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RTC INDUSTRIES, INC. v. WILLIAM MERIT & ASSOCIATES

July 15, 2004.

RTC INDUSTRIES, INC., an Illinois corporation, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM MERIT & ASSOCIATES, INC., a California corporation, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES KOCORAS, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the court on Defendant William Merit & Associates, Inc.'s ("WMA") motion for partial summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

  Both WMA and Plaintiff RTC Industries, Inc. ("RTC") produce spring-loaded, product-pushing shelf divider systems that are sold to retail stores. These systems, mounted onto shelves in grocery, drug, and mass merchandise stores, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Once a row of products is loaded into the dividers, springs located in the dividers automatically force the products forward towards the front of the shelf. When a customer removes a product from a row, the springs push the remaining products towards the front of the shelf. These systems not only ensure that a particular product is always at the very front of the shelf, but have been shown to increase sales, reduce labor costs (by keeping products neatly divided into separated rows), and prevent shoplifting.

  RTC owns a patent, U.S. Letters Patent No. 4,830,201 ("the '201 patent"), which was issued on May 16, 1989, and is entitled "Spring-urged Shelf Divider System." WMA produces a shelf divider system known and sold under the name "Glide-Trak," which comes in two versions, Model 1 and Model 2 (the "Glide-Trak systems"). The Model 1 version has since been discontinued. On February 18, 2004, RTC filed suit in this court alleging that the Glide-Trak systems infringe on the '201 patent. WMA now moves for partial summary judgment, contending that Claims 1 through 8 of the '201 patent have not been infringed by the Glide-Trak systems.

  LEGAL STANDARD

  Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, reveals that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). On summary judgment the moving party must identify "those portions of `the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). This initial burden may be satisfied by presenting specific evidence on a particular issue or by pointing out "an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325. Once the movant has met this burden, the non-moving party cannot simply rest on the allegations in the pleadings, but, "by affidavits or as otherwise provided for in [Rule 56], must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). A genuine issue of material fact exists when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The court must consider the record as a whole in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 255; Voice Technologies Group, Inc. v. VMC Systems, Inc. 164 F.3d 605, 612 (Fed. Cir. 1999). With these considerations in mind, we now turn to the present motion.

  DISCUSSION

  Determining whether a patent has been infringed requires a two-step analysis. Dayco Products, Inc. v. Total Containment, Inc., 258 F.3d 1317, 1323 (Fed. Cir. 2001). First, the claims in question must be properly construed to determine their scope and meaning, which is a matter of law. Id. at 1324. The second step is a determination of infringement, which is a question of fact. Id. A granting of summary judgment that the product in question does not infringe may occur only if there is no genuine issue as to whether the accused device is encompassed by the claims in dispute. Id. Non-infringement may be demonstrated by showing that a single material claim limitation of the accuser's patent is not found in the accused device. SmithKline Diagnostics, Inc. v. Helena Laboratories Corp., 859 F.2d 878, 889 (Fed. Cir. 1988).

  For the first step of our analysis, claim construction, "the analytical focus must begin and remain centered on the language of the claims themselves." Texas Digital Systems, Inc. v. Telegenix, Inc., 308 F.3d 1193, 1201 (Fed. Cir. 2002). "The terms used in the claims bear a `heavy presumption' that they mean what they say and have the ordinary meaning that would be attributed to those words by persons skilled in the relevant art." Id. at 1202 (quotation omitted). In deciding the ordinary and customary meaning of claim terms, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and treatises may be employed by the court, as "these materials may be the most meaningful sources of information to aid judges." Id. at 1203. Because words often have multiple dictionary definitions, "[i]f more than one dictionary definition is consistent with the use of the words in the intrinsic record, the claim terms may be construed to encompass all such consistent meanings." Id. Even though the intrinsic record, namely the patent's specifications, must be examined in each case to determine whether the presumption of ordinary and customary meaning is rebutted, consulting intrinsic evidence as a "threshold step" before ascertaining the plain meaning of the claims' words "invites a violation of [Federal Circuit] precedent counseling against importing limitations into the claims." Id. at 1204. Furthermore, while dictionaries and other reference materials are the preferred choice for construing the meaning of claim language, other extrinsic evidence can be utilized by the court, such as the prosecution history and expert or inventor testimony. Pitney Bowes, Inc. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 182 F.3d 1298, 1308-09 (Fed Cir. 1999).

  WMA contends that its Glide-Trak systems do not infringe on the '201 patent because three elements found in Claims 1 through 8 of the '201 patent are not found in the Glide-Trak systems. Because Claims 2 through 8 reincorporate Claim 1's description of a "shelf divider system," we will focus our analysis on the language of Claim 1, which is reprinted as follows:
A shelf divider system comprising:
An elongated channel mounting member operationally securable to a front portion of a shelf;
a shelf divider member slidably receivable in said mounting member so that the divider member extend rearwardly over the shelf; track means on said divider comprising a pair of elongated rails, spring-urged pusher means comprising a pusher member having a front pusher face and a pair of flanges engaging said rails whereby said pusher member is operationally slidable on the rails and the pusher means is rearwardly retractable to accommodate a display of merchandise and will bear against the merchandise to automatically urge the same forwardly on the shelf.
  WMA first argues that the Glide-Trak systems do not infringe on Claim I of the '201 patent because they do not contain a "divider member slidably receivable in said mounting member." (Emphasis added). This clause of Claim 1 describes how the spring-containing dividers on the '201 system (aligned perpendicular to the shelf's edge) are attached to the system's mounting unit, which is affixed to and runs along the front edge of the store shelf. The front of the '201 divider contains a "depending tongue" which extends downward in the direction of the shelf's surface. This depending tongue is then inserted into and constrained in a channel (shaped like a "U" or a rectangle missing its top side) in the mounting member in which the tongue is tightly held (in the words of the '201 patent, the tongue is "frictionally received and retained in the channel . . . of the mounting member"). Once the tongue is placed into the mounting member's channel, the snug fit keeps the divider attached to the mounting member.

  On the other hand, instead of having downward extending tongues at the front of their spring-containing dividers, WMA's Glide-Trak systems' dividers (both Models 1 and 2) have downward facing C-shaped hooks ("C-hooks") attached to their front ends. These hooks fit tightly around tubes (in the shape of a narrow cylinder running parallel to the front of the shelf) that sit atop the Glide-Traks' mounting members. These tubes are physically part of the mounting member, but a raised bar connects the bottom of the tube to the surface of the mounting member. When the C-hook of the divider is locked around the tube of the mounting member, the divider becomes attached to the mounting member.

  WMA contends that because the Glide-Trak dividers attach to their mounting members by securing the C-hooks around the mounting member's raised tubes, the Glide-Trak dividers are never "in" the systems' mounting members. Both parties are satisfied with the definition of the word "in" as stated in the Random House College Dictionary Revised Edition (1988): "(used to indicate inclusion within space, a place, or limits): walking in the park." We therefore will rely on this definition in determining whether the Glide-Trak divider members are slidably receivable "in" their mounting members. WMA's central argument is that the Glide-Traks' divider members attach to the mounting members via C-hooks that connect on or around a raised tube resting atop the mounting member rather than "in" the mounting member. However, preliminarily focusing on the differences between the features of the Glide-Traks and the features of the '201 patent (as written in the patent's description) before determining the plain meaning of the disputed claim term would violate the two-step construction process outlined in Texas Digital. See Intellectual Property Development, Inc. v. UA-Columbia Cablevision of Westchester, Inc., 336 F.3d 1308, 1315 (Fed. Cir. 2003).

  Because the parties agree the Random House definition of "in" is appropriate, we can next look to whether the '201's description rebuts or is inconsistent with the meaning of "in" in the 201's Claim 1, "for example whether [RTC] has specifically defined the term or otherwise limited the scope of the claim." Resonate Inc. v. Alteon Websystems, Inc., 338 F.3d 1360, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2003). The '201's specifications speak of a depending tongue that is to be "frictionally received and retained in the channel of the mounting member." (emphasis added). This description certainly is encompassed by the Random House definition, as it indicates the '201's divider member's tongue being within the space or limits ...


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