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Cequent Performance Products, Inc. v. Hopkins Manufacturing Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 26, 2017

CEQUENT PERFORMANCE PRODUCTS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
HOPKINS MANUFACTURING CORPORATION et al., Defendants. Claim Limitation Cequent Proposal Hopkins Proposal Court's Construction Claim Limitation Cequent's Proposed Construction Hopkins' Proposed Construction Court's Construction

          OPINION AND ORDER CONSTRUING DISPUTED CLAIM LIMITATIONS

          MATTHEW F. LEITMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a patent infringement case. Plaintiff Cequent Performance Products, Inc. (“Cequent”) alleges that Defendant Hopkins Manufacturing Corporation (“Hopkins”) has infringed upon three of its patents: U.S. Patent Nos. (1) 6, 068, 352, entitled “Microprocessor-Based Control for Trailer Brakes” (“the ‘352 Patent”); (2) 6, 012, 780, entitled “Brake Controller for Trailer Brakes” (“the ‘780 Patent”); and (3) 6, 445, 993, entitled “Brake Control Unit” (“the ‘993 Patent”) (collectively, the “Patents”). The Patents are directed to electronic brake controllers that activate the brakes on a trailer being towed by a vehicle.

         Cequent and Hopkins have now identified ten claim limitations from the Patents that are in dispute. (See ECF ## 42, 47.) In this Opinion and Order, the Court will construe the disputed claim limitations pursuant to Markman v. Westview Instruments, 517 U.S. 370 (1996).

         I

         “The construction of claims is simply a way of elaborating the normally terse claim language[] in order to understand and explain, but not to change, the scope of the claims.” Embrex, Inc. v. Service Engineering Corp., 216 F.3d 1343, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (quoting Scripps Clinic & Research Found. v. Genentech, Inc., 927 F.2d 1565, 1580 (Fed. Cir. 1991)). The judge, not a jury, is to determine the meaning of the disputed claim limitations as a matter of law. See Markman, 517 U.S. at 372, 391.

         The Federal Circuit has summarized the law of claim construction as follows:

Claim construction requires a determination as to how a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand a claim term in the context of the entire patent, including the specification. We begin a claim construction analysis by considering the language of the claims themselves. However, claims must be read in view of the specification, of which they are a part. The specification is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term, and is, thus, the primary basis for construing the claims. A court should also consider the patent's prosecution history, and may rely on dictionary definitions, so long as the dictionary definition does not contradict any definition found in or ascertained by a reading of the patent documents.
[….]
Phillips [v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1315 (Fed. Cir. 2005)] makes clear that the claims do not stand alone. Rather they are part of a fully integrated written instrument, consisting principally of a specification that concludes with the claims. The only meaning that matters in claim construction is the meaning in the context of the patent.

Trustees of Columbia Univ. v. Symantec Corp., 811 F.3d 1359, 1362-63 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (internal punctuation and citations omitted).

         II

         In their claim-construction briefs (see ECF ## 42, 47), Cequent and Hopkins have requested that the Court construe ten claim limitations from the Patents: four from the ‘352 Patent, three from the ‘780 Patent, and three from the ‘993 Patent. The Court will address each claim limitation individually below.

         A. The ‘352 Patent

         1. Background on the ‘352 Patent

         Many small trailers like campers or boat trailers use electronic brakes. (See Decl. of Dr. Mark N. Horenstein at ¶20, ECF #47-2 at 8, Pg. ID 1354.) It is important for these small trailers to have their own braking systems because “[w]ithout trailer brakes to supplement the brakes of the towing vehicle, the trailer could swerve or jackknife upon braking of the [towing] vehicle.” (Id. at ¶19, ECF #47-2 at 8, Pg. ID 1354.) The ‘352 Patent is directed to an electronic brake controller that uses a microcontroller in conjunction with analog circuit technology to control the brakes of a trailer that is being towed by an automobile.

         2. “an input circuit . . .” of Claims 1, 19, and 64 of the ‘352 Patent

         Hopkins requests that the Court construe the claim limitation “an input circuit for generating a brake level signal representing the braking force to be applied by the towed vehicle's brakes” in Claims 1, 19, and 64 of the ‘352 Patent.

         Claim 1 of the ‘352 Patent, representative of the asserted claims, is reproduced below with the disputed claim limitation bolded and underlined:

1. A brake controller for controlling the brakes of a towed vehicle, said brake controller comprising:
an input circuit for generating a brake level signal representing the braking force to be applied by the towed vehicle's brakes;
a display circuit including a plurality of indicator lights;
a power switching circuit and adapted for coupling to the brakes of the towed vehicle and to the power supply of the towing vehicle, for selectively supplying power from the towing vehicle power supply to the brakes of the towed vehicle in response to a switching control signal supplied to a control input terminal;
a current sensing circuit for sensing a level of braking current supplied to the brakes of the towed vehicle through said power switching circuit, and for generating a current level signal representing the sensed level of braking current; and
a microcontroller coupled to said input circuit, said display circuit, said current circuit, and to said power switching circuit, said microcontroller generating and supplying a switching control signal to said control input terminal of said power switching circuit thereby causing said power switching circuit to deliver a braking current to the brakes of the towed vehicle that is related to the brake level signal supplied to said microcontroller by said input circuit, said microcontroller illuminating one or more of said indicator lights of said display circuit to indicate a relative level of braking of the towed vehicle brakes and controlling one or more of said indicator lights to indicate that the towed vehicle brakes are or are not properly connected to said power switching circuit.

(‘352 Pat. at col. 39, ll. 28-60, ECF # 38-6 at 63, Pg. ID 924; emphasis added.)

         Cequent and Hopkins disagree about whether or not this claim limitation is a means-plus-function claim limitation pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 112.

         Hopkins argues that this claim limitation is a means-plus-function claim limitation. Hopkins asserts that the corresponding structure in the specification for this claim limitation is “a pendulum-style single axis decelerometer made of an infrared LED, a phototransistor, and a mechanical flag that modulates the LED's light incident on the photoresistor to supply a single variable voltage to a pin of a microcontroller that directly corresponds to the magnitude of the current to be applied to the towed vehicles brakes. The function is to generate a signal that directly corresponds to the brake current amperage to be applied to the towed vehicle brakes.” (Hopkins Claim Const. Br. at 42-43, ECF #47 at 49-50, Pg. ID 1329-30.) In contrast, Cequent argues that this claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation. Cequent also argues that this claim limitation does not need to be construed because the jury will understand its plain and ordinary meaning. In the alternative, Cequent argues that this claim limitation should be construed as "an input circuit that is capable of creating a brake signal that represents the force to be applied by the trailer brakes." (Cequent Claim Const. Br. at 11, ECF #42 at 14, Pg. ID 977.)

         In the table below, the Court summarizes these two competing positions and summarizes the Court's construction of this disputed claim limitation:

Claim Limitation
Cequent Proposal
Hopkins Proposal
Court's Construction

"an input circuit for generating a brake level signal

representing the braking force to be applied by the towed vehicle's brakes"

No

construction necessary; alternatively: an input circuit that is capable of creating a brake signal that

represents the brake force to be applied by the trailer brakes.

This is a means-plus-function limitation. The patent discloses an analog circuit using a pendulum-style single axis decelerometer made of an infrared LED, a phototransistor, and a mechanical flag that modulates the LED's light incident on the photoresistor to supply a single variable voltage to a pin of a microcontroller that directly corresponds to the magnitude of the current to be applied to the towed vehicles brakes. The function is to generate a signal that directly corresponds to the brake current amperage to be applied to the towed vehicle brakes.

This claim limitation is not a means-plus-mnction claim limitation.

No further construction is necessary at this time. To the extent that a more nuanced construction is necessary in light of infringement or invalidity arguments being made in this case, the Court can address those issues at summary judgment or trial.

Means-plus-function claims are provided for in 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6:

An element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material or acts in support thereof, and such claim shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.

35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6.[1]

         As mentioned above, the principal issue before the Court is whether this disputed claim limitation is a means-plus-function claim limitation. The Federal Circuit has explained the methodology a court should use when determining whether a disputed claim limitation is a means-plus-function claim limitation as follows:

Means-plus-function claim limitations, authorized by 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6, allow a patentee to draft claim terms as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof. But this flexibility in claim drafting comes at a price. Such claims are construed to cover only the structure, materials, or acts described in the specification as corresponding to the claimed function and equivalents thereof.
It is well settled that a claim limitation that actually uses the word ‘means' invokes a rebuttable presumption that § 112, ¶ 6 applies. And, it is equally understood that a claim term that does not use ‘means' will trigger the rebuttable presumption that § 112, ¶ 6 does not apply. But this presumption against the application of § 112, ¶ 6 to a claim term lacking the word ‘means' can be overcome if a party can demonstrate that the claim term fails to recite sufficiently definite structure or else recites function without reciting sufficient structure for performing that function. In undertaking this analysis, we ask if the claim language, read in light of the specification, recites sufficiently definite structure to avoid § 112, ¶ 6.

Media Rights, 800 F.3d at 1371-72 (internal punctuation and citations omitted). A claim limitation may fail to recite sufficiently definite structure when it uses a generic placeholder or “nonce” word, similar to “means, ” such as mechanism, element, device, or module. MIT v. Abacus Software, 462 F.3d 1344, 1354 (Fed. Cir. 2006).

         The Court concludes that this disputed claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation. Turning first to the disputed claim language, the Court notes that the disputed claim limitation does not use the term “means.” Accordingly, there is a presumption that this claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation. See Media Rights, 800 F.3d at 1371 (“[I]t is equally understood that a claim term that does not use ‘means' will trigger the rebuttable presumption that § 112, ¶ 6 does not apply”).

         This presumption that the claim limitation is not means-plus-function can be overcome in certain circumstances. For example, the presumption can be overcome where a limitation “fails to recite sufficiently definite structure or else recites function without reciting sufficient structure for performing that function.” Media Rights, 800 F.3d at 1372 (internal quotation marks omitted). “[T]o help determine whether a claim term recites sufficient structure, [the Court] examine[s] whether it has an understood meaning in the art.” Linear Tech. Corp. v. Impala Linear Corp., 379 F.3d 1311, 1320 (Fed. Cir. 2004). The Federal Circuit has recognized that the word “‘circuit' by “itself connotes some structure.” Apex Inc. v. Raritan Computer Inc., 325 F.3d 1364, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In addition, “when the structure-connoting term ‘circuit' is coupled with a description of the circuit's operation, sufficient structural meaning generally will be conveyed to persons of ordinary skill in the art, and § 112, ¶ 6 presumptively will not apply.” Linear Tech. Corp., 379 F.3d at 1320.

         Here, the disputed claim limitation uses the term “circuit” and includes a description of the circuit's operation. Specifically, the ‘352 Patent uses the adjective “input, ” which modifies the word “circuit, ” and it includes the additional descriptive language “for generating a brake level signal representing the braking force to be applied to the towed vehicle's brakes.” These phrases narrow the claim limitation to specific types of circuits giving the claim limitation a sufficient structure. See id.; see also Apex Inc., 325 F.3d at 1374 (holding that the claim limitation “interface circuit” was sufficient structure to avoid being a means-plus-function claim limitation because the adjective “interface” further defined the type of circuit claimed). Indeed, when the Federal Circuit has addressed similar “circuit” claim limitations, it has concluded that those claim limitations were not means-plus-function claim limitations. See, e.g., Apex Inc., 325 F.3d at 1372; Linear Tech. Corp., 379 F.3d at 1320; Massachusetts Institute of Technology v. Abacus Software, 462 F.3d 1344, 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2006).

         Moreover, the ‘352 Patent uses the standard language “means for” when a means-plus-function claim limitation is desired. For example, in Claim 19, the ‘352 Patent provides that “malfunction monitoring means for monitoring the functioning of said microcontroller and resetting said microcontroller when a malfunction is detected.” (‘352 Pat. at col. 42, ll. 52-54, ECF #38-6 at 64, Pg. ID 925; emphasis added.) The use of the standard “means for” language in Claim 19 (and elsewhere in the ‘352 Patent) indicates that when the ‘352 Patent intends a means-plus function limitation, it uses the standard “means for” language. See Karlin Tech., Inc. v. Surgical Dynamics, Inc., 177 F.3d 968, 972 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“[D]ifferent words or phrases used in separate claims are presumed to indicate that the claims have different meanings and scope”). For all of these reasons, the Court concludes the presumption has not been overcome.

         Hopkins resists this conclusion on two primary grounds. First, Hopkins insists that the line of the cases the Court relies upon above, including the Linear decision, are inapposite. According to Hopkins, these cases were decided under a now-overruled line of authority which held that the absence of the term “means” created a “strong” presumption against a finding of means-plus-function. See, e.g., Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (“[T]he presumption flowing from the absence of the term ‘means' is a strong one that is not readily overcome”) (emphasis added). Hopkins says that in 2015, the Federal Circuit overruled Lighting World and reverted back to the standard rebuttable-presumption standard that existed before Lighting World. See Williamson v. Citrix Online, 792 F.3d 1339, 1348 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc). But Linear is a pre-Lighting World decision that was decided under the same rebuttable-presumption standard that exists today under Williamson. Moreover, and in any event, there has always been a presumption that the absence of the word ‘means' creates a rebuttable presumption that means-plus-function does not exist, and the Court would reach the same result here whether that presumption was “strong” or simply rebuttable. Finally, in Media Rights - a case decided after Williamson - the Federal Circuit noted that the term “circuit” does define structure. Media Rights, 800 F.3d at 1371-72. Thus, even after the Federal Circuit overruled the strong presumption standard from Lighting World, it still recognizes that the word “circuit” - which is used in the claim limitation in dispute here - connotes sufficient structure such that the rebuttable presumption against means-plus-function was not overcome. Second, Hopkins attempts to avoid the Court's construction through the submission of expert testimony from Dr. Horenstein supporting its position that the disputed claim limitation is a means-plus-function claim limitation. But such expert testimony is not as persuasive as the intrinsic evidence and supporting case law discussed above. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1318 (“[C]onclusory, unsupported assertions by experts as to the definition of a claim term are not useful to a court. Similarly, a court should discount any expert testimony that is clearly at odds with the claim construction mandated by the claims themselves, the written description, and the prosecution history, in other words, with the written record of the patent”) (internal quotation marks omitted). Accordingly, for all of the reasons stated above, the Court holds that “input circuit . . .” is not a means-plus-function claim limitation.

         3. “current sensing circuit . . .” of Claims 1 and 44 of the ‘352 Patent

         Hopkins requests that the Court construe the claim limitation “a current sensing circuit for sensing a level of braking current supplied to the brakes of the towed vehicle through said power switching circuit, and for generating a current level signal representing the sensed level of braking current” in Claims 1 and 44 of the ‘352 Patent.

         Claim 1 of the ‘352 Patent, representative of the asserted claims, is reproduced below with the disputed claim limitation bolded and underlined:

1. A brake controller for controlling the brakes of a towed vehicle, said brake controller comprising:
an input circuit for generating a brake level signal representing the braking force to be applied by the towed vehicle's brakes; a display circuit including a plurality of indicator lights;
a power switching circuit and adapted for coupling to the brakes of the towed vehicle and to the power supply of the towing vehicle, for selectively supplying power from the towing vehicle power supply to the brakes of the towed vehicle in response to a switching control signal supplied to a control input terminal;
a current sensing circuit for sensing a level of braking current supplied to the brakes of the towed vehicle through said power switching circuit, and for generating a current level signal representing the sensed level of braking current;
and a microcontroller coupled to said input circuit, said display circuit, said current circuit, and to said power switching circuit, said microcontroller generating and supplying a switching control signal to said control input terminal of said power switching circuit thereby causing said power switching circuit to deliver a braking current to the brakes of the towed vehicle that is related to the brake level signal supplied to said microcontroller by said input circuit, said microcontroller illuminating one or more of said indicator lights of said display circuit to indicate a relative level of braking of the towed vehicle brakes and controlling one or more of said indicator lights to indicate that the towed vehicle brakes are or are not properly connected to said power switching circuit.

(‘352 Pat. at col. 39, ll. 41-45, ECF #38-6 at 63, Pg. ID 924; emphasis added.)

         Similar to the disputed “input circuit . . .” claim limitation discussed in subsection two above, the disagreement between the parties with respect to this claim limitation is whether or not it is a means-plus-function claim limitation pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6. Likewise, the parties make generally the same arguments in support of their proposed claim constructions as they did for the “input circuit . . .” claim limitation.

         Hopkins argues that this claim limitation is a means-plus-function claim limitation. Hopkins argues that the corresponding structure in the specification for the claim limitation is “a circuit comprising two amplifiers, and a network of resistors that sense current in the brakes of the towed vehicle and supplies a signal to a microcontroller having programming that calculates the magnitude of current in the towed vehicle brakes.” (Hopkins Claim Const. Br. at 48, ECF #47 at 55, Pg. ID 1335.)

         Cequent argues that this claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation. Cequent also argues that this claim limitation does not need to be construed because the jury will understand its plain and ordinary meaning. In the alternative, Cequent argues that this claim limitation could be construed as “a circuit that senses the level of braking current supplied to the brakes of the towed vehicle through the power circuit, and for generating a current level signal that represents the sensed level of braking.” (Cequent Claim Const. Br. at 16, ECF #42 at 19, Pg. ID 982.)

         In the table below, the Court summarizes these two competing positions and summarizes the Court's construction of this disputed claim limitation:

Claim Limitation
Cequent Proposal
Hopkins Proposal
Court's Construction

"a current sensing circuit for sensing a level of braking current supplied to the brakes of the towed vehicle through said power switching circuit, and for generating a current level signal representing the sensed level of braking current"

No construction necessary; alternatively: "a circuit that senses the level of braking current supplied to the brakes of the towed vehicle through the power circuit, and for generating a current level signal that represents the sensed level of braking."

This is a means-plus-function limitation. The patent discloses a circuit comprising two amplifiers, and a network of resistors that sense current in the brakes of the towed vehicle and supplies a signal to a microcontroller having

programming that calculates the magnitude of current in the towed vehicle brakes.

This is not a means-plus-function claim limitation.

No further construction is necessary at this time. To the extent that a more nuanced construction is necessary in light of infringement or invalidity arguments being made in this case, the Court can address those issues at summary judgment or trial.

         For many of the same reasons the Court held that the "input circuit. .." claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation, the Court concludes that this disputed claim limitation is also not a means-plus-function claim limitation. The Court first notes that the disputed claim limitation does not use the term "means." Accordingly, there is a presumption that this claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation.

         The Court further concludes that the presumption has not been overcome because the disputed claim limitation has an understood meaning in the art to recite sufficiently definite structure. As discussed above, the Federal Circuit has held that the word “circuit” by itself connotes some structure. See, e.g., Apex Inc., 325 F.3d at 1373. The disputed claim language also contains the adjective “current sensing” and other descriptive language further defining the operation of circuit. This claim language narrows the claim limitation to specific types of circuits giving the claim limitation a sufficient structure. See id.; see also Linear Tech. Corp., 379 F.3d at 1320.

         Finally, the Court notes as it did above that other claims in the ‘352 Patent use the standard language “means for” when a means-plus-function claim limitation is desired. (See, e.g., ‘352 Pat. at col. 42, ll. 52-54, ECF #38-6 at 64, Pg. ID 925.) The use of standard “means for” language in other claim limitations when a means-plus-function claim limitation is desired is intrinsic evidence that supports the Court's conclusion that the disputed claim limitation - which does not use the standard “means for” language - is not intended to be a means-plus-function claim limitation. See Karlin Tech., Inc., supra.

         In conclusion, the Court holds that this claim limitation is not a means-plus-function claim limitation.

         4. “gain adjustment circuit . . .” in Claim 44

         Hopkins requests that the Court construe the claim limitation “a gain adjustment circuit coupled to said manual input circuit and to said sensor input circuit for receiving brake level signals output therefrom that are indicative of a desired level of braking and for generating a gain-adjusted brake level signal in response to a brake level signal received from either said manual input circuit or said sensor input circuit” in Claim 44 of the ‘352 Patent.

         Claim 44 of the ‘352 Patent is reproduced below with the disputed claim ...


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