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Regal Beloit America, Inc. v. Broad Ocean Motor LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 1, 2017

REGAL BELOIT AMERICA, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
BROAD OCEAN MOTOR LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JEAN C. HAMILTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs Regal Beloit, Inc.'s and Jakel Motors Incorporated's (together, “Regal Beloit”) Motion for Claim Construction (ECF No. 53), and Defendants Broad Ocean Technologies, LLC's, and Zhongshan Broad Ocean Motor Co., Ltd's (together, “Broad Ocean”) Motion for Claim Construction (ECF No. 54). The Motions have been fully briefed, a Markman[1] hearing was held on May 15, 2017, and the Motions are now ready for disposition.

         BACKGROUND

         Regal Beloit designs and manufactures draft inducers and blowers for use in a variety of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (“HVAC”) systems. On January 28, 2016, Regal Beloit filed this action, in which it asserts patent infringement claims against Broad Ocean in connection with U.S. Patent No. 5, 620, 302, entitled “Dynamic Condensate Evacuator for High Efficiency Gas Furnaces” (“the ‘302 Patent”); U.S. Patent No. RE40, 818, entitled “Blower Housing with Maximized Interior Spacing” (“the ‘818 Patent”); and U.S. Patent No. 5, 954, 476, entitled “Snap-Fit Blower Housing Assembly and Seal Method (“the ‘476 Patent”). (ECF Nos. 1, 39.) Defendant Zhongshan Broad Ocean Motor Co., Ltd. thereafter filed a Counterclaim against Regal Beloit, seeking a declaratory judgment that the claims of the asserted patents are invalid and not infringed by Broad Ocean. (ECF No. 42.)

         The patents-in-suit pertain to improvements in blower design to improve the efficiency of the blower and HVAC system: the ‘302 Patent claims a drain structure that allows accumulated condensate to drain from a furnace blower housing during all operating modes of the impeller, the ‘818 Patent claims a blower with increased interior space for accommodating the blower impeller, and the ‘476 Patent claims an improved snap-fit design for a blower housing assembly. The Parties seek construction of five terms in Claims 1 and 2 of the ‘302 Patent, fourteen terms in Claim 16 of the ‘818 Patent, and eight terms in Claim 1 of the ‘476 Patent.[2] For a majority of disputed terms, Regal Beloit argues that no construction is necessary.

         LEGAL PRINCIPLES GOVERNING CLAIM CONSTRUCTION

         Claim construction is a matter of law reserved for the courts. See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 372 (1996). In determining the correct claim construction, the Court follows the “bedrock principle” that “the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude.” Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc) (quotations and citations omitted). The words in the claim “‘are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning.'” Id. at 1312 (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). “[T]he ordinary and customary meaning of a claim term is the meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention.” Id. at 1313 (citations omitted). The patentee may act as his own lexicographer, however, and give terms a meaning other than their ordinary meaning, “so long as the special definition is clearly stated in the patent specification or file history.” Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582 (citations omitted).

         The complexity and difficulty of claim construction will vary from case to case. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. “In some cases, the ordinary meaning of claim language as understood by a person of skill in the art may be readily apparent even to lay judges, and claim construction in such cases involves little more than the application of the widely accepted meaning of commonly understood words.” Id. “In such circumstances, general purpose dictionaries may be helpful, ” provided that “the dictionary definition does not contradict any definition found in or ascertained by a reading of the patent documents.” Id. at 1314, 1322-23 (quotation and citation omitted).

         In other cases, however, “determining the ordinary and customary meaning of the claim requires examination of terms that have a particular meaning in a field of art.” Id. at 1314. These cases often involve claim terms that do not have a readily apparent meaning and claim terms that have been used idiosyncratically by a patentee. Id. In these more complex instances of claim construction, the interpreting court often must consult “those sources available to the public that show what a person of skill in the art would have understood disputed claim language to mean.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). Courts are to look primarily to the “intrinsic evidence of record, i.e., the patent itself, including the claims, the specification and, if in evidence, the prosecution history.” Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582 (citation omitted). Courts may also look to “extrinsic evidence, which consists of all evidence external to the patent and prosecution history.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317 (quotation and citations omitted). However, extrinsic evidence “is less significant than the intrinsic record in determining the ‘legally operative meaning of disputed claim language.'” C.R. Bard, Inc. v. U.S. Surgical Corp., 388 F.3d 858, 862 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (quoting Vanderlande Indus. Nederland BV v. Int'l Trade Comm'n, 366 F.3d 1311, 1318 (Fed. Cir. 2004)).

         The claims language itself provides “substantial guidance as to the meaning of particular claim terms.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314 (citations omitted). Context, for example, can provide important clues about the meaning of certain words within the claim. Id. (explaining that term “‘steel baffles'…strongly implies that the term ‘baffles' does not inherently mean objects made of steel.”). Similarly, “[b]ecause claim terms are normally used consistently throughout the patent, the usage of a term in one claim can often illuminate the meaning of the same term in other claims.” Id. (citations omitted).

         “The claims, of course, do not stand alone.” Id. at 1315. Rather, they are part of a “fully integrated written instrument[, ]” and they must “be read in view of the specification, of which they are a part.” Id. The Federal Circuit has emphasized repeatedly that the specification “‘is always highly relevant to the claim construction analysis. Usually, it is dispositive; it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term.'” Id. (quoting Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582). The Court must not, however, import limitations from the specification into the claim. Id. at 1323. Interpreting courts therefore must walk a “fine line” between interpreting claims in light of the specification and improperly importing limitations from the specification. Comark Commc'ns, Inc. v. Harris Corp., 156 F.3d 1182, 1186-87 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

         The prosecution history “consists of the complete record of the proceedings before the [Patent Trade Office (“PTO”)] and includes the prior art cited during the examination of the patent.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317 (citation omitted). “Like the specification, the prosecution history provides evidence of how the PTO and the inventor understood the patent.” Id. (citation omitted). The prosecution history can clarify the meaning of the claim terms “by demonstrating how the inventor understood the invention and whether the inventor limited the invention in the course of prosecution, making the claim scope narrower than it would otherwise be.” Id. (citations omitted). Because the prosecution history reflects the ongoing negotiations between the PTO and the inventor, however, it “often lacks the clarity of the specification and thus is less useful for claim construction purposes.” Id. (citations omitted).

         Extrinsic evidence includes “testimony, dictionaries, learned treatises, or other material not part of the public record associated with the patent.” MBO Labs., Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., 474 F.3d 1323, 1329 (Fed. Cir. 2007). The Federal Circuit has cautioned interpreting courts to be vigilant in their use of extrinsic evidence. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1319. This is primarily because items of extrinsic evidence, such as technical dictionaries, are not “created at the time of patent prosecution for the purpose of explaining the patent's scope and meaning. Id. at 1318. “Nonetheless, because extrinsic evidence can help educate the court regarding the field of the invention and can help the court determine what a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand claim terms to mean, it is permissible for the district court in its sound discretion to admit and use such evidence.” Id. at 1319. Most importantly, extrinsic evidence must be “considered in the context of the intrinsic evidence.” Id.

         Finally, a district court need not construe every claim term challenged by a party. See Finjan, Inc. v. Secure Computing Corp., 626 F.3d 1197, 1206-07 (Fed. Cir. 2010). Where the plain and ordinary meaning of the claim term resolves the parties' dispute, a court may properly refuse to employ an alternative construction. See id.

         CONSTRUCTION OF DISPUTED CLAIM TERMS

         With these standards in mind, the Court turns to the disputed claim terms. The Court will address the claim terms in the order in which they are set forth in the Parties' Joint Claim Construction Chart. The Court will also consider Broad Ocean's indefiniteness argument related to the ‘302 Patent together with the proposed claim constructions. See Praxair, Inc. v. ATMI, Inc., 543 F.3d 1306, 1319 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (indefiniteness is matter of claim construction, and same principles that generally govern claim construction are applicable to determining whether allegedly indefinite claim language is subject to construction).

         A. The ‘302 Patent, Claims 1 and 2 Claims 1 and 2 of the ‘302 Patent provide:

What is claimed is:
1. An impeller housing that drains condensate during all operating modes of an impeller, comprising:
a single-wall housing shell having an interior surface; and at least one aperture in said housing shell through which condensate is drained from said housing; and wherein a portion of said at least one aperture is disposed above the housing shell interior surface so as to minimize the venturi effect of air flowing by said aperture responsive to rotation of the impeller in said housing shell.
2. The impeller housing of claim 1, further comprising a dished region in the housing shell interior surface proximate said aperture.

‘302 Patent, col. 6, ll. 65-67, col. 7, ll. 1-11 (emphasis on disputed terms added).

         The Parties dispute construction of the following terms:

         1. “venturi effect”

         Regal Beloit proposes that the term is properly construed as “the drawing (suctioning) of fluid into a fluid stream having a lower pressure than the drawn fluid, the lower pressure in the fluid stream resulting from the fluid stream velocity.” Regal Beloit argues that the ‘302 Patent specification describes “venturi effect” as “suctioning, ” and that the Court need not resort to any extrinsic evidence in reaching its construction. (ECF No. 53 at 12-14.)

         Broad Ocean proposes that the term is properly construed as “a reduction in fluid pressure, and increase in fluid velocity, in a smaller diameter or volume section of a tube resulting from fluid passing from a larger diameter or volume section into the smaller diameter or volume section.” Broad Ocean argues that the patent is “devoid of any explanation as to how the ‘venturi effect' phenomenon allegedly occurs or takes place, ” and that it has proposed the classic and indisputable definition of the term, as it is used in fluid mechanics and dynamics and known to a person of ordinary skill in the art. For support, Broad Ocean relies on the Report and testimony of Dr. Roger Fales. (ECF No. 54 at 17-19.)

         After careful consideration of the intrinsic record and the arguments made by the Parties, the Court construes the term to mean “the process by which fluid enters into a fluid stream having a lower pressure, the lower pressure in the fluid stream resulting from an increase in the fluid stream velocity.” See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314-15. The Court derives this construction from, and finds that it appropriately comports with, the claim specification, which provides sufficient context for this term. See, e.g., ‘302 Patent, col. 1, ll. 35-49 (“When the blower is energized (i.e., in operation), the suctional force developed by the venturi effect of air flowing across the drain connection opening was sufficient to discourage or prevent the liquid condensate from exiting the condensate drain tube…”), col. 5, ll. 3-7 (“when the draft inducer or the draft inducer impeller is in operation, the venturi action caused by the rotating impeller creates a suction action in the drain connection thereby establishing a vacuum in the drain connection”).

         2. “so as to minimize the venturi effect of air flowing by said aperture responsive to rotation of the impeller in said housing shell”

         Regal Beloit argues that the term requires no construction because there is nothing ambiguous about the phrase. Regal Beloit contends that “[i]n the context of claim 1 and the specification of the ‘302 Patent, one of ordinary skill in the art would understand that the venturi effect is the phenomenon which prevents condensate from draining when the impeller is rotating, ” and that “minimizing the venturi effect would permit condensate to drain when the impeller is rotating.” (ECF No. 53 at 14-15.)

         Broad Ocean argues that the term is indefinite because the Patent is devoid of any detail related to how the venturi effect (as that term is construed by Broad Ocean) is implicated, because “Claim 1 wholly fails to include the necessary structure of the subject matter which the inventor regards as the alleged invention, ” and because “the ‘302 Patent fails to provide any guidance as to what ‘minimize' means or how to measure it.” Broad Ocean also proposes, in the alternative, that the term is properly construed as “structure to increase the pressure, and decrease the velocity, of the fluid through the aperture drain.” (ECF No. 54 at 19-21.)

         The Court rejects Broad Ocean's argument that the term is indefinite. See Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2120, 2124 (2014) (“a patent is invalid for indefiniteness if its claims, read in light of the specification delineating the patent, and the prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention”). As Broad Ocean acknowledges, the ‘302 Patent describes the decrease in suctional forces resulting from the inclusion of depressed dished region in the housing interior surface. For reasons similar to those set forth above in connection with the “venturi effect, ” the Court construes the term to mean “structure to increase the pressure, and decrease the velocity, of the fluid, so as to allow fluid to pass through the aperture drain.” The Court finds this construction consistent with the claim specification. See, e.g., ‘302 Patent, col. 5, ll. 16-18 (“Simply, the portion of the dished region filled with condensate is not subject to the suction effect of the rotating impeller.”)

         3. “an interior surface”

         Regal Beloit argues that the term requires no construction because the term is readily understood, and that although the term could be defined as “inside surface, ” it is unclear why such definition is necessary, since infringement does not depend upon it. Regal Beloit further proposes that, to the extent the Court deems construction necessary, the term is properly construed as “interior surface.” (ECF No. 53 at 16-17.)

         Broad Ocean contends that without construction there will be confusion as to what constitutes the “interior surface.” Broad Ocean proposes that the term is properly construed as “the curved inside surface, having a uniform radius, of the outer wall of the housing shell.” For support, Broad Ocean argues that the ‘302 Patent “only and repeatedly refers to and defines the interior surface of the housing shell in the specification and drawings as element 20 (‘inside arcuate surface'), ” and that the “‘interior surface' is plainly defined as the curved/arcuate surface (20) which has a uniform radius that is ‘parallel to the axis 18 of rotation (FIG.2.).'” Broad Ocean further argues that the claimed “interior surface” of the housing shell “plays an extremely important role in the alleged invention, as it is the location of the ‘dish region'…, as well as what is used to define the location of the claimed aperture.” (ECF No. 54 at 22-23 (citing ‘302 Patent, col. 4, ll. 46-48, 56-63; col. 5, ll. 30-38, 60-62; col. 6, ll. 25-27, 58-59).)

         Upon review of the intrinsic record and the Parties' arguments, the Court adopts Broad Ocean's proposed construction, “the curved inside surface, having a uniform radius, of the outer wall of the housing shell.” The Court finds that this construction derives from the ‘302 Patent and is the best understanding of the term as it is used therein. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314-15.

         4. “wherein a portion of said at least one aperture is disposed above the housing shell interior surface”

         Regal Beloit argues that the term requires no construction, and that to the extent the Court deems construction necessary, the term is properly construed as “wherein a portion of said at least one aperture is disposed above the housing shell interior.” Regal Beloit urges that the claim language does not require that a portion of the aperture extend below the interior surface, and that the claim language is sufficiently broad to encompass an aperture in which no portion of the aperture is below the interior surface. (ECF No. 53 at 17-18.)

         Broad Ocean proposes that the term is properly construed as “the aperture must have a portion of the opening extending above, and a portion of the opening extending below, the interior surface of the housing shell.” Broad Ocean argues that the ‘302 Patent requires an aperture partially below and above the housing shell interior surface, and that the specification and prosecution history explain that the alleged invention will not operate without the claimed structure. (ECF No. 54 at 23-26.)

         Upon consideration of the Parties' arguments, the Court agrees with Broad Ocean's proposed construction. Here, the specification requires and repeatedly explains that a portion of the aperture must be below the housing shell interior surface in order to collect condensate and achieve minimization of the venturi effect. See, e.g., ‘302 Patent, col. 2, ll. 31-38 (“the bottom portion of the aperture extends below an interior surface of the housing shell to minimize the venturi effect….The interior surface of the housing shell further includes a dished region proximate the aperture, where the bottom of said dished region is arranged to correspond with a bottom edge of the aperture below the housing shell interior surface”), col. 5, ll. 29-36 (“the through opening 24 is arranged so the top portion 32a is above the inside arcuate surface 20 and the bottom portion 32b is below this surface 20. The top and bottom portions 32a, b are sized and arranged with the dished region 26 so the vacuum condition in the drain connection 12a is broken at least when the level of condensate 22 accumulating in the dished region 26 reaches the inside arcuate surface 20.”). In addition, during prosecution of the ‘302 Patent application, the applicants distinguished their alleged invention from a prior art reference based upon the claimed aperture's partial embedment in the housing shell:

In the claimed invention, the aperture has ‘a portion…disposed above said housing shell interior surface so as to minimize the venturi effect of air flowing by said aperture responsive to rotation of the impeller in said housing shell.' Thus, the aperture is partially imbedded in the housing shell (the bottom portion of the aperture extends below the interior surface of the housing shell), so that an extreme pressure gradient is formed between the portion above the inner surface of the housing shell caused by the vacuum formed by impeller operation and the portion below the inner surface which allows for the condensate to drain. This design feature of the present invention, as claimed in claims 1 and 11, allows the weight of the condensate to overcome the negative pressure created during impeller operation.

(Def. Ex. 5, ECF No. 54.5 at 6-7.)

         In view of the foregoing, the Court adopts Broad Ocean's proposed construction, “the aperture must have a portion of the opening extending above, and a portion of the opening extending below, the interior surface of the housing shell.” See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314-15; Omega Eng'g, Inc. v. Raytek Corp., 334 F.3d 1314, 1323-26 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (doctrine of prosecution disclaimer “preclud[es] patentees from recapturing through claim interpretation specific meanings disclaimed during prosecution”; prosecution disclaimer applies where disclaiming statements constitute “clear and unmistakeable” surrender of subject matter); Poly-America, LP v. API Indus., Inc., 839 F.3d 1131, 1136 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“While disavowal must be clear and unequivocal, it need not be explicit.”).

         5. “a dished region”

         Regal Beloit proposes that the term is properly construed as “region having a channel, ” arguing that this definition accurately reflects how one of ordinary skill in the art would have understood the phrase in view of the intrinsic record. (ECF No. 53 at 18-19.)

         Broad Ocean proposes that the term is properly construed as “a depression below the interior arcuate surface.”[3] Broad Ocean argues that “the entirety of the ‘302 Patent and its prosecution history consistently require that the ‘dished region' be a depressed area ‘in' (i.e. ‘below') the ‘interior arcuate surface' of the housing.” (ECF No. 54 at 26-28.)

         For reasons similar to those set forth above in connection with “wherein a portion of said at least one aperture is disposed above the housing shell interior surface, ” the Court concludes that the ‘302 Patent requires a dished region in the form of a depression in the interior arcuate surface, and that the required limitation is an essential feature in carrying out the claimed objective-minimization of the venturi effect. See, e.g., ‘302 Patent, col. 4, ll. 60-61 (“the bottom 30 of the dished region 26 is disposed below the inside arcuate surface”), col. 5, ll. 33-36 (“…so the vacuum condition in the drain connection 12a is broken before the level of condensate 22 accumulating in the dished region 26 reaches the inside arcuate surface 20”), col. 6, ll. 24-27 (“the dished region 126 is arranged so its bottom surface 30 is below the inside arcuate surface 20”). The Court therefore adopts Broad Ocean's proposed construction, “a depression below the interior arcuate surface.” See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314-15.

         B. The ‘818 Patent, Claim 16

         Claim 16 of the ‘818 Patent provides:

[The blower of claim 11, further comprising:] A blower for a climate control device having a surface for mounting the blower to the device, the blower comprising:
a blower housing top piece having a peripheral edge that extends around the top piece, a shaft hole extending through the top piece and a plurality of mounting fittings spatially arranged around the shaft hole for attaching a motor to the top piece with a shaft of the motor passing through the shaft hole, a blower housing annular wall having a volute shape with a discharge pipe projecting from the annular wall, the annular wall extending around the peripheral edge of the top piece;
a plurality of legs spatially arranged around the peripheral edge of the top piece and projecting outwardly from the peripheral edge and outwardly from the annular wall, the legs extending from the top piece peripheral edge across the annular wall to support the top piece in a position on an opposite side of the annular wall from the climate control device surface when the blower is mounted on the device surface;
a plurality of fasteners extending across the annular wall, each fastener having a shaft with a driving end at one end of the shaft and a driven end at an opposite end of the shaft, each fastener shaft having a length that is positioned adjacent and substantially parallel to the annular wall for a majority of the shaft length, and each fastener driving end seating against the top piece; and, a plurality of lugs spatially arranged around the top piece peripheral edge projecting outwardly from the peripheral edge, each lug has a lug hole, and the plurality of legs extend downwardly from the plurality of lugs.

‘818 Patent, col. 11, ll. 22-54 (emphasis on disputed ...


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