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No Smoking Gun Here: Soliciting Input Sufficient to Satisfy Commission’s Statutory Obligation

Addressing a decision by the US International Trade Commission finding a violation of Section 337, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with the Commission on a slew of issues, including its determination that soliciting comments from a sister agency regarding the products at issue was sufficient consultation to satisfy the Commission’s statutory obligation to consult. Philip Morris Products S.A. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 22-1227 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 31, 2023) (Prost, Reyna, Stoll, JJ.)

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company filed a complaint at the Commission asserting a Section 337 violation by Philip Morris based on alleged infringement of three patents directed to tobacco heating products. During the course of the investigation, the administrative law judge (ALJ) granted summary determination in favor of R.J. Reynolds on the economic prong of the domestic industry requirement as to two of the asserted patents. The ALJ issued his initial determination finding that Philip Morris had violated Section 337 with respect to two of the asserted patents. On review, the Commission affirmed the ALJ’s decision with minor modifications and issued a limited exclusion order and a cease-and-desist order. Philip Morris appealed.

Philip Morris raised numerous issues on appeal. It claimed, for the first time, that the Commission erred in failing to consult with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) agency exclusively tasked with regulating the tobacco products at issue. The Federal Circuit agreed with the Commission that Philip Morris forfeited this issue because, notwithstanding several rounds of briefing on the public interest factor, it never raised the issue before the ALJ nor the Commission until a motion filed after entry of the remedial orders. The Court also rejected Philips Morris’ consultation argument on the merits, finding that the Commission’s request for comments sent to the FDA was sufficient to meet the statutorily required “consult with[] and seek advice and information from” HHS, even though the FDA failed to respond.

Philip Morris next argued that the Commission abused its discretion by not concluding that the public interest in reduced-risk tobacco products at issue should have barred relief. But the Federal Circuit held that the Commission’s public interest finding had a sufficient basis in the record in the form of expert testimony, scientific articles and FDA documents regarding the products at issue to support its findings regarding the availability of alternative non-tobacco therapies and that the tobacco products were still potentially harmful.

Philip Morris also argued that the Commission erred by finding a domestic industry based on R.J. Reynolds’s competing products that had not yet received FDA approval. The Federal Circuit rejected this argument, explaining that those competing products were being sold at the time of the complaint and that the recently approved law imposing FDA regulation on those products was still in its grace period.

Finally, the Federal Circuit rejected Philip Morris’s various patent-related arguments, finding that the Commission’s determinations were based on substantial evidence.

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Present-Tense Claim Terms Not Sufficient to Require Actual Operation

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a US International Trade Commission (Commission) decision that found no violation of Section 337 due to noninfringement. The Court disagreed with the Commission that the use of present-tense claim terms required actual operation to be shown to prove infringement, but nevertheless affirmed the Commission’s finding because the patentee failed to establish that the accused products were capable of carrying out the claimed functionality. INVT SPE LLC v. ITC, Case No. 20-1903 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 31, 2022) (Newman, Taranto, Chen, JJ.)

In 2018, INVT filed a complaint at the Commission alleging a Section 337 violation by various cell phone companies. INVT asserted that five of its patents were infringed by the 3G and LTE networking standards used by mobile devices (such as cell phones) to communicate with base stations (such as cell phone towers). INVT withdrew two of the asserted patents during the course of the investigation, and the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an initial determination holding that there was no Section 337 violation because none of the three remaining patents were infringed. The Commission did not disturb that decision on review, and INVT appealed on two of the three asserted patents in June 2020.

Briefing during the appeal was extended several times, and as a result, oral argument did not occur until November 2021. The Federal Circuit then asked for supplemental briefing regarding whether there could be any relief on one of the patents scheduled to expire in March 2022. The Court ultimately issued its decision at the end of August 2022, more than two years after the appeal was filed.

In its decision, the Federal Circuit first held that the appeal was moot as to the expired patent. For the remaining patent, the dispute over infringement resolved to the question of whether the claims required actual operation or could instead be met by mere capability. On that point, the Court reversed the ALJ’s determination that the claims required actual operation. According to the Court, the present-tense claim language used (i.e., “a data obtaining section that demodulates and decodes”) was not significantly different from the sort that is usually interpreted to merely require capability (e.g., “for demodulating and decoding”). But the Court then held that the actual operation of the base stations was relevant to determining whether the accused mobile devices were capable of performing one of the particular claimed functions. The Court thus affirmed the finding of no infringement because INVT had failed to show that the base stations actually operated in a way that would allow the mobile devices to be capable of carrying out the claimed functionality.

Alexander Ott appeared for respondent ZTE at the Commission in this matter.

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Threat of ITC Exclusion Order Is Too Speculative to Constitute Irreparable Harm

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision by a federal district court denying a defendant’s motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to enjoin a parallel International Trade Commission (ITC) investigation against it. The Federal Circuit agreed that the defendant’s alleged irreparable harm (a “cloud” over its business) was too conclusory and speculative to support relief. Koninklijke Philips N.V. v. Thales Dis Ais USA LLC, Case No. 21-2106 (Fed. Cir. July 13, 2022) (Moore, C.J., Dyk, Chen, JJ)

Koninklijke filed a complaint at the ITC requesting a Section 337 investigation based on alleged infringement by Thales of four patents designated essential to the 3G and 4G telecommunications standards. Koninklijke simultaneously filed a parallel district court action against Thales in the Delaware district court based on those four patents. At the district court, Thales moved for a preliminary injunction seeking to enjoin Koninklijke from pursuing an exclusion order at the ITC because of an alleged breach of contract. The district court denied that motion, and Thales appealed to the Federal Circuit.

Meanwhile, the ITC investigation continued, and the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued an initial determination finding no violation of Section 337 with respect to any of the four patents. Subsequently, the Federal Circuit held oral arguments on the district court appeal, during which the judges questioned whether there could be irreparable harm if the ITC were to adopt the ALJ’s determination and consequently not issue an exclusion order. Thales argued that the threat of an exclusion order had left a “cloud” over its business and cited customer concerns that Thales might not be able to deliver products in the future. The ITC subsequently affirmed the ALJ’s finding of no violation and terminated the investigation without issuing any exclusion order.

A week later, the Federal Circuit issued a decision affirming the district court’s denial of the preliminary injunction motion. The Court held that Thales had failed to meet its burden to establish irreparable harm because it had not presented any evidence that it had actually lost any customers, that any customers had delayed purchases or that it had struggled to gain new customers because of the threat from the ITC investigation. The Court also found that the cloud over Thales’ business and the potential loss of business were too speculative to justify a preliminary injunction.

Practice Note: While the ITC investigation was ongoing, Thales filed a civil action in France against Koninklijke—a fellow European company—alleging that Koninklijke’s attempt to obtain injunctive relief in the United States for standard essential patents constituted an anti-competitive act that violated French civil law. Thales sought EUR 13.5 million in damages for the legal fees that it had incurred in defending the ITC investigation.

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Hypothetical Device Doesn’t Meet Domestic Industry Requirement

In a consolidated appeal from the International Trade Commission (Commission) and two inter partes review (IPR) proceedings before the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Commission’s findings that a hypothetical device does not meet the domestic industry requirement, as well as findings by the Board and the Commission that asserted claims of the involved patents were invalid as obvious. Broadcom Corp. v. ITC, Case Nos. 20-2008; 21-1260, -1362, -1511 (Mar. 8, 2022) (Lourie, Hughes, Stoll, JJ.)

Broadcom filed a complaint at the Commission alleging a violation of 19 U.S.C. § 1337 based on products imported by many respondents, including Renesas Electronics, that allegedly infringed two patents. The first patent is directed to reducing power consumption in computer systems, and the second patent is directed to a memory access unit that improves upon conventional methods of requesting data located at different addresses within a shared memory. The Commission’s administrative law judge issued an initial determination that Broadcom failed to satisfy the technical prong of the domestic industry requirement for the power consumption patent and that one of the asserted claims of the memory access patent was obvious over the prior art. The Commission affirmed both findings.

During the course of the Commission investigation, Renesas petitioned for IPR of both patents. The Board found that two asserted claims of the power consumption patent were obvious but Renesas failed to show that six other asserted claims would have been obvious. The Board also found that all petitioned claims of the memory access patent would have been obvious over the cited art.

Both parties appealed. Renesas appealed the Board’s ruling that six claims of the power consumption patent would not have been obvious in light of the cited art, and Broadcom appealed the Board’s ruling that two claims of the power consumption patent and five claims of the memory access unit patent would have been obvious. Broadcom also appealed the Commission’s decision that there was no violation with respect to the power consumption patent and that the asserted claims of the memory access unit patent would have been obvious.

The Federal Circuit first addressed the Commission’s decision that there was no domestic industry for the power consumption patent. Citing its 2013 decision in Microsoft Corp. v. ITC, the Court explained that a complainant must show that a domestic industry product exists that actually practices at least one claim of the asserted patent. Broadcom identified its System on a Chip (SoC) as a domestic industry article, but there was no dispute that the SoC did not contain a “clock tree driver” required by the asserted claims. To overcome this admitted deficiency, Broadcom argued that a domestic industry existed because Broadcom collaborates with customers to integrate the SoC with external memory to enable retrieval and execution of the clock tree driver feature. The Court rejected this argument, finding that Broadcom posited only a hypothetical device and failed to identify a specific integration [...]

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