Wednesday, January 21, 2015

US Supreme Court - Teva Pharmaceuticals USA v. Sandoz - Claim Construction

In Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., the Supreme Court held the Federal Circuit cannot reverse a district court's fact findings underpinning claim construction unless they are clearly wrong.

As background, patent claims define a patent owner's right to exclude others. When parties dispute whether a claim is valid or infringed, a judge will interpret the words and phrases of the claim (i.e., claim construction) in a Markman hearing. Claim construction is a big event, because many patent cases settle after the Markman hearing.

In Markman v. Westview Instruments, the Supreme Court held that a "judge, from his training and discipline, is more likely to give a proper interpretation to such instruments than a jury." But claim construction is not purely a legal question. Claim construction has facts underpinning the meaning of the claim that are determined by jury such as determining the credibility of experts testifying at trial, on e.g., what's molecular weight? Markman walked around this problem stating such facts are "subsumed within the necessarily sophisticated analysis of the whole document." Afterward the Federal Circuit understood claim construction should be reviewed as a question of law without deference to the trial court's fact findings. But this led to uncertainty on the meaning of the patent claim until the Federal Circuit gave its opinion, which too often reversed the trial court.

It is an important decision, but I am not entirely sure it's not mostly for lawyers, since it may just produce: (1) greater certainty that a trial court's claim interpretation will "stick," (2) less work for those lawyers in Federal Circuit practice, and (3) a greater role for expert witnesses. Although academics and lawyers are talking up a storm about this case right now, Teva should not be surprising since it is consistent with the Supreme Court's string of decisions that again try to rein in the considerable clout of the Federal Circuit, which has developed a substantial body of patent law.

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