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Days Corp. v. Lippert Components Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

July 15, 2019

DAYS CORPORATION, Plaintiff,
v.
LIPPERT COMPONENTS, INC. and INNOVATIVE DESIGN SOLUTIONS, INC. Defendants. INNOVATIVE DESIGN SOLUTIONS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DAYS CORPORATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Philip P. Simon, U.S. District Judge

         In these consolidated cases, rival manufacturers square off concerning their leveling systems for use on recreational vehicles, motorhomes, trailers, and other structures often parked on uneven ground. Days Corporation has a patent (No. 6, 619, 693 or the '693 patent) for an Apparatus and Method for Automatically Leveling an Object. Innovative Design Solutions, Inc. and/or Lippert Components, Inc. hold two similar patents: the first is Patent No. 6, 584, 385 (or the '385 patent) for a Vehicle Leveling Assembly, and the second is Patent No. 6, 885, 924 (or the '924 patent) for a Vehicle Attitude Adjustment Assembly. The ownership of defendants' patents is currently in dispute. But we can set that issue to the side for the time being because the issue now before me is claims construction. There are a number of claims from all three patents that need to be construed.

         I held a Markman hearing to flesh out the various issues in dispute. That moniker comes the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996) where the court observed that the rights of a patentholder to exclude others from making, using or selling the patented invention are granted in exchange for the “full disclosure” of the invention. This means that “a patent must describe the exact scope of an invention and its manufacture to ‘secure to [the patentee] all to which he is entitled, [and] to apprise the public of what is still open to them.'” Id. at 373, quoting McClain v. Ortmayer, 141 U.S. 419, 424 (1891). These requirements are met by the “specification” of the patent, which describes the invention “in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person skilled in the art…to make and use the same, ” and by the patent's “claims, ” which “particularly poin[t] out and distinctly clai[m] the subject matter which the applicant regards as his invention.” 35 U.S.C. §112(b).

         The claims of a patent define the patent's scope. Markman, 517 U.S. at 373. Someone bringing an allegation of infringement must show that a patent's claim “'covers the alleged infringer's product or process,' which in turn necessitates a determination of ‘what the words in the claim mean.'” Id. at 374, quoting H. Schwartz, Patent Law and Practice 1, 80 (2d ed. 1995). The two steps of an infringement analysis are therefore: (1) “determining the meaning and scope of the patent claims asserted to be infringed, ” and (2) “comparing the properly construed claims to the device accused of infringing.” Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 976 (Fed. Cir. 1995). See also Innova/Pure Water, Inc. v. Safari Water Filtration Sys., Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1115 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

         Step one -- claims construction -- is a matter for the court. What this means is that where the meaning of claim terms is disputed, the court resolves the dispute to “clarify and explain what the claims cover.” Baxter Int'l, Inc. v. CareFusion Corp., 2019 WL 1897063, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 29, 2019), citing Terlep v. Brinkmann Corp., 418 F.3d 1379, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2005). See also Markman, 517 U.S. at 373. “Claim construction seeks to ascribe the ‘ordinary and customary meaning' to claim terms as a person of ordinary skill in the art would have understood them at the time of invention.” Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co., v. Emcure Pharm. Ltd., 887 F.3d 1153, 1157 (Fed. Cir. 2018). “As a general rule, the ordinary and customary meaning controls unless ‘a patentee sets out a definition and acts as his own lexicographer, or … the patentee disavows the full scope of a claim term either in the specification or during prosecution.'” Id, quoting Thorner v. Sony Comput. Entm't Am. LLC, 669 F.3d 1362, 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2012).

         As the Federal Circuit teaches in Sumitomo, “[t]he plain claim language marks the starting point for our analysis.” 887 F.3d at 1157. But applying the understanding of a person of ordinary skill in the art requires consideration of the disputed term “not only in the context of the particular claim in which the disputed term appears, but in the context of the entire patent, including the specification.” Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1313 (Fed. Cir. 2005). “[T]he context in which a term is used in the asserted claim can be highly instructive.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. The specification is “always highly relevant to the claim construction analysis, ” and is usually dispositive as “it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term.” Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582. (Fed. Cir. 1996). See also Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1315.

         Claim to be Construed in the Days ‘693 Patent

          There is only one disputed claim term in Days' ‘693 patent, namely “reference level plane” as used in Claims 12 and 13. To see the disputed language in its context, I will highlight the claim term within the full text of Claims 12 and 13. Reviewing these claims in their entirety also offers a helpful snapshot of how the leveling systems generally work.

         12. An apparatus for automatically leveling a vehicle, comprising:

a plurality of legs each of which is mounted to the vehicle;
wherein each of the legs is movable between a retracted stowed position and an extended use position; and
wherein each of the legs is moved to the retracted stowed position to allow the vehicle to travel and each of the legs is moved to the extended use position to engage a ground surface prior to leveling the vehicle;
a sensor mounted to the vehicle to sense pitch and roll of the vehicle relative to a reference level plane; wherein the sensor produces an orientation signal representing the vehicle pitch and roll; and
a controller coupled to each [of] the legs and the sensor;
wherein the controller monitors the orientation signal received from the sensor and in response to that signal the controller causes at least one of the legs to both extend to move the vehicle upwardly and retract to move the vehicle downwardly relative to the ground surface, until the orientation of the vehicle reaches the reference level plane within a tolerance.

         13. An apparatus for automatically leveling a vehicle, comprising:

a plurality of legs each of which is mounted to the vehicle;
wherein each of the legs is movable between a retracted stowed position and an extended use position; and
wherein each of the legs is moved to the retracted stowed position to allow the vehicle to travel and each of the legs is moved to the extended use position to engage a ground surface prior to leveling the vehicle;
a sensor mounted to the vehicle to sense pitch and roll of the vehicle relative to a reference level plane;
wherein the sensor produces an orientation signal representing the vehicle pitch and roll; and a controller coupled to each of the legs and the sensor; wherein the controller monitors the orientation signal received from the sensor and in response to that signal the controller causes at least one of the legs to move the vehicle relative to the ground surface until the orientation of the vehicle reaches the reference level plane within a tolerance; and
wherein the controller includes a memory for storing data corresponding to the reference level plane and is configured to write data representing an orientation signal to the memory to replace the reference level plane data with orientation signal data.

         Days' contention is that “reference level plane” should be interpreted as “a plane chosen by the user as level.” Lippert, by contrast, advocates for the following construction: “a reference plane that extends through the mounting locations of the four legs on the vehicle frame where the interior of the vehicle is at true level relative to the horizontal.” The dispute sets up a contrast between a subjective and flexible definition (Days') and a fixed objective definition (Lippert's). Lippert argues that, to have any meaning, “reference level plane” needs to be defined by a geometric relationship to the vehicle. But this is so only if the concept must necessarily be a fixed plane determinable from prescribed points. The specification instead suggests that a “reference level plane” is a user-determined plane set as the reference for determining when “level” is achieved by the system.

         Both parties point to the specification's explanation that “the reference level plane generally corresponds to a vehicle orientation which results in the interior of the vehicle feeling at true level relative to the horizontal.” ‘693 patent, col. 7, ll. 35-38. The specification also indicates that when the vehicle “is in the reference level plane…or a plane which is parallel to the plane…[the] vehicle 10 is preferably at true level.” ‘693 patent, col. 7, ll. 64-66. The qualifiers “generally, ” “feeling at” and “preferably” support Days' subjective reading of “reference level plane.” The initial setting of the reference level plane is recommended to be “as close to true level as possible.” ‘693 patent, col. 10, ll. 11-12. The specification also describes how the reference level plane can be recalibrated or reset by the operator to account for heavy loads, “such that the vehicle feels or measures level from the inside of the vehicle.” ‘693 patent, col. 10, ll. 19-20 (emphasis added). The setting of the reference level plane is accomplished manually by an operator according to his or her preference.

         I understand the presumption that for most contemplated usages, having the vehicle interior at roughly true level will be desired. But I see no basis for a construction of “reference level plane” that would limit the term to “true level” as Lippert argues. I also find persuasive Days' observation that Lippert's construction links the plane to “the four legs on the vehicle frame” when Claims 12 and 13 prescribe only “a plurality of legs, ” which, as the parties agree [DE 57 at 3], simply means “more than one.” Finally, I note that the use of the indefinite article “a” in the term “a reference level plane” supports Days' more flexible interpretation. If “reference level plane” is understood as Lippert ...


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