The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court invalidity determination finding that judicial estoppel prevented a patent owner from relisting an inventor previously removed for strategic litigation purposes. Egenera, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., Case Nos. 19-2015, -2387 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 28, 2020) (Prost, C.J.).
Egenera sued Cisco for infringement of a patent directed to a reconfigurable virtual network that included a “logic to modify” and transmit received messages. In response Cisco petitioned for inter partes review (IPR). During the IPR’s pendency, Egenera realized that all claim limitations were conceived of before inventor Schulter began working at the company, and petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to remove Schulter as a listed inventor. The Patent and Trial Appeal Board (PTAB) declined to institute Cisco’s IPR, and the PTO granted Egenera’s petition to remove Schulter shortly thereafter.
During the litigation, the district court construed the patent claims’ “logic” terms as means-plus-function elements and concluded that the “logic to modify” limitation corresponded to a “tripartite structure” described in the specification. Cisco then asserted invalidity under pre-America Invents Act (AIA) § 102(f), contending that Schulter invented the tripartite structure, and that the patent therefore did not list all inventors. Egenera attempted to re-correct inventorship to include Schulter, but the court rejected the attempt. The district court found the patent invalid under § 102(f), reasoning that judicial estoppel precluded Egenera from “resurrecting” Schulter’s inventorship. Egenera appealed both the means-plus-function construction and the judicial estoppel finding.
The Federal Circuit first addressed whether Egenera could correct inventorship absent any judicial estoppel. The Court looked to the plain meaning of post-AIA § 256, which provides that “the error of omitting inventors . . . shall not invalidate the patent . . . if it can be corrected.” Notably, post-AIA § 256 removed the requirement that an inventorship error occur “without . . . deceptive intent.” The Federal Circuit stated it plainly: “‘Error’ is simply the incorrect listing of inventors” and does not exclude even deceptive intention. The Court explained that the inequitable conduct rules provide a safety valve for such actions, not § 256. The Court also noted that at the time Egenera removed Schulter as an inventor, no one had argued that “logic to modify” was means-plus-function language, which it presumptively was not. Egenera’s preferred construction of that term was consistent with its assertion that Schulter was not an inventor. The omission of Schulter as inventor was thus an “error” within the scope of § 256.
The Federal Circuit next turned to whether Egenera was judicially estopped from relisting Schulter as an inventor. Applying the First Circuit’s New Hampshire factors, the Federal Circuit looked to whether Egenera’s positions were inconsistent, whether its first position was successfully accepted by the court, and whether Egenera would derive an unfair advantage if not estopped. The Federal Circuit found that the district court erred in finding Egenera’s changing inventorship positions inconsistent. The Court explained that inventorship is complex and can depend on claim [...]