The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit addressed the claim construction tension between broadly drafted claims, and the written description contained in the patent specification, revealing a deep split among the panel members.  Retractable Technologies, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson Co., Case No. 07-CV-0250 (Fed. Cir,. July 8, 2011) (Lourie, J.) (Plager, J., concurring) (Rader, J. dissenting-in-part).  

Retractable Technologies (RT) sued Becton Dickenson (BD) for infringing three patents related to syringes with retractable needle technology. Following an adverse jury verdict, BD appealed on multiple grounds, including a challenge to the claim construction of the term “body,” which the district court had determined could include a multi-part structure.

The Federal Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, specifically rejecting the district court’s broad claim construction the term “body.”  BD argued that the district court erred in ruling the syringe “body” is not limited to a one-piece structure, noting the specifications describes “the invention” as including a one-piece body.  In addition, the background section of the patent criticized prior art syringes that contain a two-piece body.  Finally, BD argued that claim differentiation does not apply in light of the written description’s limiting statements concerning the nature of the invention and the structure of the syringe body.

RT responded that the ordinary meaning of the term “body” should apply and is not limited to a one-piece body.  RT also argued application of the claim differentiation canon based on a dependent claim that included the limitation of a one-piece body.

Judge Lourie wrote for the majority of the panel, agreeing with BD that the claim term “body” is limited to a one-piece structure as described in the specifications. The majority noted that the specification indicates what was invented, holding that the claim language should not be interpreted to extend the invention beyond that set forth in the written description.  The majority also rejected RT’s claim differentiation argument as “weak” in the face of the language of the specification.  The majority noted that no dependent claim recited a non-one piece structure and concluded that the language of the specification that criticized two-piece structures was of greater significance than the dependent claim to a one-piece body.

Judge Plager, concurring, warned courts to turn a deaf ear to the siren song of giving claims wide scope.  In Judge Plager’s opinion, the written description requirement imposes an obligation to make full disclosure of what is actually invented and to claim that and nothing more.  As Judge Plager noted, “I have written elsewhere about the curse of indefinite and ambiguous claims, divorced from the written description, that we are regularly are asked to construe, and the need for more stringent rules to control the curse.”

In dissent, Judge Rader focused on the ordinary meaning of the term “body” and explained that since there was no special meaning provided by the patent specification to supplant the ordinary meaning of the term “body,” it was error to limit the construction to only a one-piece structure.  Rader wrote,  “In this case, neither party contends that ‘body’ has a special, technical meaning in the field of art, and thus claim construction requires ‘little more than the application of the widely accepted meaning of commonly used words.’”

Practice Note:  This decision reflects a fundamental division within the Federal Circuit on the importance of the written description as a limitation on claim scope, as compared to the view that the claim language itself should be of paramount importance in construction. Until there is either some post-Phillips en banc clarification or Supreme Court consideration of the issue, the outcome of contested constructions in such a circumstance may demand on the panel hearing the appeal.