Praxair v. ATMI (Fed. Cir. 2008)
Praxair's patents cover pressurized storage containers for potentially hazardous gasses. The patents teach safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental rapid discharge. Of the three patents asserted against ATMI, the Delaware district court found two unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during prosecution. The asserted claims of the third patent were held invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. §112¶2. On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed-in-part.
Inequitable Conduct: Each patent applicant has a duty to act with "candor, good faith, and honesty" when prosecuting patent applications. Material breach of this duty can result in any resulting patents being held unenforceable due to inequitable conduct. Proof of inequitable conduct has been divided into two parts – requiring "clear and convincing evidence that the applicant (1) made an affirmative misrepresentation of material fact, failed to disclose material information, or submitted false material information, and (2) intended to deceive the [PTO]." Quoting Cargill v. Canbra Foods, Ltd., 476 F.3d 1359 (Fed. Cir. 2007).
Direct evidence is rarely available to prove intent to deceive the PTO when the patent applicant is accused of withholding material information. Rather, the intent element is typically inferred by the proof that the material withheld was highly material; that the applicant knew (or should have known) of the materiality; and that the applicant has no credible excuse for withholding information.
Highly Material Based on Statements in Prosecution: Looking at Praxair's '115 patent, the court did not see the withheld prior art as highly material on its own. However, the reference became highly material based on Praxair's statements during prosecution. Specifically, the reference became highly material when Praxair told the PTO that the prior art does not teach the elements found in the withheld art. Testimony of the inventors proved that they knew that those elements were, in fact, in the prior art.
Because those same prosecution statements were not submitted during prosecution of Praxair's '609 patent, the Federal Circuit held that the withheld references could not be considered highly materiality.
"At the time the four statements discussed were made during the prosecution of the '115 patent, there had already been a notice of allowability indicating that all claims of the '609 patent would be issued. ATMI has not established, or even asserted, that the statements in the prosecution of the '115 patent somehow infected the prosecution of the '609 patent. Absent the four statements, the district court did not make any finding of intent with respect to the withholding of RFO art during the prosecution of the '609 patent."
Thus, the Federal Circuit affirmed the unenforceability holding as to the '115 patent, but reversed as to the '609 patent. On remand, the lower court will reconsider infringement of the '609 patent based on a claim construction error.
"Indefiniteness is a matter of claim construction, and the same principles that generally govern claim construction are applicable to determining whether allegedly indefinite claim language is subject to construction. Datamize, LLC v. Plumtree Software, Inc., 417 F.3d 1342, 1348 (Fed. Cir. 2005). Indefiniteness, like claim construction, is a question of law, and we review a district court's entry of summary judgment on the issue of indefiniteness de novo."
Claims are generally only found indefinite if they are "insolubly ambiguous, and no narrowing construction can properly be adopted." Here, the district court found the claim term "port body" of the third patent to be indefinite because it was "not described, labeled, or coherently discussed in the patent." On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit reversed that finding – holding instead that the patent's specification was adequate although not eloquent.
"Although the discussion of the port body in the '895 patent's specification may not be a model of clarity, the specification adequately explains that the port body is a housing that sealingly engages the outlet of the cylinder and defines the fluid discharge path."
Extrinsic evidence: As with claim construction, the use of extrinsic evidence in determining definiteness is only secondary if applicable at all. In this case, the patentee's expert was unable to point to any specific portion of the structure that could be considered the "port body." On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that factual element as lacking impact on the legal question of indefiniteness.
"Even if we were to agree that Dr. Fronczak was unable to reach a single consistent construction of the port body, such extrinsic evidence would not prove the '895 patent invalid, since indefiniteness is a legal rather than a factual question."
Indefiniteness holding reversed.
Dissenting in part, Judge Lourie saw no inequitable conduct with either patent. In particular, Judge Lourie noted that the evidence of intent to deceive the PTO was quite weak.
"While a smoking gun may not be needed to show an intent to deceive, more is needed than materiality of a reference. The district court did not find anything further here. In addition, the court did not engage in any balancing of materiality and intent as is required by our precedent."