Post by Alex Christian
The 1996 United States Supreme Court decision in Markman v. Westview Instruments established a landmark change for claim construction in patent infringement cases. That case established that the meaning of the claim language of a patent is a matter of law for a judge to decide, and not a matter of fact that should be determined by the jury. Since the decision, what is now known as a "Claim Construction Hearing" or a "Markman hearing" is now common place in patent infringement cases. Nearly two decades after the Markman decision, the Supreme Court has taken a case with the potential to dramatically alter this aspect of patent litigation.
The Markman hearing has become one of—if not the single—most important events in a patent infringement case. In a Markman hearing, the Court is required to interpret any claims at issue in the case brought forth by the parties. This usually includes extensive briefing, expert reports, expert testimony, and oral arguments before the Court. Markman hearings are so important and so influential that often the party who prevails in the Markman hearing will go to be the successful party—whether by trial or by settlement—in the case.
On October 15, 2014, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case of Teva Pharmaceuticals v. Sandoz. The case is centered on the question of what appellate rules should apply to claim construction decisions. Currently, there is tension between the Federal Circuit case law and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding the way in which a district court's factual findings relating to claim construction are treated on appeal. The specific issue presented to the Supreme Court is:
Whether a district court's factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case) or only for clear error, as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires.
Among the issues addressed during oral arguments, a significant amount of the debate dealt with the framework through which to view patent claims: similar to statues, which receive a de novo review; or like contracts, for which the district courts are given deference for underlying conclusions. You can find the transcript to the oral arguments here.
This particular case highlights the complexities Markman hearings have introduced into patent litigation, and the potentially tenuous ground upon which patent litigation has settled in the last several decades. Perhaps the most complex issue that could be raised by the Supreme Court's eventual decision in this case, is that Markman hearings are considered by some as a violation of a plaintiff patent-owner's 7th Amendment right to a jury trial.
For additional background on the Markman decision, see Ed Sease's article, "Markman Misses the Mark, Miserably" available here.