A recent appeals court decision raises interesting implications as to whether a question of law will actually be reviewed as such when a patent jury’s decision is appealed.
Patent law is unique in many ways. One example is the use of Markman hearings, where the meaning of patent claim terms are decided as a matter of law. A matter of law means the judge alone gets to decide. In other cases, such as a contract dispute, the interpretation of the terms in the contract involve questions of fact. Questions of fact are determined by the jury.
Whether something is a question of law or a question of fact affects not just what happens at trial, but also on appeal. An appeals court will defer to the jury on questions of fact, but will be more free to overrule a judge’s decision on a question of law.
In Circuit Check, Inc. v. QXQ, Inc., a patent infringement case over interface plates for circuit board testers, the jury decided that the asserted claims were not obvious and were infringed. The defendant moved the trial court for judgment as a matter of law that the claims were invalid for obviousness. Treating the issue as a question of law, the trial court granted the motion and overruled the jury, holding all the asserted claims obvious and invalid.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit in July 2015 reversed the trial court and reinstated the jury’s decision. The Federal Circuit noted that obviousness is “a question of law based on underlying factual findings.” As a result, the obviousness question is reviewed with some deference as to the underlying facts, but more broadly reviewed as to the ultimate legal conclusion drawn from those facts. As applied in this case, the Federal Circuit’s analysis focused largely on the factual parts of the jury’s decision, and the legal decision seemed to flow naturally and almost automatically from the underlying facts.
Thus, although obviousness is a question of law, the actual treatment of the jury’s decision was much more like the deferential review given to questions of fact. Future trial courts may be less likely to reverse the jury on such questions in light of this decision.