IP Law Daily Volkswagen did not infringe patents for tilt control systems
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Monday, January 9, 2017

Volkswagen did not infringe patents for tilt control systems

By Thomas Long, J.D.

Automobile maker Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., and auto parts company ZF Sachs AG did not infringe patents related to vehicular tilt control apparatuses, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled. The appellate court affirmed the district court’s claim constructions and its decision that two of the patent claims were invalid as indefinite (Cloud Farm Associates LP v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., January 9, 2017, Clevenger, R.).

Patent-holder Cloud Farm Associates LP alleged that Volkswagen infringed four Cloud Farm patents, and that ZF Sachs infringed three of those patents. The patents were directed toward devices that limit body roll or tilt in a car while it is going around a turn or curve by limiting flow of hydraulic fluid between chambers within the apparatus. Following claim construction, the parties stipulated that, if the district court’s constructions were not reversed or modified on appeal, Cloud Farm could not prove infringement of any asserted claims. Cloud Farm and Volkswagen further stipulated that under the district court’s constructions, two asserted claims were invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. §112. The district court adopted the joint stipulation and entered a final judgment of noninfringement and invalidity. On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court’s claim construction and affirmed the final judgment.

"Seal" and "prevent." The district court construed the disputed terms "seal" and "prevent" to mean "stop." For example, the district court construed "seal," "seals," and "sealing" to mean "stopping the flow of hydraulic fluid," and construed "prevent flow of said fluid" to mean "to stop flow of said hydraulic fluid." The parties’ disagreements over these terms concerned whether, upon sensing excessive vehicle tilt, the patented system stopped (as argued by the defendants) or merely reduced (as argued by Cloud Farm) the flow of hydraulic fluid from one portion of the tilt controller to the other, the movement of the piston, and the tilting of the vehicle body. Siding with the defendants, the district court found that the terms "seal," "seals," and "sealing" were used consistently throughout the patents to mean "completely stopping the flow of hydraulic fluid." The court noted that the words "hinder flow" (as proposed by Cloud Farm) never appeared in any patent specification, and no patent explained how it would be possible to accomplish partial sealing.

The Federal Circuit found that the intrinsic evidence clearly supported the district court’s constructions. The district court correctly determined that the plain and ordinary meaning of both terms was "to stop," after considering the claim language in light of the specification. The district court’s constructions also aligned with the embodiments disclosed in the specifications. There was no support in the specification for a tilt controller where flow was merely slowed. Moreover, during prosecution, the language "prevent any substantial flow" was changed to "prevent any flow," which bolstered the lower court’s construction.

"Sensing means within said steering column." The term "sensing means within said steering column to sense rotation of said steering wheel and a pre-set minimum speed of said vehicle, such that when rotation of said steering wheel is below about 20 degrees or beyond about 160 degrees, at or above said pre-set minimum speed, said sensing means will send a signal to said sealing means," was found in claim 1 of the ’616 patent. The district court construed the function to be "sensing rotation of said steering wheel and a pre-set minimum speed of said vehicle, such that said sensing means will send a signal to said sealing means when rotation of said steering wheel is below about 20 degrees or beyond about 160 degrees, at or above said pre-set minimum speed." However, the district court held that the patent did not describe a structure performing the claimed function. The district court rejected Cloud Farm’s proposed structure—a "speed-measuring device, e.g., the vehicle’s speedometer or RPM meter"—because it "has nothing to do with sensing vehicle speed, which is what the claimed function requires"; therefore, the district court found the claim to be indefinite.

The Federal Circuit held that Cloud Farm waived its argument regarding structure because it failed to propose the structure during claim construction. A party cannot introduce new claim construction arguments on appeal or alter the scope of the positions it took below. Even if it had not been waived, the argument failed because the specification did not describe the speedometer or RPM meter as being within the steering column.

"Means for controlling." The district court found that the function of "means for controlling the suspension system"—part of claim 5 of the ’616 patent—was "controlling the suspension system," but again found no corresponding structure. Cloud Farm argued that the function should be "altering the suspension system," but the district court rejected this proposal, explaining that "altering" was materially different from "controlling." The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court’s construction of the function and its finding that no corresponding structure existed. Cloud Farm failed to offer any evidence supporting its contention that the term "controlling" should be replaced by the term "altering."

"Means for activating." The final disputed term was "means for activating said means for controlling said suspension system at a pre-set angle of movement of said vehicle depending upon the speed of the vehicle in accordance with the Table [reproduced supra Part I] to convert the normally fast rate of movement of the body toward said axle to a slower rate of movement of said body toward said axle." The district court construed the term to mean "activating said means for controlling said suspension system at a vehicle wheel turning angle"—with said angle specifically corresponding to a table of speeds—"to convert the normally fast rate of movement of the body toward said axle to a slower rate of movement of said body toward said axle." This term also was unsupported by a corresponding structure, the district court found. According to the district court, the specification only disclosed a microprocessor that could implement this term’s function, which was not sufficient. The Federal Circuit agreed. An algorithm was required, along with the general-purpose computer component. The table of angles and speeds did not constitute an algorithm; it was just another way of describing the claimed function. That is, the table was the output of the algorithm, which was not included in the patent.

The case is No. 2016-1448.

Attorneys: Patrick J. Kelleher (Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP) for Cloud Farm Associates LP. Georg Christian Reitboeck (Andrews Kurth Kenyon LLP) for Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. Martin B. Pavane (Cozen O'Connor) for ZF Sachs AG.

Companies: Cloud Farm Associates LP; Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.; ZF Sachs AG

MainStory: TopStory Patent FedCirNews

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