Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Alloc, Inc. v. Pergo, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

July 2, 2009

ALLOC, INC., a Delaware corporation, BERRY FINANCE N.V., a Belgian corporation, and VÄLINGE INNOVATION AB (f/k/a VÄLINGE ALUMINUM AB), a Swedish corporation, Plaintiffs-Counterclaim Defendants,
v.
PERGO, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, Defendant-Counterclaimant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          RUDOLPH T. RANDA, CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This patent infringement action is before the Court for the construction of disputed claim terms in the asserted claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 5, 860, 267 (the '267 patent), 6, 023, 907 (the '907 patent), 6, 182, 410 (the '410 patent), 6, 516, 579 (the'579 patent), and U.S. Reissued Patent No. 39, 439 (the RE '439 patent) (collectively the "patents-in-suit").[1] The parties briefed the terms and, on February 17, 2009, filed a joint comparison chart of the disputed claim terms.

         On April 3, 2009, the Court conducted a hearing regarding the parties' proposed constructions of the terms: (1) "locking means" in claims 1, 13, 14, 26, and 27 of the '410 patent, and "first locking means" and "second locking means" in claims 1, 10, 27, and 31 of the '267 patent; and, (2) "means for mechanically locking" in claims 39[2] and 50 of the '410 patent, and "means on the first edge and the second edge for forming a first mechanical connection locking the first and second edges together in a first direction at right angles to a principal plane of the panels" in claim 1 of the '579 patent. Thereafter, the parties submitted memorandum discussing the impact, if any, of ICU Medical, Inc. v. Alaris Medical, Inc., 558 F.3d 1368, 1374-1376 (Fed. Cir. 2009) on the claim construction issues in this action. At this juncture, having carefully considered the submissions of the parties, the patents-in-suit, and the applicable law, the Court issues its claim construction decision.

         Background

         Some background information provides essential context for the claim construction issues. The patents-in-suit are related to locking systems for panels that can be joined by a mechanical lock, without the use of glue, and the methods by which such panels may be joined and installed. All five patents have the same specification and drawings and there is a significant overlap in the terminology used in the various claims.

         The '267 and '907 patents are method patents for joining building boards. The '267 patent is for the angle-slide-snap mechanical joining method. The '907 patent is for the angle-slide-angle mechanical joining method. The '410, '579, and RE '439 patents are on systems for joining building boards. The '410 patent is generally directed to flooring systems and/or edge locks that have a snapping connection, corresponding to the '267 angle-slide-snap method. The '579 and RE '439 patents contain claims directed to a mechanical locking system for panels with various limitations but neither patent is specific to panels that are angled or snap together.

         Plaintiff Välinge Innovation AB ("Välinge"), a Swedish corporation, is the assignee of the patents-in-suit, which are part of a patent family covering a method for assembling floor panels invented by Tony Perván ("Perván"). The five patents-in-suit have the identical specification and drawings as the Patent Cooperation Treaty ("PCT") application and claim priority to its April 29, 1994, filing date. The PCT patent was later issued as the '621 patent 2014; the United States parent patent. The '267 patent is a division of the '621 patent. The '907 patent is a continuation of the '267 patent, and the '410 patent is a continuation of the '907 patent. The '579 patent is a continuation of the '907 patent, and the RE '439 patent is a reissue of the '621 patent.

         Plaintiff Berry Finance N.V. ("Berry"), a Belgium corporation, was a licensee of Välinge, and Plaintiff Alloc, Inc. ("Alloc"), a Delaware corporation, was a sub-licensee of Berry in the United States. Välinge, Berry, and Alloc are collectively referred to as the "Plaintiffs."

         Defendant Pergo, LLC ("Pergo"), a Delaware limited liability company, formerly known as Pergo, Inc., markets, sells and distributes laminate flooring products, including the accused products, in home improvement mass merchandise stores throughout the United States, including in Wisconsin.

         Claim Construction Principles

         Claim construction is a question of law for the Court. See Nystrom v. TREX Co., 424 F.3d 1136, 1141 (Fed. Cir. 2005). The Court's construction of the claims is guided by Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312-25 (Fed. Cir. 2005), which revisited the principles of claim construction and clarified prior case law regarding the use of dictionaries in claim construction. See also, ICU Medical, Inc., 558 F.3d at 1373.

         The Court's analysis begins with the claims of the patent. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312. The words of the claims in a patent are to be given the ordinary and customary meaning that would have been attributed to them by a person of ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made. Id. at 1312-13. A person of ordinary skill in the art is deemed to have read the term in the context of the entire patent, including the claims themselves, the specification, and the prosecution history. Id. at 1313. The claims, specification, and prosecution history are referred to as intrinsic evidence. See id. at 1313-14. As recently emphasized, "not only is the written description helpful in construing claim terms, but it is also appropriate `to rely heavily on the written description for guidance as to the meaning of the claims.'" ICU Medical, Inc., 558 F.3d at 1373 (quoting Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317).

         "When multiple patents derive from the same initial application, the prosecution history regarding a claim limitation in any patent that has issued applies with equal force to subsequently issued patents that contain the same claim limitation." Elkay Mfg. Co. v. Ebco Mfg. Co., 192 F.3d 973, 980 (Fed. Cir. 1999). A statement regarding the scope of a claim in a later patent may be "relevant" to the claim construction of an earlier patent. Microsoft Corp. v. Multi-Tech Sys., Inc., 357 F.3d 1340, 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

         Extrinsic evidence is everything "external to the patent and prosecution history, including expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317. Review of technical dictionaries and treatises can be helpful to the Court in understanding the technology of the invention and can assist the Court in determining the meaning of terms to those of skill in the art of the invention. Id. at 1318. Where extrinsic evidence conflicts with the intrinsic evidence of the patent, however, the intrinsic evidence controls. Id.

         Impact of Prior Federal Circuit Alloc Decision on Claim Construction

         The parties have presented many disputed terms for construction. The Plaintiffs indicate that a primary disputed category of terms are the limitations that Pergo relies upon in contending that the Court should read play into claims where it is not recited, including locking element, locking member, locking device, first locking means, second locking means, "locking surface... configured, " and "sufficient space." (Pls.' Open Br. 8.)

         Specifically, Pergo asserts that Alloc, Inc. v. International Trade Commission, 342 F.3d 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2003), requires that eleven terms call for play. The terms are: 1) locking means; 2) locking member; 3) locking groove; 4) locking element; 5) locking strip; 6) locking device; 7) locking surface; 8) second mechanical connection; 9) means for mechanically locking; 10) one way snap lock; and, 11) displacing, displaceable, and displacement. Pergo refers to elements one through ten as the "locking components, " and to the terms of element 11 as the "displacement terms." (Pergo's Open. Br. 25-26.)

         Pergo adopts the construction of other disputed terms advanced by Unilin Décor N.V. ("Unilin"), Unilin Flooring N.C. LLC and BHK of America (collectively the "Unilin Defendants")[3] in their opening brief. (Pergo's Open. Br. 25.) Relying upon Texas Instruments Inc. v. Cypress Semiconductor Corp., 90 F.3d 1558, 1569 (Fed. Cir. 1996), Pergo asserts that the Federal Circuit's Alloc decision regarding the '267, '410, and '907 patents is stare decisis as to those three patents, and at a minimum, it is highly persuasive as to the '579 and the RE '439 patents.

         The Plaintiffs assert that Pergo erroneously relies on collateral estoppel. They also assert that Alloc's reasoning is no longer applicable because of three events not considered by the Alloc court: 1) the reexamination and re-issuance of the '621 patent as the RE '439 patent; 2) the issuance of the '579 patent in February of 2003; and, 3) the Patent Examiner ("Examiner") who handled all the patents-in-suit made it clear in March 2004, during the prosecution of Unilin's 6, 874, 292 patent (the '292 patent) that the patents-in-suit are not limited to systems with play.

         Alloc addressed an appeal from a United States International Trade Commission ("ITC") decision in a patent infringement action filed by the Plaintiffs in 2000 relative to the '267 patent, the '907 patent, and the '410 patent. See Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1365-66. In Alloc, the court construed the claims to include a "play" limitation, although none of the asserted claims recited the term "play." Id. at 1372.

         With respect to the import of Alloc on this Court's claim construction, Texas Instruments, 90 F.3d at 1568-69, reaffirmed that ITC determinations and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in appeals from ITC decisions do not have preclusive effect. However, the court rejected the contention that denial of preclusive effects to those decisions would allow them to be ignored by district courts, and stated:

District courts are not free to ignore holdings of this court that bear on cases before them. Subsequent panels of this court are similarly not free to ignore precedents set by prior panels of the court.... As a court we are bound to follow our own precedents, and, to the extent that we have previously ruled on a matter, a subsequent panel will have powerful incentives not to deviate from that prior holding, short of thoroughly justified grounds.

Id. at 1569. While the sparse language provides limited guidance, the appellate court's statement suggests that district courts should be as deferential to Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in appeals from ITC decisions as the appellate court expects its own subsequent panels to be and not deviate from the court's precedents absent "throughly justified grounds." See also, Alloc, Inc. v. Norman D. Lifton Co., No. 03 Civ. 4419 (PAC), 2007 WL 2089303, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. July 18, 2007) (holding that "the proper interpretation of Texas Instruments in the claim construction context is that a district court should afford Federal Circuit claim interpretation on appeal from the ITC a strong presumption of correctness, and deviate only where the party advancing an alternative interpretation provides compelling reasons to do so, " and stating that compelling reasons might include evidence or arguments not presented to the Circuit panel or, in the rarest of cases, plain error on the face of the Federal Circuit opinion). Thus, the Court will review the Federal Circuit's analysis in Alloc. Then, the Court will consider whether the Plaintiffs have established "throughly justified grounds, " for deviating from the Alloc precedent.

         The Alloc court began by noting that the '907 specification[4] describes "the invention" under the heading "Technical Problems and Objects of the Invention, " as "provid[ing] a system for making a joint along adjacent joint edges of two building panels, especially floor panels... said system being characterized in that... the panels, when joined together, can occupy a relative position in said second direction where a play exists between the locking groove and a locking surface on the locking element that is facing the joint edges and is operative in said second mechanical connection." Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1369 (quoting '907 patent, col. 3, ll. 59-61; col. 4, ll. 6, 15-19). The appellate court observed that the specification stated "notably, the `bjects of the invention are achieved by means of a panel-joining system having the features recited in the appended claims, '" '907 patent, col. 3, ll. 56-58, and repeated the statement, at '907 patent, col. 6, ll. 15-17. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1369. Consequently, the appeals court concluded that "the specification teaches that the invention as a whole, not merely a preferred embodiment, provides for play in the positioning of floor panels." Id.

         The Alloc court also noted that the specification teaches that play between the components of the locking joint permits displacement; i.e., allows connected panels to slide relative to one another. Id. (citing '907 patent, Figure 1). Referring to the specification's description of Figure 1, the court indicated that displacement, facilitated by play, permits assembly by snap action. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1369. Additionally, the court observed that, according to the '907 specification, play permits disassembly and reassembly of a floor previously laid without causing damage to the panels. Id. The court further stated that the '907 specification criticized prior art systems without play, teaching that displacement of the prior art panels was a "complicated operation" in systems that were tightly urged together and that disassembly and reassembly, which play facilitates, was unfeasible with those prior art systems. Id. at 1369-70. The court also observed that all the figures and embodiments in the asserted patents implied play, or as in the case of Figure 1b, expressly disclosed play. Id. at 1370. Relying on the foregoing, the court concluded that "the patents do not show or suggest any systems without play." Id. Thus, the court held that "the '907 family of patents describe only flooring systems and methods of joining these flooring systems with play between the locking groove and the locking element." Id.

         In reaching its conclusion, the court also considered the need to interpret the claims in light of the specification and yet to avoid impermissibly importing limitations into the specification. Id. The court determined that the '907 patent specification was analogous to that presented in SciMed Life Systems, Inc. v. Advanced Cardiovascular Systems, Inc., 242 F.3d 1337, 1345 (Fed. Cir. 2001), and "lead to the inescapable conclusion that the claimed invention must include play in every embodiment." Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1370. Additionally, the court distinguished Sunrace Roots Enterprise Co. v. SRAM Corp., 336 F.3d 1298, 1305 (Fed. Cir. 2003), a dispute focusing on whether the patent claims included a cam as a part of a shift activator, where the court had found that nothing in the written description indicated that the invention was exclusively directed toward cams or suggested that systems employing cams were outside the scope of the invention. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1370-71. In Sunrace, the court held that the specification as a whole did not mandate that the claimed invention include a particular feature; instead, the court found that the patentee had clearly contemplated a shift activator without a cam. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1371.

         The Alloc court also stated that although "the ['907 patent] specification alone is sufficiently clear, the prosecution history of the patent family confirms the description in the specification of each patent, namely, that play is a key feature of the claimed invention." Id. The court relied upon the PCT priority application and the International Preliminary Examination Report ("IPER") as indicating the presence of play in the system joint. Id. Also cited by the court were the applicant's representations in response to a prior art rejection during the prosecution of the '621 parent application before the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO"), indicating that play was important because it enabled displacement and disassembly of the connected panels. Id. The court observed that those representations distinguishing the invention from the prior art based on the invention's ability to displace panels ("slide movably") and to release adjacent panels by rotation about the joint were also relied upon by the patent examiner and the USPTO in finding that play enabled those features. Id. Relying on the patentee's express disavowal of systems without play during the prosecution of the '621 patent, the court held that Alloc could not contend before it that the '621 patent claimed a flooring system and method for installing systems without play. Id. (citing Middleton, Inc. v. Minn. Mining & Mfg. Co., 311 F.3d 1384, 1388 (Fed. Cir. 2002)).

         The court further noted that, after gaining allowance of its claims, the applicant added new claims nearly identical to the allowed claims except without the term play, but that the applicant did not retract or modify the representations that secured allowance of the original claims. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1372. Instead, the applicant acknowledged that, although the new claim did not define play, "displacement of the panels is still facilitated in a direction along the joints which is what is believed to be meant by the Examiner's Statement of Reasons for the indication of allowable subject matter." Id. Thus, the Court has described Alloc's claim construction analysis of the "play" requirement.

         Before addressing whether the Plaintiffs have presented throughly justified grounds for deviating from Alloc's construction of the claims, the Court comments on Saunders Group, Inc. v. Comfortrac, Inc., 492 F.3d 1326, 1333 (Fed. Cir. 2007), which the Plaintiffs rely upon as summarizing Alloc. Saunders states the Alloc holding as follows:

The claims at issue in Alloc recited floor system features related to "displacement" and "disassembly" of the flooring components. Id. at 1368. The court construed the claims to require "play" between the flooring components because the patent specifically taught that such play enabled the displacement and disassembly features and because the patent criticized prior art systems that lacked play as being impossible to disassemble nondestructively. Id. at 1369-70.

         Having considered Alloc, and Saunders's synopsis of Alloc, the Court concludes that Saunders does not capture Alloc's entire claim construction analysis. Next, the Court addresses the Plaintiffs' arguments in contending that the Court should deviate from Alloc.

         Reexamination and Reissuance Proceeding

         In maintaining that Alloc's reasoning is no longer applicable, the Plaintiffs rely on the reexamination and reissuance proceeding. On September 10, 2003, when Alloc was issued, the USPTO was reconsidering the '621 patent, [5] the parent of the '267, '907, and '410 patents, in combined reexamination/reissue proceedings.

         The proceedings began on June 30, 1999, when Välinge filed for a broadened reissue pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 251.[6] In the accompanying declaration, Perván stated that "I believe the original patent to be partly inoperative or invalid by reason of the patentee claiming less than the patentee had the right to claim in the patent. Specifically, [the] Applicant failed to include the subject matter of claims 24-40 which are included in this reissue application." (J. Ex. 12 at 53.[7]) (Emphasis added).

         In an Office Action dated April 10, 2000, the Examiner rejected the application "because the error which is relied upon to support the reissue application is not sufficient in that it does not provide a detailed description of the subject matter the Applicant failed to include in the claims and upon which a reissue can be based." (J. Ex. 12 at 68.)

         On June 10, 2000, Pergo filed a request for reexamination. (J. Ex. 12 at 77.) On July 10, 2000, Perván filed a supplemental declaration stating:

Specifically, [the] Applicant failed to include the subject matter of claims 24-40 which are included in this reissue application. In one specific example, [the] Applicant failed to include an independent claim, such as claim 31, wherein the locking groove and the locking element are defined as being dimensioned such that when adjacent panels are joined together and the locking element is received within the locking groove, there is sufficient space within the locking groove to allow mutual displacement of the adjacent panels in a direction of the first and second edges and to enable the locking element to leave the locking groove if the respective building panel is turned about its first edge angularly away from the locking strip.

(Jt. Ex. 12 at 81.) (Emphasis added).

         On July 21, 2000, the Examiner issued an initial notice of allowability for all 40 claims of the '621 reissue patent stating:

[T]he prior art of record fails to teach the use of adjacent floor panels being interconnected by locking elements located within a groove formed on the underside of the panels; wherein displacement of the panels is allowed in a direction of the joint formed between the adjacent panels so as to allow the locking element to be released from the groove when the panel is rotated about the joint formed between adjacent panels.

(Jt. Ex. 12 at 86.)

         However, on September 7, 2000, the USPTO ordered re-examination of the '621 patent. (See Jt. Ex. 12 at 89.) On November 17, 2000, the USPTO issued a decision merging the reissue and reexamination proceedings. (See Jt. Ex. 12 at 87-93.)

         On February 28, 2001, Välinge filed "housekeeping amendments" to reflect the merged proceeding. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 98-104.) On October 8, 2003, Välinge provided the USPTO with a copy of the September 10, 2003, Alloc decision. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 166-67.) Välinge asserted that Alloc incorrectly interpreted Välinge's remarks accompanying claims 21, 22, and 23 as inferring that Välinge "somehow acknowledged that `play exists' in all claims of the '621 patent." (Jt. Ex. 12 at 166.) Välinge contended, that as recognized by the Alloc dissent, Välinge did not intend to include the '621 patent claim 1 limitation of a joint where "'play exists, '" in independent claims 21, 22, and 23. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 166.) Further, Välinge contended that claim 22 could not reasonably be construed to require play because, except for the omitted limitation requiring a joint where "play exists, " claim 22 would be identical to independent claim 1. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 166.) Thus, Välinge argued that, according to the literal language of the claims and common claim construction principles, independent claims 21, 22, and 23 did not include play. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 166.) In the remarks accompanying claims 21, 22, and 23, Välinge also stated that the reference to the "'play that exists'" was a reference to the limitation in claim 1; i.e., "'where a play exists, '" that was expressly omitted from claims 21, 22, and 23. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 166.)

On October 9, 2003, the Examiner rejected a number of claims of the '621 reissue patent, including claims 21, 22, 23, and 31, as being unpatentable over claims 1 and 2 of the '579 patent. Such rejection was based upon the doctrine of obviousness-type double-patenting. The Examiner stated that the '621 reissue claims were not patentably distinct from the '579 patent claims because each is directed to a system for joining adjacent panels including first and second mechanical connections wherein at least one of the connections include a locking strip and groove wherein the locking groove is formed on an underside of the panel and the panels are joined such that a play exists between adjacent panels.

(Jt. Ex. 12 at 186-87.) (Emphasis added).

         To cure the double-patenting rejection, Välinge filed a terminal disclaimer, pursuant to 37 C.F.R. § 1.321(c), on January 8, 2004. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 191-211.) Välinge stated:

The Examiner may recall that at the time of the submission of claims 21-23, claim 1 (and the dependent claims based on claim 1) had been allowed over the references of record, one of which was Trotter (US 4, 819, 932). Based on the Examiner's statement of reasons for allowance of claim 1, the [A]pplicant understood the allowance of claim 1 was not based on the presence of the "play" limitation in claim 1. Since the "play" limitation of claim 1 did not appear to be a basis for the Examiner's allowance of that claim, the Applicant submitted claims 21-23 without any play limitation, believing that such claims would also be patentable over Trotter. Thus, the limitation calling for play which appears in claim 1 was deliberately omitted from claims 21-23. It is the Applicant's intention to eliminate any ambiguity or question from claims 21-23 with respect to the absence of a play limitation. Therefore, the Applicant understands that the patentability of claims 21-23 is being confirmed in this reissuance/reexamination proceeding on the basis that those claims do not require play. If the Examiner's understanding of the scope of claims 21-23 as confirmed in application is different from the [A]pplicant's intended scope, i.e., as not including a limitation calling for play, [the] Applicant requests that the Examiner so indicate in her reasons for allowance or otherwise.

(Jt. Ex. 12 at 208.) The request was reiterated in Välinge's revised submissions filed on July 2, 2004, and October 4, 2004. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 226-27, 249-50.)

         On April 11, 2005, the Examiner issued a non-final Office Action rejecting claims 21 and 22 (the determination also applied to claim 23, a dependent claim of claim 22) as being unpatentable based on Trotter. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 258-60.) The Examiner stated that Trotter disclosed "use of a joint between building panels... such that a play exists... to enable mutual displacement of the panels." (Jt. Ex. 12 at 260.) Trotter therefore "discloses that basic claimed joint arrangement except for the strip being integral with the second edge of the panel, " which the Examiner found to be obvious to one having ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 259-60.)

         According to an interview record that Välinge filed with the USPTO on November 15, 2005, representatives of Välinge met with the Examiner and other USPTO personnel on April 20, 2005. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 293.) One topic of discussion was the potential rejection of the '621 reissue claims for obviousness in light of the Trotter prior art. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 293.) Välinge representatives informed the USPTO personnel that the original '621 patent had already overcome a rejection based on Trotter. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 293.) Välinge's attorney explained that Trotter did not teach a "strip extending substantially an entire length of the joint edge or the mutual displacement features of the claims." (Jt. Ex. 12 at 293.) (Emphasis added). The interview record states that "on April 21, 2005, an Office Action"[8] was issued on the application and that, during a subsequent telephone conversation with Välinge's attorney, the Examiner indicated that the April 21, 2005, Office Action would be superceded by a new Office Action. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 294.)

         Thereafter, on June 2, 2005, the Examiner rejected claims 21 through 23 for double-patenting over claims 39, 41, 49, and 50 of the '410 patent. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 266-67.) The Examiner stated that the '410 patent and the '621 reissue application covered "common subject matter." (Jt. Ex. 12 at 268.) Her description of that subject matter included a statement that "a play exists between the locking groove and a locking surface on the locking element." (Jt. Ex. 12 at 268-69.)

         On June 22, 2005, Välinge filed another Terminal Disclaimer[9] to cure the double-patenting objection. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 272-75.) The Examiner issued a notice of allowability of the '621 reissue patent claims, without any statement of reasons. (Jt. Ex. 12 at 286.)

         Having carefully considered the record of the reissue/reexamination proceeding, the Court concludes that the record does not establish throughly justified grounds to depart from the Alloc holding. The premise for initiating the reissue proceeding related only to non-asserted claims 24 through 40. Perván's July 10, 2000, statement describing omitted claim 31, refers to "sufficient space within the locking groove to allow mutual displacement of the adjacent panels in a direction of the first and second edges and to enable the locking element to leave the locking groove if the respective building panel is turned about its first edge angularly away from the locking strip, " which, at the least, implies play.

         No statements by Välinge indicating that non-play systems were covered by the '621 patent are included in the reissue/reexamination history until a month after Alloc's issuance. Although the reissuance proceedings had been underway for more than four years, the first time Välinge stated that claims not expressly reciting play should be understood as not requiring play was in the immediate wake of Alloc. Välinge's statement in the reissue/reexamination proceeding merely repeated Välinge's earlier self-serving disclaimer to the Federal Circuit of its intent to disavow non-play systems.

         In 2004, Välinge stated that it understood the patentability of claims 21 through 23 was being confirmed in the reissuance/reexamination proceeding on the basis that those claims did not require play. Välinge reiterated the statement in two subsequent filings with the USPTO and put the burden on the Examiner to refute its understanding. The Examiner did not respond. Also, the final allowance of the patent did not include any statement of reasons.

         Inferring agreement with Välinge's statement from the Examiner's silence would be improper. See, e.g., Prima Tek II, L.L.C. v. Polypap, S.A.R.L, 318 F.3d 1143, 1151 (Fed. Cir. 2003); DeMarini Sports, Inc. v. Worth, Inc., 239 F.3d 1314, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2001). The record of reissue/reexamination proceedings does not outweigh Alloc's analysis of the specification or Välinge's original disavowal of non-play systems.

         In asserting that play should not be read into claims in which it is not recited, the Plaintiffs rely upon Liebel-Flarsheim Co. v. Medrad, Inc., 358 F.3d 898, 902 (Fed. Cir. 2004). Liebel-Flarsheim involved a patent pertaining to fluid powered injectors used to inject fluid into patients during medical procedures. Resolution of an issue on appeal depended on whether the common specification of the two patents limited the scope of the asserted claims to injectors that included pressure jackets. Id. at 903. The court held that asserted claims did not expressly require pressure jackets, and that the common specification did not state that a pressure jacket was a required component of the inventions. Id. The court also distinguished the matter from prior cases in which a narrow construction was appropriate, including SciMed Life Systems, Inc., 242 F.3d at 1345, and declined to limit the scope of the claims. See Liebel-Flarsheim, 358 F.3d at 906.

         Specifically, the court stated that "[u]nlike in SciMed, the specification in this case contains no disclaimer; all that Medrad can point to in the common specification of the... patents is the absence of any embodiment that lacks a pressure jacket." See Liebel-Flarsheim, 358 F.3d at 906. The court noted that, in addition to the absence of a disclaimer in the specification, there were no other indicia of the reasons that had been invoked for giving claims a narrow reading. Id. at 908. Specifically, the court found that the prosecution history was significant because the "omission of reference to a pressure jacket in many of the claims of the applications that matured into the... patents was a strong indication that the applicants intended those claims to reach injectors that did not use pressure jackets." Id. at 909. Moreover, the court noted that "in a paper filed during the prosecution of the '261 patent, the applicants clearly stated that `[i]n the claims as amended herein, the locking structure is not necessarily at the front end of the syringe, nor is there necessarily a pressure jacket.'" Id.

         Unlike Liebel-Flarsheim, the Federal Circuit has held that the '621 patent specification is analogous to that presented in SciMed. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1370. Thus, the Alloc court considered SciMed, a key decision distinguished by Liebel-Flarsheim, and concluded that the Perván specification is similar the SciMed specification.

         While the prosecution history accreted during the reissuance/reexamination process was not before the Alloc court that history is, at best, ambiguous. Morever, Välinge's statements disavowing play in reissuance/reexamination process were not made until after the Federal Circuit issued Alloc. The timing of Välinge's statements raises doubts about its motivation for making those statements, and reduces the weight accorded to them. Thus, this Court concludes that the additional prosecution history does not establish that the patents-in suits are now analogous to those of Liebel-Flarsheim.

         Issuance of the '579 Patent in February of 2003

         The Plaintiffs state that Alloc is not a basis for reading play into the claims of the '579 patent.[10] They state that the Federal Circuit only addressed three patents 2014; the '267, '907, and '410 patents 2014; and that all three patents contain limitations calling for displacement of the panels in the direction of their joined edges and/or limitations calling for the disassembly of the panels. (Pls.' Open. Br. 39.) The Plaintiffs maintain that the Federal Circuit relied extensively on the "critical features" of "displacement" and "disassembly" in holding that the claims at issue in Alloc were to be construed as including a "play" limitation, although not expressly reciting play. (Pls.' Open. Br. 40-42.) The Plaintiffs argue that neither of the critical features recited in Alloc can be found in any of the claims of '579 patent and, therefore, it would be plain error to apply Alloc as a basis for reading play into any of the asserted claims of the '579 patent. (Pls.' Open. Br. 42.)

         The Alloc holding that play is a required limitation is not restricted to the presence of the displacement and disassembly of the panels. Rather, the court identified a non-exhaustive list of claim terms "in which play is necessarily present."[11] Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1368. In explaining its conclusion that play was required in all claims without any recitation of the term itself, the court emphasized specific claim terms to demonstrate that the terms related to "an essential feature of the invention: play." Id. at 1365 n.2. Among the terms emphasized in the representative claims were "locking element, " "first locking member" "second locking member, " "locking means, " "locking means being constructed so as to operate as a one-way snap lock, " "locking means also being constructed so as to enable... [adjacent panels] to be turned in relation to each other [to] unlock said one-way snap lock." Id. at 1366-67.

         The term "locking element, " appears throughout the asserted claims of '579 patent. For example, Claim 10 recites:

A mechanical locking system for locking a first edge of a first panel to a second edge of an identical second panel, the mechanical locking system comprising: a tongue and groove on the first edge and the second edge forming a first mechanical connection locking the first and second edges to each other in a first direction at right angles to a principal plane of the panels; a locking device arranged on an underside of the first and the second edges, the locking device forming a second mechanical connection locking the first and the second edges to each other in a second direction parallel to the principal plane and at right angles to the edges; the locking device including a locking groove which extends parallel to and spaced from the second edge, the locking groove being open at the underside of the second edge and including an internal surface; the locking device further including a strip extending from the first edge, the strip extending throughout substantially an entire length of the first edge and being provided with a locking element projecting from the strip; the strip, the locking element, and the locking groove being configured such that when the second edge is pressed against an upper part of the first edge and is then angled down, the locking element can enter the locking groove; the locking element has a locking surface which faces the first edge and is configured so as to contact the internal surface of the locking groove when the first and second edges are joined together to prevent substantial separation of the joined first and second edges; and the locking element further including an outer portion which is most distant to the joined edges and is not in contact with the locking groove when-[sic] the first and second edges are joined together.

('579 patent, 11:35-67; 12:1-2.) (Emphasis added). Claim 10 discusses a "second mechanical connection" that locks two edges together using a locking element and a locking groove. The description of the claimed invention in the specification makes it clear that play is "operative" in the second mechanical connection. ('579 patent, 4:17-24.)[12]

         Although not considered by the Federal Circuit, the '579 patent has the same specification as the three patents that were construed in Alloc, and the same parent patent. The Plaintiffs have not established that the issuance of the '579 patent throughly justifies departure from Alloc's holding. March 2004, Comments by Examiner During the Prosecution of Unilin's '292 Patent

         In contending that Alloc's reasoning is no longer applicable, the Plaintiffs rely on the March 2004, comments of the Examiner during the prosecution of Unilin's '292 patent.[13] They state that those comments make it clear that the patents-in-suit are not limited to systems with play. (Pls.' Open. Br. 18 (citing PX-8 21, 23).)

         Specifically, in a March 17, 2004, Office Action, the Examiner rejected claim 6 of the Unilin '292 patent as being anticipated by the '410 patent to Perván. The Examiner determined that the '410 patent taught panels "locked in all directions" and that "it is inherent that members locked in all directions are locked `without play.'" (Pls.' Open. Br. PX-8 21.) In response, Unilin's counsel suggested:

It is respectfully submitted that the Examiner has misinterpreted the teachings of Pervan '410 inasmuch as Pervan in all embodiments requires "play[, ]" that is, a gap between the locking elements that permits longitudinal sliding of one panel relative to the other. In the presence of such play, there can be no bending of one of the coupling elements out of its normal relaxed unbent position when the panels are coupled together to effect an urging of the coupled panels together as required by the last paragraph of claim 1 of this application.

(Pls.' Open. Br. PX-8 13.) Stated somewhat differently, Unilin asserted that with the play present between the coupled panels, the recited coupling part could not be bent out of its normal, unbent position as required by Unilin's rejected claim.

         Thereafter, the Examiner allowed all of Unilin's rejected claims. (Pls.' Open. Br. PX-8 1.) In her reasons for allowance, the Examiner stated "the prior art of record [the '410 patent] fails to teach the use of a floor covering including a coupling part having an elastically bendable portion that when coupled remains slightly bent out of its normal relaxed unbent position." (Pls.' Open. Br. PX-8 4.)

         Thus, the Court concludes that the record of the '292 Unilin patent indicates that the Examiner adopted Unilin's position and implies that she retreated from her original position that the '410 patent included panels without play. Moreover, the Examiner's "without play" comment is ambiguous and unreliable extrinsic evidence. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1318. It does not provide a throughly justified ground for deviating from Alloc's holding that play is included in the Perván patent specifications. The Perván patent specifications are intrinsic evidence that controls when in conflict with the extrinsic evidence. Id. The Plaintiffs have not established that the March 2004, comments by the Examiner in the prosecution of Unilin's '292 Patent throughly justifies departure from the Alloc precedent.

         Claim Differentiation

         The Plaintiffs rely upon the doctrine of claim differentiation contending that claim 2 of the '579 patent (which depends on claim 1) specifically adds a play limitation to claim 1. They make the same argument with respect to claim 11, which depends on claim 10. The Plaintiffs also assert that the doctrine of claim differentiation applied to the RE '439 patent requires that play not be read into claim 22 because it is already part of claim 1, and play is the only difference between the two claims.

         The doctrine of claim differentiation cannot broaden claims beyond the scope that is supported by the specification. ATD Corp. v. Lydall, Inc., 159 F.3d 534, 541 (Fed. Cir. 1998). Moreover, the doctrine "only creates a presumption that each claim in a patent has a different scope; it is not a hard and fast rule of construction." Seachange Int'l, Inc. v. C-COR, Inc., 413 F.3d 1361, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2005). Here, as the Federal Circuit has held, the Perván specification instructs that play is a required limitation in each embodiment of the invention. This construction is further confirmed by the prosecution history of the parent '621 patent which discloses that Perván expressly disavowed embodiments without play. Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1372. Additionally, the Plaintiffs' argument for claim differentiation as to claims 2 and 11 of the '579 patent is not consistent with the language of those claims because they recite "small play." The term "small play" is not the same as the "play" that exists in claims 1 and 10. Therefore, the Court concludes that the doctrine of claim differentiation cannot be used to broaden the claims 2 and 11 of the '579 patent or claim 22 of the RE '439 patent.

         The Plaintiffs have not established throughly justified reasons to depart from the appeals court's rulings in Alloc. Given the common specification of the five patents-in-suit and having considered the matters that were not before the Alloc court, this Court concludes that the claims of the five patents-in-suit require play.

         Recapture

         In arguing that the prosecution history confirms that the claims require play, Pergo also argues that Pervàn cannot recapture subject matter that he "expressly disavowed." (Pergo's Open Br. 40-43.) The Plaintiffs counter that Pergo has erroneously invoked the recapture rule. (Pls.' Resp. Br. 12-23.) The parties have devoted significant portions of their briefs to this issue. However, at this juncture and in light of its determination that the claims of the five patents-in-suit require play, the Court acknowledges the parties' arguments but need not address the issue. The Court will now consider the parties' proposed constructions and construe the specific disputed claim terms.

         1. Locking Element

         The first term to be interpreted is "locking element." The term appears in claims 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 through 12, 14, 19, 20, 23, 24, 27, 28, 31, 32, 35, 36, 39, and 40 of the '267 patent; in claims 2, 4, 6, 8, and 9 of the '907 patent; in claims 1, 12 through 14, 25 through 27, 38 through 41, 44, 49, and 50 of the '410 patent; in claims 1, 10, 21, 22, and 28 of the '579 patent; and, in claims 1, and 21 through 23 of the RE '439 patent. The Plaintiffs' proposed construction is "a projection at the edge of the panel as recited in the claim that engages a locking groove on another panel." (Pls.' Open. Br. 25.) Pergo's proposed construction is "a portion of the strip spaced apart from the joint edge, projecting up at right angles and configured to be received into a locking groove such that a play exists between the locking element and the locking groove." (Unilin's Open. Br. 23-25.)[14]

         The term "locking element" appears in Claim 1 of the RE '439 patent, which is representative of the claims with that term, as follows:

A system for providing a joint between adjacent building panels, comprising: each of said building panels including a first edge and a second edge such that the first edge of each of said building panels forms a first mechanical connection with the second end of an adjacent one of the building panels locking the first and second edges of the building panels to each other in a first direction at right angles to a principal plane of the panels, and a locking device arranged on a rear side of the building panels forming a second mechanical connection locking the building panels to each other in a second direction parallel to the principal plane and at right angles to the first and second edges, said locking device fitting within a locking groove extending parallel to and spaced apart from the first edge of said building panels, and which locking groove is open at the rear side of the building panels, the locking device comprising a strip integrated with the second edge of each of said building panels, said strip extending throughout substantially an entire length of the second edge and being provided with a locking element projecting from the strip, such that when two adjacent building panels are joined together, the strip projects from the rear side of the second edge of the panels with its locking element received in the locking groove of an adjacent building panel, the building panels, when joined together, can occupy a relative position in said second direction where a play exists between the locking groove and a locking surface on the locking element that is facing the first and second edges and is operative in said second mechanical connection, the first and the second mechanical connections both allow mutual displacement of the building panels in a direction of the first and second edges, and the second mechanical connection enables the locking element to leave the locking groove if the respective building panel is turned about its first edge angularly away from the strip.

('439 patent, 10:35-67;11:1-7.) (Emphasis added).

         Pergo's proposed construction includes a requirement that the projection be "up at right angles." (Unilin's Open. Br. 23-24.) That proposed requirement is drawn from the snippets of the specification, and its discussion of the figures and the preferred embodiments. The requirement is not central to the claimed invention and is, therefore, rejected. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the representative claim, the projection is well-described in the claim itself.

         The Plaintiffs' proposed construction allows for the projection to be defined in the claim, but it is missing "play." Therefore, the Court construes the term "locking element" as "a projection at the edge of the panel as recited in the claim that engages a locking groove on another panel such that a play exists between the locking element and the locking groove."

         2. Locking Member

         The second term to be interpreted is "locking member" in claims 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 12, and 13 of the '907 patent, and in claim 39 of the '267 patent. The Plaintiffs maintain that the term should be construed as "a locking element or a locking groove of one panel that allows for engagement and locking another panel." (Pls.' Open. Br. 25.) They assert that because the word "means" is not used in the term, there is a presumption that the term is not a "means-plus-function, " and with respect to the '907 patent, which is a method patent, the Defendants can cite no cases in which the strictures of 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6 were applied to a method claim.

         Pergo does not propose a general definition of "locking member." However, Pergo maintains that "first locking member" and "second locking member" in claims 1, 5, and 13 of the '907 patent, and in claim 39 of the '267 patent should be construed under 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6[15] to be the equivalent of "locking element" and "locking groove, " respectively. (Unilin's Open. Br. 39). Pergo cites MIT v. Abacus Software, 462 F.3d 1344, 1353 (Fed. Cir. 2006). Pergo also maintains that because the "locking member" terms are associated with structures that permit displacement and disassembly, the term "locking member" requires the presence of play, regardless of whether it is construed under 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6. (Unilin's Open. Br. 39 (citing Alloc, 342 F.3d at 1372).)

         Additionally, as to claims 1, 5, and 13 of the '907 patent and claim 13 of the '267 patent, Pergo contends that the terms "first locking member" and "second locking member" should be construed as "means-plus-function" terms. In opposition, the Plaintiffs contend that this Court should conclude that the two terms are analogous to "compression element" as construed in DePuy Spine, Inc. v. Medtronic Sofamor Danek, Inc., 469 F.3d 1005, 1023 (Fed. Cir. 2006).

         In considering the general definition of the terms "locking member, " "first locking member, "and "second locking member" in claims 2, 4, 6, and 12 of the '907 patent, the interpretation of locking member as "a locking element or a locking groove of one panel that allows for engagement and locking another panel, " is consistent with the language of those claims. The term "locking member" is used as a generic term and then either locking element or locking groove is specified. However, in dependent claims 2 and 3 of the '907 patent, the term "locking ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.