Law \ Legal

Avoiding indefiniteness through claim construction

By Jason Rantanen

University of Massachusetts, Carmel Laboratories, LLC v. L’Oréal, S.A., L’Oréal USA, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2022) – opinion

Panel: Prost, Mayer, Taranto (author)

This opinion nominally addressing indefiniteness illustrates the power of de novo claim construction review at the Federal Circuit. UMass’s claimed invention is a topical skin care product containing adenosine that is applied to the skin. The district court concluded that the claim was indefinite, but on appeal the Federal Circuit negated the indefiniteness determination by adopting the claim construction proposed by L’Oréal – a victory for sorts of UMass but, based on the briefs, not the outcome it was looking for.

The difficulty in this case arose from the combination of the structure of the skin and the wording that UMass used to claim the invention. Starting with the skin structure, the relevant parts basically look like this:

Figure 1: “Artist”‘s representation of skin layers

Representative claim 1 of patent number 6,645,513 reads:

A method for enhancing the condition of unbroken skin of a mammal by reducing one or more of wrinkling, roughness, dryness, or laxity of the skin, without increasing dermal cell proliferation, the method comprising [1] topically applying to the skin a composition comprising a concentration of adenosine in [2] an amount effective to enhance the condition of the skin without increasing dermal cell proliferation, [3] wherein the adenosine concentration applied to the dermal cells is 10-3 M to 10-7 M.

(bracketed numbers and emphasis added).

Apparently seeking to avoid a noninfringement outcome, UMass argued that the “wherein” clause [3] referred to the concentration of adenosine that seeped into the dermis rather than the concentration of the product applied to the skin. But since  clause [1] and [3] thus referred to different concentrations, the result was an ambiguity in the meaning of composition clause [1] and “effective” clause [2]: what is a “concentration of adenosine in an amount effective to enhance the condition of the skin”?  Relying on the subjective determination precedent, the district court concluded that this phrase was indefinite: “Indeed, the determination of whether a person’s skin is enhanced provides a paradigmatic example of indefiniteness. Beauty, after all, is “in the eyes of the beholder.”” University of Massachusetts v. L’Oréal USA, Inc., 534 F. Supp. 3d 349 (D. Del. 2021). UMass appealed the indefiniteness determination, trying to thread the needle between a limiting claim construction and an indefiniteness outcome. L’Oréal both responded on the indefiniteness point and advanced its own claim construction argument.

The Federal Circuit could plausibly have affirmed on indefiniteness in my non-judicial opinion. However, instead the Federal Circuit focused on claim construction, walking through its standard claim construction analysis and concluding that clause [3] actually referred to the concentration of adenosine in the product applied to the skin, not the resultant concentration in the dermis. Because this removed a necessary predicate of the district court’s indefiniteness determination, the consequence was a remand to the district court for further proceedings.

The Federal Circuit first concluded that the claim itself was ambiguous about what clause [3] referred to: “We first conclude that the relevant claim language, es-pecially when viewed in the context of the whole claim, is not plain on its face, much less plain in supporting UMass’s interpretation of it.” Slip Op. at 8. The opinion spends several pages discussing this; worthwhile reading if you are making a text-based argument, but too much depth to go into in a blog post.

The next step in claim construction is to look at the specification. This didn’t provide much support for UMass’s claim construction position, however: “UMass has not shown that, even in this context, the specification makes clear that the inventors contemplated measuring the adenosine concentration after exposure to the cells, rather than in a solution before application to the cells.” Id. at 12.

The last step of the intrinsic evidence analysis, however, did produce a clear outcome to the court.  “Even more strongly than the specification, the prosecution histories of the patents in question resolve the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of “the adenosine concentration applied to the dermal cells” in the wherein clause.Id.  The Federal Circuit concluded:

The amendments and comments clearly convey that UMass was continuing the pre-amendment reliance on the concentration in the composition before application to the skin, rather than introducing a materially different, unexplained notion of concentration, no longer assessed before contact with the object of application. UMass’s proposed construction now cannot fairly be squared with the understanding that both it and the examiner expressed during prosecution, and on which skilled artisans are entitled to rely.

Id. at 14. Because the use of the prosecution history was to resolve a lingering ambiguity in the claim language, this was not a case where the “clear and unmistakable disclaimer” standard applied for overcoming an otherwise plain meaning of the claim.


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