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Supreme Court Clarifies Standard of Review for Claim Construction

■ Nicholas J. Peterka

In Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., 574 U.S. ___, No. 13-854 (2015), the Supreme Court held that the Federal Circuit must apply the clearly erroneous standard when reviewing a district court’s resolution of subsidiary factual matters made during the court’s patent claim construction.

At dispute was the meaning of the term “molecular weight.” Each party presented extrinsic evidence in the form of expert testimony and, relying on patent owner Teva’s expert, the district court determined that “molecular weight” was not indefinite. Sandoz appealed the claim construction to the Federal Circuit, which reviewed de novo all aspects of the district court’s claim construction and determined that “molecular weight” was indefinite. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and found that, while the determination of questions of law (such as the final claim construction) are reviewed de novo, underlying determinations of subsidiary facts are reviewed for clear error. The Court stated that subsidiary factual matters arise when the court uses extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony, to aid in claim construction. The Court’s holding will factor into whether a party uses extrinsic evidence, for a party aiming to add more finality to a district court’s claim construction may frame the issues so that extrinsic evidence is vital to the court’s claim construction and, conversely, a party seeking to overturn a claim construction may argue that intrinsic evidence is dispositive and extrinsic evidence is unnecessary. This decision will also affect summary judgment. Because the Court’s holding seemingly elevates the importance of factual determinations in claim construction, factual issues may become potential obstacles to summary judgment, which requires no genuine dispute as to any material fact.


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