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Lecat's Ventriloscope v. MT Tool and Manufacturing

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

January 11, 2018

LECAT'S VENTRILOSCOPE, Plaintiff,
v.
MT TOOL AND MANUFACTURING, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Ruben Castillo, United States District Court Chief Judge

         Lecat's Ventriloscope ("Plaintiff) filed this suit against MT Tool and Manufacturing ("Defendant") for alleged infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7, 645, 141 ("the '141 Patent"). (R. 1, Compl.) Generally speaking, the invention disclosed and claimed in the ' 141 Patent is a device to help train physicians and other medical professionals in the use of "auscultation" devices (e.g., stethoscopes) to evaluate and diagnose patients. The language of the claims defines the scope of a patent, and here, as happens in most patent infringement cases, the parties dispute the meaning of certain terms in the claims. Specifically, the parties dispute whether the terms "auscultation device" and "stethoscope" include simulation or "dummy" devices that look like stethoscopes (or other auscultation devices) but cannot function as such. They also dispute whether the terms "operator, " "user, " and "patient"-which appear together in certain claims-refer to three distinct persons or instead refer simply to different roles. The parties have submitted competing briefs urging their respective interpretations of these terms, and the Court construes them as set forth below.

         BACKGROUND

         The '141 Patent issued from non-provisional U.S. Patent Application Serial No. 11/523, 224 ("the '224 Application") and relates to an "arrangement for auscultation training." (R. 68-1 at 2, '141 Patent, at [21], [54]; see also id col. 1 ll. 41-42 ("The present application discloses an arrangement and method for auscultation training.").) As defined in the patent specification, auscultation is "the act of listening to sounds within the body as a method of diagnosis." (Id. col. 1 ll. 13-14.) According to the specification, a stethoscope is an example of an auscultation device, as it may be used to "listen to internal sounds in the human body, such as for example heart sounds, breathing (breath sounds), intestinal noises, and blood flow in arteries and veins." (Id. col. 1 ll. 14-18.) The specification explains as background that "[u]sing a stethoscope or other auscultation device to diagnos[e] a patient requires training in detecting and identifying, .. abnormal auditory findings." (Id. col, 1 ll. 25-27, ) "[Simulators and mannequins are often used to train or test students on auscultation devices, " and in order to train students in detecting and identifying abnormal auditory findings, such simulators and mannequins may be equipped with "a sound generating device embedded within the body ... to produce sounds consist[ent] with an abnormal physical condition, which students must detect and identify." (Id. col. 1 ll. 31-37.)

         The invention disclosed in the '141 Patent is an arrangement for auscultation training that "provides for the transmission of audio signals to an auscultation device for medical simulation." (Id., col. 1 ll. 42-45.) The claimed arrangement, according to the patent's Abstract, "allow[s] for the broadcast of simulated medical sounds to a generally, normal appearing auscultation device for the purposes of teaching or testing using simulated patient scenarios, while allowing for normal person-to-person interaction between the simulated patient and physician." (Id. at [57].) In one exemplary embodiment of the invention that is described in the specification, a transmitter "sends a wireless signal to [an] auscultation device." (Id. col. 1 ll. 49-53.) The auscultation device, in turn, has an associated "receiver for receiving the audio signal from the transmitter" and a "speaker for relaying the sound to the end user." (Id.)

         The principal embodiment described in the specification comprises an audio device, an FM transmitter, and a modified standard acoustic stethoscope. (Id. col. 3 1. 45 - col. 4 1. 5.) In this embodiment, the audio device is one capable of generating an audio signal, such as "a compact disc player, a cassette player, a digital audio player (e.g. MP3 player, IPod player from Apple Computers), a person[a]l digital assistant (PDA), a computer, or other suitable device." (Id. col. 3 II. 7-15.) The audio device includes "an output, such as a headphone output jack."[1] (Id. col. 3 1. 45 - col. 4 1. 5.) An FM transmitter "attach[es] to the audio device via a wire that plugs into the output" of the audio device. (Id. col. 3 ll. 50-51.) The FM transmitter can be "similar to those used to transmit audio signal[s] from a portable compact disc player to a[n] automobile stereo, " however "[a]ny suitable FM radio transmitter" could be used. (Id. col. 3 ll. 55-59.) The stethoscope, in turn, has an FM radio receiver and a speaker mounted to it. (Id. col. 3 ll, 51-54.) The FM receiver can attach to the stethoscope "in any convenient location, " for example, at approximately "the location where the tubing assembly branches to each of the ear pieces" of the stethoscope, (Id. col. 4 ll, 27-31.) A speaker is connected to the FM receiver and mounted "in the space between the diaphragm and the body portion" of the stethoscope headpiece such that it is "concealed within the head piece assembly." (Id. col. 4 ll. 17-21.) In this way, "sound generated by the speaker travels through the stethoscope in the same manner as sound generated by the diaphragm would, thus providing a realistic simulation of an auscultatory finding." (Id. col. 4 ll. 21-25.) Alternatively, the FM receiver-if small enough-may be mounted between the diaphragm and the body portion of the stethoscope headpiece, such that both the speaker and the FM receiver would be "concealed within the head piece assembly of the stethoscope." (Id. col. 4 ll, 37-43.) This exemplary embodiment is depicted in Figure 2 of the '141 Patent.

         (Image Omitted)

(Id. fig.2.) In Figure 2, item 32 is the audio device, 36 is the FM transmitter, 34 is the output of the audio device to which the FM transmitter attaches via a wire 38, 40 is the stethoscope, and 42 is the FM receiver, which is mounted at the location where the tubing assembly of the stethoscope branches to each of the ear pieces 52 and 54. (Id. col. 3 ll. 45-54; col. 4 ll. 27-31.) Figure 3 shows the headpiece 48 of the stethoscope of this embodiment in cross-section:

         (Image Omitted)

(Id. fig.3.) In Figure 3, 58 is the diaphragm, which mounts to the body portion 60 of the stethoscope headpiece. (Id. col. 4 ll. 15-17.) The sound passageway 62 connects to the tubing assembly of the stethoscope to carry sound to the stethoscope earpieces. (Id. col. 4 ll. 13-15.) The speaker 44 is shown mounted in the space between the diaphragm and the body of the headpiece. (Id. col. 4 ll. 17-19.) The speaker is connected via a wire 66 to the FM receiver (not shown in Figure 3), and the wire may be mostly concealed within the hollow tubing of the stethoscope, protruding from the tubing only to connect to the FM receiver. (Id. col. 4 ll. 26-27, 32-34.).

         When in use, the audio device is "loaded with audio files of abnormal auscultatory findings." (Id. col. 4 ll. 53-60.) "When the user places the headpiece assembly of the stethoscope in the proper location on the patient, an operator of the audio device may play the appropriate audio file." (Id. col. 5 ll. 6-8.) The signal representing the auscultatory sound is then broadcast from the FM transmitter to the FM receiver located on the stethoscope, and in turn, played through the speaker mounted within the stethoscope. "The sound transmitted through the speaker blocks out other normally heard sounds from the patient such that the user hears only the simulated sounds through the stethoscope." (Id. col. 5 ll. 9-11.)

         The patent also describes and claims methods for using the claimed apparatuses in auscultation training. Claim 1 of the patent, for example, reads:

         1. An arrangement for auscultation training, comprising:

a signal generator capable of generating an audio signal representing at least one sound, the signal generator being controlled by a human operator, wherein the human operator plays one or more appropriate audio files according to a user's placement of a stethoscope headpiece on a patient;
a transmitter associated with the device for transmitting an audio signal corresponding to the at least one sound; an auscultation device, comprising a stethoscope, remote from the transmitter, the auscultation device comprising:
a receiver adapted to receive the audio signal from the transmitter; and
a speaker adapted to audibly communicate the audio signal received by the receiver to the user.

(Id. col. 5 I. 54 - col. 6 1. 7.) Claims 1 and 12 are independent claims; claims 2-11 and 13-16 are dependent claims. (Id., col. 5 1. 54 - col. 6 1, 61.)

         Defendant has filed an opening claim construction brief, (R. 68, Br.), Plaintiff filed a responsive brief, (R. 70, Resp.), and Defendant filed a reply, (R. 72, Reply). On May 17, 2017, the Court ruled that it would proceed to construe the claims without holding an evidentiary, or "Markman, " hearing. (R. 74, Min. Entry.)

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         The specification of a U.S. patent concludes with particularized claims that specify "the subject matter which the inventor . .. regards as the invention." 35 U.S.C. § 112(b). These claims "define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude." Aventis Pharms. Inc. v. Amino Chems. Ltd., 715 F.3d 1363, 1373 (Fed. Cir, 2013) (quoting Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc)). Claim construction is the process of adjudicating the meaning of claim language, thereby clarifying the scope of the invention. See Terlep v. Brinkmann Corp. , 418 F.3d 1379, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2005). It is "simply a way of elaborating the normally terse claim language in order to understand and explain, .. the scope of the claims." Id. (citation omitted). The correct construction of claim terms is a question of law for the Court to decide. Warsaw Orthopedic, Inc. v. NuVasive, Inc., 824 F.3d 1344, 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

         Several longstanding principles guide claim construction. Claim terms are generally given their "ordinary and customary" meaning, which 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, i.e., as of the effective filing date of the patent application." Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312-13 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). When construing claim terms, the Court first considers intrinsic evidence, which consists of the words of the claims themselves, the remainder of the specification, and the prosecution history of the patent.[2] Id. at 1314. "[P]rior art cited during the examination of the patent" is deemed part of the prosecution history and therefore constitutes intrinsic evidence. Id. at 1317; see also Kumar v. Ovonic Battery Co., 351 F.3d 1364, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 2003) ("Our cases . .. establish that prior art cited in a patent or cited in the prosecution history of the patent constitutes intrinsic evidence, "). The Court may also consider extrinsic evidence, which consists of "all evidence external to the patent and prosecution history, including expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises, " Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317 (citation omitted). Ultimately, "[t]he construction that stays true to the claim language and most naturally aligns with the patent's description of the invention will be, in the end, the correct construction." Id. at 1316 (citation omitted).

         In the hierarchy of probative evidence, the specification ranks first; it is "the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term" and is therefore usually dispositive. Id. at 1315 (citation omitted). The prosecution history is the next best source of meaning. Though it often "lacks the clarity of the specification and thus is less useful, " it is still highly relevant because it was generated by the applicant in attempting to explain and obtain the patent, and therefore provides evidence of how both the applicant and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office ("PTO") understood the claimed invention. Id. at 1317.

         If the claim language "remains genuinely ambiguous after consideration of the intrinsic evidence, " the Court may also consider and rely on extrinsic evidence. Bell & Howell Document Mgmt. Prods. Co. v. Altek Sys., 132 F.3d 701, 706 (Fed. Cir. 1997), However, extrinsic evidence is generally "less reliable" as a guide to meaning. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1318. Among other reasons for its subordinate status is that "there is a virtually unbounded universe of potential extrinsic evidence of some marginal relevance" and "[i]n the course of litigation, each party will naturally choose the, ., extrinsic evidence most favorable to its cause, leaving the court with the considerable task of filtering the useful extrinsic evidence from the fluff." Id. Nevertheless, extrinsic evidence may be useful. Relevant dictionaries and treatises, for example, can be useful because they "endeavor to collect the accepted meanings of terms used in various fields of science and technology." Id. Expert testimony can also be useful-to provide background on the technology at issue, explain how an invention works, or establish that a term has a particular meaning in the relevant field. Id. But "conclusory, unsupported assertions by experts as to the definition of a claim term are not useful to a court." Id.', see also Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1585 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (cautioning that "opinion testimony on claim construction should be treated with the utmost caution, for it is no better than opinion testimony on the meaning of statutory terms"). A court should be cautious to avoid undue reliance on extrinsic evidence, for that "poses the risk that [extrinsic evidence] will be used to change the meaning of claims in derogation of the indisputable public records consisting of the claims, the specification and the prosecution history, thereby undermining the public notice function of patents." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1319 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Ultimately, "[t]he sequence of steps used by the judge in consulting various sources is not important; what matters is for the court to attach the appropriate weight to be assigned to those sources in light of the statutes and policies that inform patent law." Id., at 1324.

         ANALYSIS

         The parties offer competing constructions for five claim terms: (1) "auscultation device"; (2) "stethoscope"; (3) "operator"; (4) "user"; and (5) "patient." The Court addresses each in turn.

         I. "Auscultation ...


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