Rothman v. Target Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2009)
A New Jersey jury found Rothman's patent invalid, not infringed, and unenforceable due to inequitable conduct. (Pat No. 6,855,029). On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed the inequitable conduct holding, but otherwise affirmed.
Obviousness: The asserted patent covers a breastfeeding shirt that includes a concealed, but fully supportive nursing bra. The original prototype was built by Ms. Rothman by sewing a Jockey brand tank-top together with an Olga brand nursing bra and some additional fabric. Thus, here we have a situation where the inventor took off the shelf items and took a few hours (a day into the night) to form them into a new combination. The appellate panel recognized that the particular manner in which an invention is actually made does not negate patentability. However, the appellate panel did see the simple inventive process as evidence of "the predictability and expectations in this field of art." Based on these facts, the court could find no reason to disturb the obviousness holding since a PHOSITA "would have been motivated to combine an existing tank top with an existing nursing bra to arrive at the claimed invention."
Inequitable Conduct: The Federal Circuit reversed the jury's finding of inequitable conduct. One point of interest involved the patent attorney argument that "nursing garments are highly specialized … as distinguished from maternity garments, [and] are not analogous prior art to women's garments in general…. Therefore, it is improper to combine a prior art reference from nursing garments with a prior art reference from garments generally, with no connection to nursing garments." It turned out that the patent attorney had no prior experience in nursing garment technology and did not consult any industry experts before making his claims regarding the 'highly specialized' nature of the art and the impropriety of combining prior art.
The Federal Circuit no problem with these attorney statements:
While the law prohibits genuine misrepresentations of material fact, a prosecuting attorney is free to present argument in favor of patentability without fear of committing inequitable conduct. . . . This court has little basis to find deceptive intent in the routine back and forth between examiner and applicant. Moreover, this court recognizes that the Patent Act gives the examiner the discretion to reject or accept an applicant's arguments based on the examiner's own conclusions regarding the prosecution record.
[The attorney's] remarks show an effort to persuade that does not even approach an effort to deceive the PTO or abuse the prosecution process. …
Appellees find fault with the final sentence from the excerpt above. However, [the attorney's] conclusion that it is "improper to combine a prior art reference from nursing garments with a prior art reference from garments generally, with no connection to nursing garments" is nothing more than attorney argument based on the foregoing facts … [derived] from his analysis that nursing garments are different from regular women's wear. … In any event, this type of conclusory analysis betrays no intent to deceive the PTO and obtain a patent with objectively false information. Rather, it is an attempt to characterize the prior art in a manner favorable to the attorney's client—far from deception. No reasonable jury could rely on Mr. Jacobson's statements as clear and convincing proof of inequitable conduct.
Attorneys should take this decision with a grain of salt based on the fact that Judge Rader authored the opinion and Judge Friedman was on the panel. Judge Rader is well known for his opinion that inequitable conduct is too liberally adjudged.