Federal Circuit claims “Control Means” deciding factor in Summary JudgementOctober 27, 2017

On Thursday, October 19, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decided Lufthansa Technik Ag v. Astronics Advanced Electronic Systems Corp., an appeal which arose from a patent infringement suit brought in the Western District of Washington. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant—Astronics Corp., finding all claims of U.S. Patent No. 6,016,016 (the ‘016 patent) to be invalid. Because the Federal Circuit concluded that the claim term control means is indefinite, it affirmed the district court decision on alternative grounds.

The Federal Circuit and the district court agreed control means is a mean-plus-function limitation. The district court found the term control means was not indefinite, asserting “logic elements to receive and transmit internal and external signals and configured to activate switches based upon these signals” served as the associated structure of control means.

To reverse the district court’s finding and support its conclusion that control means is indefinite, the Federal Circuit relied on its decision in Ergo Licensing, LLC v. CareFusion 303, Inc., where it held the failure to specify the corresponding structure in the specification amounts to impermissible functional claiming.

Every claim in the ‘016 patent requires a control means that is responsive to plug detection and renders the voltage supply means operative when two contact pins are detected within a predetermined time value. The problem for Lufthansa, however, is that the text and figures of the specification (namely col. 5, lines 5–14 and Fig. 3) do not disclose any components or logic elements to perform logic functions. Thus, because the ‘016 patent does not call out a specific, well-known component to perform the claimed function, the specification provides no more structure than the term control means itself, and control means is indefinite.

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