By Dennis Crouch
Marine Polymer Tech. v. Hemcon (Fed. Cir. 2012) (en banc)
In a fractured en banc decision, the Federal Circuit has held that statutory the intervening rights defense only arises when the text of claims are amended or new claims added during a post grant proceeding. In this case, the claim scope had been arguably changed under Phillips v. AWH based upon arguments made during a reexamination, but the text of the claims had not been amended. Following this decision, the accused infringers cannot claim intervening rights in this situation.
[T]he plain directive of the governing statute before us does not permit HemCon to invoke intervening rights against claims that the PTO confirmed on reexamination to be patentable as originally issued. To be sure, patent applicants' actions and arguments during prosecution, including prosecution in a reexamination proceeding, can affect the proper interpretation and effective scope of their claims. But in rejecting HemCon's request for intervening rights, we are not here interpreting claims. Rather, we are interpreting a statute that provides for intervening rights following reexamination only as to "amended or new" claims. The asserted claims of the '245 patent are neither.
As part of its ruling, the court noted its perspective that the PTO on reexamination is unlikely to consider a patent claim to be narrowed simply based arguments made by the patentee:
If, in reexamination, an examiner determines that particular claims are invalid and need amendment to be allowable, one would expect an examiner to require amendment rather than accept argument alone.
The doctrine of intervening rights is derived from the Patent Act, which indicates that, following a reexamination, a patentee cannot claim damages for pre-reexamination infringement if the resulting claims were in "amended form" and not "substantially identical" to the original claims. 35 U.S.C. §§ 252 and 307(b).
The dissent argued that any change to the scope of a claim during prosecution should be interpreted as an amendment and that, therefore, arguments and statements by the patentee that would result in a modified claim construction
Split Decision: Only ten of the Federal Circuit judges participated in the decision. Thus, a majority needed at least six votes. As it turns out, only a portion of the majority opinion received six votes. The entire majority opinion was written by Judge Lourie and joined by four other judges: Chief Judge Rader and Judges Newman, Bryson, and Prost. The first half of the majority opinion discussed claim construction issues and the second part discussed the intervening rights defense. Judge Linn brought the final vote for the majority, but Judge Linn only agreed to the portion of the opinion focusing on intervening rights. Judge Dyk wrote in dissent and the entire opinion was joined by Judges Gajarsa, Reyna, and Wallach. In parallel fashion, the dissent first discussed claim construction and then discussed intervening rights. Judge Linn joined the claim construction portion of the dissent but not the intervening rights portion. Thus, in the final tally, claim construction was split 5-5 and intervening rights issues was divided 6-4.