The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled on two companion cases originating out of the United States International Trade Commission (ITC), reversing some findings of infringement and affirming findings of non-infringement. General Protecht Group, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 09-1378 (Fed. Cir., Aug. 27, 2010) (Dyk, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting) (General Protecht) and Pass & Seymour, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 09-1338 (Fed. Cir., Aug. 27, 2010) (Prost, J.) (Newman, J., concurring) (Pass & Seymour).

The three patents-at-issue relate to ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) found in electrical receptacles commonly located in bathrooms and kitchens. The GFCI receptacles, which can be identified by the “test” and “reset” buttons positioned between the two electrical sockets, are designed to protect people from potentially fatal electrical shocks by cutting off the flow of electricity when the device detects a ground fault.

Pass & Seymour, owner of the three GFCI patents in issue, filed a complaint alleging infringement of its patents at the ITC, seeking to bar the importation into the United States of the allegedly infringing products. At the ITC the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued an initial determination finding violations of §337 relating to all three patents. General Protecht Group, Wenzhou Trimone Science and Technology Electric Co. and Shanghai ELE Manufacturing Corp. (the respondents) petitioned the full ITC for the review of the ALJ’s decision. The ITC upheld the ALJ’s findings in some respects and reversed others, resulting in findings of infringement and non-infringement. Both the respondents and the complainant appealed to the Federal Circuit, leading to the two companion cases.

In General Protecht, the respondents raised numerous issues challenging the ITC’s final determination of infringement. The Federal Circuit, considering the appeal under the standards of the Administrative Procedures Action (de novo for legal determinations and substantial evidence for factual findings), reversed an ITC finding that General Protecht products infringed complainant’s patents. With regard to one of the asserted patents, the Federal Circuit reversed the ITC’s claim construction, finding that the commission improperly relied upon expert testimony, resulting in overly broad claim scope. The Court found that expert testimony in the context of claim construction can be “useful in assisting a court ‘to establish that a particular term in the patent … has a particular meaning in the pertinent field,’” but “cautioned that ‘conclusory, unsupported assertions by experts as to the definition of a claim term are not useful to a court.’” The Federal Circuit found that the accused devices did not infringe under the revised, narrower claim construction.

Another of the asserted patents claimed a device including a “latching means,” which the specification described in mechanical terms. In contrast, one of the accused products used magnetic latches. Applying §112, ¶ 6, the Federal Circuit found that substantial evidence did not support the ITC’s conclusion that the function of the magnetic latch of the accused devices was performed in substantially the same way as the function of the claimed mechanical latch, and therefore the magnetic latch was not equivalent to the claimed latching means.

Judge Newman dissented, arguing the court erred in relying on a prior case involving mechanical and magnetic latches.

In Pass & Seymour, the Federal Circuit affirmed the ITC’s finding that complainant’s asserted patents were not infringed. In this case, one of the asserted patents included a claim term requiring that “the patented device must be configured to trip in response to a signal that the device is properly wired.” The ITC acknowledged that as drafted, the claim “was not perfectly logical and might have been a claim-drafting error.” The Federal Circuit agreed that the plain meaning controlled and the ITC’s interpretation was supported by the specification.