338 patents: (1) “collector ring, ” and (2) “a pivot stand attached to a top surface of the floor grate.”

         The disputed terms appear in Claims 1-8 of the ʼ823 patent, Claims 1-11 of the ʼ001 patent, and Claims 1-23 of the ʼ338 patent. The technology disclosed in the three patents- described generally-is a system for sweeping excess grain out of grain bins. The “bin sweep” rotates around a center hole in the grain bin and uses a linear conveyor to sweep the excess grain ...

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