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PHOENIX CLOSURES, INC. v. SILGAN PLASTICS CORP.

November 15, 2005.

PHOENIX CLOSURES, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
SILGAN PLASTICS CORP., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MATTHEW KENNELLY, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Phoenix Closures, Inc. has sued Silgan Plastics Corp. for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,257,432, which relates to a sealing mechanism found in powdered drink containers. This case is before the Court for construction of the disputed claim language in the patent-in-suit.

Facts

  Because powdered drink mix is notorious for forming undesirable clumps when exposed to humid air, manufacturers of the product are always in need of an inexpensive cap and container assembly that forms an airtight seal after repeated opening. Len Ekkert, Phoenix's vice-president, invented one of these sought-after assemblies, patented his invention in July 2001, and assigned the patent to Phoenix. We include as an appendix an illustrative diagram from the patent. Silgan sells a competing cap and container assembly that Phoenix believes infringes on independent claims 3 and 14 of its patent as well as a number of dependent claims. The construction of the independent claims is in dispute.

  After briefing the issue of claim construction, the parties presented oral argument and submitted additional material during a October 26, 2005 hearing. Discussion

  Claim construction entails questions of law to be determined by the Court. See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 977-78 (Fed. Cir. 1995); Mars, Inc. v. H.J. Heinz Co., 377 F.3d 1369, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005), the Federal Circuit clarified the approach courts should use when analyzing claim language. It directed courts to focus at the outset on how the patentee used the claim term in the claims, specifications, and prosecution history, rather than beginning the analysis by consulting dictionaries or similar sources. Id. at 1321. The court noted that "heavy reliance on the dictionary divorced from the intrinsic evidence risks transforming the meaning of the claim term to the artisan into the meaning of the term in the abstract." Id. at 1315.

  The claim term's ordinary and customary meaning, as understood by persons who were skilled in the relevant technology at the time the patent application was filed, continues to serve as the baseline interpretation of the proper scope of the claim. Courts are instructed to analyze the disputed terms in the context of the disputed claim itself, as well as in the context of the patent as a whole. Phillips emphasized that in addition to evaluating the claims of a patent in dispute, the specification is the "single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term." Id. (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). If the specification indicates that the patentee defined the term in a manner that differs from its generally conceived meaning or disavowed claim scope, the inventor's intention is dispositive. Id. at 1316.

  Though the Federal Circuit emphasized the primary role intrinsic evidence should play in discerning the proper scope of claims, it did not preclude the use of extrinsic evidence altogether. Judges remain free to consult dictionaries or comparable sources to assist in understanding the meaning of words and to gain a better understanding of the underlying technology. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1322. In particular, the court noted that dictionaries may be helpful in determining the ordinary meaning of certain non-technical, commonly understood words. See id. at 1314. Thus, dictionaries, and particularly technical treatises, may continue to inform claim construction, so long as a court does not adopt a definition that contradicts the intrinsic evidence. Id. at 1322-23.

  In sum, though there exists no "magic formula . . . for conducting claim construction," and the sequence of steps used by the judge is unimportant, id. at 1324, the focus should remain on construing the claims within the context of the patent itself.

  At the outset, Phoenix maintains that two of the claim terms at issue have clear meanings and do not require definition. Thus, the constructions proposed by Phoenix are alternatives should the Court conclude that a definition is necessary. Phoenix has cited no authority, however, for the proposition that it is unnecessary to construe a disputed limitation when its meaning is obvious to one of the parties. The Federal Circuit has held that claim construction is necessary "when the meaning or scope of technical terms and words of art is unclear and in dispute and requires resolution to determine the issue before the court." Eli Lilly & Co. v. Aradigm Corp., 376 F.3d 1352, 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (quoting U.S. Surgical Corp. v. Ethicon, Inc., 103 F.3d 1554, 1568 (Fed. Cir. 1997)). The fact that the meaning of a particular limitation is disputed suggests that the meaning is not entirely clear from the language used in the patent and that the Court must construe the term. The Court agrees with Phoenix that certain terms may not require elaborate interpretation, see Brown v. 3M, 265 F.3d 1349, 1352 (Fed. Cir. 2001), but Phoenix's suggestion that entire limitations in dispute do not require construction is at odds with the purpose of claim construction.

  1. Claim 3

  The parties dispute several terms found in claim 3, which discloses:
A cap and container assembly comprising: a container and a cap; the container including a base, and a neck for sealing engagement with the cap; a land area at an end of the neck defining a container mouth, and an exterior surface of the neck below the land area and an exterior surface of the base defining an exterior side surface of the container; the cap including a top and a skirt depending peripherally from the top; the skirt including a horizontal stopping surface; wherein the stopping surface of the skirt and a horizontal stopping surface on the container engage to form a positive stop to lower engagement of the cap with respect to the container.
a. Top/Skirt
  The parties contest the scope of the word "top" and "skirt," which appear in claims 3 and 14. Phoenix argues that the top is the "upper portion that covers the container"; Silgan argues that it is "the upper central portion (convex as seen from the interior) of the cap which is bounded by the depending peripheral skirt and from which the sealing protrusions depend." In essence, Phoenix maintains that the top includes the curved outer edge of the upper portion of the cap, and ends somewhere near the point where the outer edge becomes vertical. Silgan maintains that the top ends where it transitions from convex to concave. As for the term "skirt," Phoenix defines it as "the outer portion," and Silgan defines it as "that portion of a cap which bounds the top of the cap and depends peripherally therefrom and which includes a generally cylindrical portion for engagement with the cylinder."

  Both parties cite the specification to support their proposed definitions. At column 2, lines 17-18, the specification states, "The top . . . is generally convex as viewed from inside of the cap." Silgan says this passage suggests that the top ends near where it transitions from a convex to concave shape,*fn1 though we note that saying the top is generally convex does not mean that it is entirely convex. On the other hand, at column 3, lines 20-21, the patent describes the skirt as "generally the same diameter as the upper part of the base." This description suggests that the skirt ends near where the cap transitions from concave to being a more or less straight vertical line.

  If one examines these definitions of top and skirt collectively, one quickly realizes that the concave portion of the cap — the curved portion or the outer edge — remains unnamed. Silgan argues that the concave area is part of the skirt, because one of the preferred embodiments illustrates a number of "stops or projections on the interior surface of the skirt," some of which extend into the concave area. The Court rejects this argument. Though the specification requires stops or ...


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