General Protecht Group, Inc. v. Internal Trade Commission, 2009-1378, -1387, -1434 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 27, 2010)

The accused infringers appealed from a final determination of the International Trade Commission (“ITC”) that certain of their ground fault circuit interrupters (“GFCIs”) infringed various patents and that those patents were not invalid. The Federal Circuit reversed the ITC’s findings as to infringement.

At the outset, the Federal Circuit noted that it reviews the ITC’s final determination under the standards of the Administrative Procedure Act, reviewing the ITC’s legal determinations de novo and its factual findings for substantial evidence.

As to one of the key claim terms at issue, “load terminals,” the key point was whether that term includes “receptacle outlets.” A majority of the court found that “load terminals” did not include “receptacle outlets,” explaining that the patent never describes “receptacle outlets” as “load terminals,” and that drawings in the patent all labeled the “load terminals” separately from the “receptacle outlets.” The majority further rejected any expert testimony that may have been to the contrary, noting that “conclusory, unsupported assertions by experts as to the definition of a claim term are not useful to a court.” Here, none of the experts identified a particular meaning in the art for load terminals,” and were, in any event, “fastidious” in referring to “receptacle outlets” and “load terminals” as separate elements.

The majority next addressed whether the accused products’ use of a magnet performed the function of the “latching means” described in one of the patents. According to the majority, there was no infringement here because “one system that accomplishes a function mechanically and another system that accomplishes the same function using magnetic force function in fundamentally different ways.” Moreover, while the experts testified that magnets were well known as latches, they did not testify that they performed the latching means function in substantially the same way as the mechanical latch disclosed in the patent.

Judge Newman dissented, stating that the administrative law judge’s Initial Decision of 170 pages and the ITC’s supplemental rulings of 32 pages “present a full understanding of the technology, with rigorous discussion of the evidence and extensive analysis, findings, and conclusions.” In contrast, the majority “finds its own facts, applies theories that were not raised by any party, uses incorrect standards of review, and creates its own electrical technology contrary to the uniform and unchallenged expert testimony.”

A copy of the opinion can be found here.