LOURIE, Circuit Judge.
Carroll Touch, Inc. appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois holding that Electro Mechanical Systems, Inc. (EMS) did not infringe claim 24 of U.S. Patent 4,267,443 and that the '443 patent is invalid. Carroll Touch, Inc. v. Electro Mechanical Sys., Inc., 24 USPQ2d 1349, 1992 WL 361702 (C.D.Ill. 1992) (memorandum opinion). EMS cross appeals from the order of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Carroll Touch on EMS' counterclaims alleging violations of federal antitrust and state unfair competition laws. Carroll Touch, Inc. v. Electro Mechanical Sys., Inc., No. 87-2272 (C.D.Ill. May 1, 1992). We affirm-in-part and vacate-in-part.
Carroll Touch is the assignee of U.S. Patent 4,267,443 to Arthur B. Carroll, Vladeta D. Lazarevich, and Mark R. Gardner, entitled "Photoelectric Input Apparatus." The claims of the '443 patent are directed to a photoelectric "touch input panel" for use over a computer's display device (e.g., a cathode-ray tube) which enables a user to communicate with the computer by touching a location on the display screen that corresponds to a desired operation. The claimed invention uses a scanning infrared system that consists of a frame containing circuitry that generates a grid of infrared light beams. The grid is defined by two separate arrays of beams: an "X-beam array" composed of a set of parallel beams oriented along the horizontal or X-axis of the frame and a "Y-beam array" composed of a set of parallel beams oriented along the frame's vertical or Y-axis.
Communication with a computer equipped with the claimed invention is achieved by touching a function or command displayed on the screen with an object such as the user's finger. The location of that touch is identified in terms of the grid coordinates defined by the horizontal and vertical beams that are interrupted by the object. Information pertaining to the location of the object is then inputted to the computer, which subsequently executes an action responsive to the selected function or command.
In 1975, Arthur Carroll founded Carroll Manufacturing Company, later known as Carroll Touch, Inc., which was engaged in the business of designing and assembling touch input panels. Carroll was joined by Vladeta Lazarevich later that same year. In 1978, a patent application for a photoelectric touch input device was filed in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), ultimately issuing as the '443 patent, which named Carroll and Lazarevich as coinventors. Lazarevich left Carroll Touch in 1979 to start his own company, EMS, which competed against Carroll Touch in the touch input panel market. In 1980, Lazarevich was sued by Carroll Touch in state court for breach of his employment contract. Judgment was rendered in favor of Lazarevich.
On May 11, 1987, Carroll Touch filed a complaint alleging infringement of the '443 patent by EMS. EMS answered by denying infringement and alleging patent invalidity. It also filed counterclaims alleging that Carroll Touch, in bringing its infringement suit, engaged in an anticompetitive scheme to restrain trade and committed acts of unfair
The district court severed the antitrust counterclaims and a bench trial was conducted on the patent infringement claim in September 1991. Although Carroll Touch originally alleged infringement of claims 1-3, 16, and 20-25 when it filed suit,
A. Patent Infringement
On appeal, Carroll Touch argues that the district court clearly erred in finding that the accused EMS devices did not infringe claim 24 of the '443 patent and that it erred in holding that the patent was invalid. We first address the issue of infringement.
The law is well established that the determination whether a claim has been infringed requires a two-step analysis. First, the claim must be properly construed to determine its scope and meaning. Second, the claim as properly construed must be compared to the accused device or process. Read Corp. v. Portec Inc., 970 F.2d 816, 821, 23 USPQ2d 1426, 1431 (Fed.Cir.1992); ZMI Corp. v. Cardiac Resuscitator Corp., 844 F.2d 1576, 1578, 6 USPQ2d 1557, 1559 (Fed. Cir.1988). A claim covers or "reads on" an accused device if the device embodies every limitation of the claim, either literally or by a substantial equivalent. Read, 970 F.2d at 816, 23 USPQ2d at 1426.
Although claim 24 was the only claim asserted at trial, it is dependent on claim 23, which in turn is dependent on claim 16, which in turn is dependent on independent claim 1. Thus, in addressing whether claim 24 was infringed by the accused EMS products, we must consider whether claim 1 was infringed. See Wahpeton Canvas Co. v. Frontier, Inc., 870 F.2d 1546, 1553, 10 USPQ2d 1201, 1208 (Fed.Cir.1989) ("It is axiomatic that dependent claims cannot be found infringed unless the claims from which they depend have been found to be infringed.").
The district court's finding of noninfringement turned on its interpretation of the term "spaced apart" found in a means-plus-function limitation
At trial, the court heard expert testimony presented by both parties regarding whether the accused devices met that limitation. The court rejected the testimony of EMS' witnesses who testified that although the light beams of the accused devices intersected, they were nevertheless "spaced apart" within the meaning of claim 1. The court concluded that "the light beams intersect and therefore are not spaced apart as required by the patent," 24 USPQ2d at 1352, and accordingly found no literal infringement. Similarly, the district court found that the accused devices did not infringe claim 24 under the doctrine of equivalents.
Claim construction is a question of law which we review de novo. ZMI, 844 F.2d at 1578, 6 USPQ2d at 1559 (Fed.Cir. 1988). "In defining the meaning of key terms in a claim, reference may be had to the specification, the prosecution history, prior art, and other claims." Minnesota Mining and Mfg. Co. v. Johnson & Johnson Orthopaedics, Inc., 976 F.2d 1559, 1556, 24 USPQ2d 1321, 1327 (Fed.Cir.1992). Moreover, the words of a claim are generally given their ordinary and accustomed meaning, unless it appears from the specification or the file history that they were used differently by the inventor. See Intellicall, Inc. v. Phonometrics, Inc., 952 F.2d 1384, 1387, 21 USPQ2d 1383, 1386 (Fed.Cir.1992).
In particular, Carroll Touch maintains that the claimed invention contemplates use of curved beam surfaces that are positioned as closely as possible to the display surface to eliminate an optical phenomenon known as parallax
We look to the specification for assistance in construing a claim. Although the specification of the '443 patent discloses the use of curved beam surfaces, it does not teach that the space between the beam surfaces should be minimized in order to diminish parallax. Nor does the specification indicate that use of curved beam surfaces necessarily results in intersection of the beam surfaces. In fact, the specification confirms that the term "spaced apart" does not include devices whose beam surfaces intersect. The specification expressly discloses that "[t]he separation of the X and Y beam planes permits the apparatus to discriminate against small insects, and to calculate the difference in the time between interruption of the beams in the two ... planes." Col. 6, lines 23-27. Were the claimed invention to have intersecting beam surfaces, in those areas where the beams intersected the invention would be unable to achieve its stated objective of distinguishing valid inputs from stray inputs caused by small foreign objects or determining the velocity of an object approaching the touch panel. Thus, the specification does not disclose that the beam surfaces of the claimed invention intersect.
The prosecution history also undermines Carroll Touch's interpretation of the "spaced apart" term. Claim 1 as originally filed was rejected by the examiner under 35 U.S.C. § 103 as being obvious over U.S. Patent No. 3,727,069 to Crittenden because "Crittenden describes both two `surfaces' in a single X-Y array sensor and two such arrays for X-Y-Z sensing."
We now address whether claim 1, as properly construed, has been infringed. The burden is on the patent owner to prove infringement by a preponderance of the evidence. SmithKline Diagnostics, Inc. v. Helena Labs. Corp., 859 F.2d 878, 889, 8 USPQ2d 1468, 1477 (Fed.Cir.1988). In order to meet a means-plus-function limitation, an accused device must (1) perform the identical function recited in the means limitation and (2) perform that function using the structure disclosed in the specification or an equivalent structure. See Valmont Indus., Inc. v. Reinke Mfg. Co., Inc., 983 F.2d 1039, 1042, 25 USPQ2d 1451, 1454 (Fed.Cir.1993). That factual determination is reviewed for clear error. See Durango Assocs. v. Reflange, Inc., 843 F.2d 1349, 1357, 6 USPQ2d 1290, 1295 (Fed.Cir.1988).
The production of two separate beam surfaces that are spaced apart along a direction normal to the plane of the display is, as discussed above, an essential function of the "means for mounting" clause of claim 1. The structures disclosed in the specification by which that function is achieved all have beam surfaces that do not intersect. Thus, the accused devices, by having beam surfaces that intersect, do not perform the identical function stated in the means limitation of claim 1 and do not use a structure taught in the specification or an equivalent structure. We agree with the district court that the accused EMS devices do not literally infringe claim 24 of the '443 patent because they do not meet the means limitation of claim 1.
Carroll Touch argues that if claim 24 is not held infringed literally, then it should be deemed infringed under the doctrine of equivalents. It asserts that the accused devices perform substantially the same overall function or work in substantially the same way to obtain substantially the same overall result as the claimed invention. Graver Tank & Mfg. Co. v. Linde Air Prods. Co., 339 U.S. 605, 608, 70 S.Ct. 854, 856, 94 L.Ed. 1097, 87 USPQ2d 328, 330 (1950).
We have stated that determining whether there is infringement under the doctrine of equivalents "does not mean one can ignore claim limitations." Pennwalt Corp. v. Durand-Wayland, Inc., 833 F.2d 931, 935, 4 USPQ2d 1737, 1739 (Fed.Cir.1987) (in banc), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 961, 108 S.Ct. 1226, 99 L.Ed.2d 426 (1988). Indeed, infringement under the doctrine of equivalents cannot be established unless every limitation of a claim is satisfied either exactly or by a substantial equivalent in the accused device. See LaBounty Mfg., Inc. v. United States Int'l Trade Comm'n, 867 F.2d 1572, 1577, 9 USPQ2d 1995, 1999 (Fed.Cir.1989).
Our holding concerning the "spaced apart" requirement of claim 1 is controlling in an infringement determination under the doctrine of equivalents. The claim requires that the beam surfaces be spaced apart over the entirety of their respective surfaces areas. It is undisputed that all of the accused EMS devices have beam surfaces that intersect to some degree. That difference between the claimed invention and the accused devices is neither unimportant nor insubstantial. The claimed invention could not operate as intended if its beam surfaces were not spaced apart for the entirety of their surface areas. For example, as noted earlier, in those areas where no such space existed, i.e., where the beam surfaces intersect, the device would not be able to determine the time interval between beam surface breaks nor would it be able to distinguish between a user's valid
Accordingly, we conclude that devices having intersecting curved beam surfaces do not perform substantially the same overall function in substantially the same way to obtain substantially the same result as the claimed invention. We agree with the district court that the accused devices do not infringe claim 24 under the doctrine of equivalents.
B. Patent Validity — Assignor Estoppel
Although we affirm the district court's finding that claim 24 was not infringed by the accused devices, we consider it desirable to review the court's declaratory judgment holding the '443 patent invalid so that neither Carroll Touch nor the public are left with unnecessary uncertainty concerning the validity of the claims at issue. See Cardinal Chem. Co. v. Morton Int'l, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 113 S.Ct. 1967, 124 L.Ed.2d 1, 26 USPQ2d 1721 (1993) (finding of noninfringement alone does not justify vacatur of declaratory judgment of invalidity).
Carroll Touch claims that the district court erred by not prohibiting EMS from challenging the validity of the '443 patent under the doctrine of assignor estoppel. "Assignor estoppel is an equitable doctrine that prevents one who has assigned the rights to a patent (or patent application) from later contending that what was assigned is a nullity. The estoppel also operates to bar other parties in privity with the assignor, such as a corporation founded by the assignor." Diamond Scientific Co. v. Ambico, Inc., 848 F.2d 1220, 1224, 6 USPQ2d 2028, 2031 (Fed.Cir.) (citation omitted), cert. dismissed, 487 U.S. 1265, 109 S.Ct. 28, 101 L.Ed.2d 978 (1988). A determination whether assignor estoppel applies in a particular case requires a balancing of the equities between the parties. See O.G. Prods., Inc. v. Shorty, Inc., 992 F.2d 1211, 26 USPQ2d 1778, 1780 (Fed.Cir.1993); Diamond Scientific, 848 F.2d at 1225, 6 USPQ2d at 2031. That determination is a matter committed to the sound discretion of the trial court. Cf. A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960 F.2d 1020, 1041, 22 USPQ2d 1321, 1335 (Fed.Cir.1992) (in banc). Thus, on appeal, we review whether the district court abused its discretion in deciding not to apply the doctrine to EMS.
Vladeta Lazarevich is one of the named inventors of the '443 patent and is the founder, president, principal executive officer, and owner of a controlling interest in EMS.
Carroll Touch asserted at trial that the doctrine of assignor estoppel applied as matter of law to preclude EMS from challenging the validity of the '443 patent.
Specifically, the court found that Lazarevich played only a minimal role in the development of the claimed invention and received no compensation for either the invention or its assignment. More importantly, the court
A trial court's findings of fact based on determinations of witness credibility are due great deference on appeal. See Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 575-76, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 1512-13, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985). However, where we view the court's account of the evidence to be implausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, that finding cannot stand. See id. at 573-74, 105 S.Ct. at 1511-12. We consider that to be the case here.
First, if Lazarevich was indeed mistaken as to what he was assigning under the assignment agreement, that mistake was attributable solely to his own imprudence. EMS does not dispute that Lazarevich is an intelligent, well educated, and sophisticated individual and that he was fully capable of reading and comprehending the agreement at the time it was executed.
Second, Lazarevich's claim that he played only a minimal role in the development of the claimed invention is directly contradicted by testimony he gave during a previous lawsuit in 1980 in which he was sued by Carroll Touch for breach of his employment contract. During that trial, Lazarevich stated that he was a "principal inventor" of the device claimed in the '443 patent. Thus, the district court clearly erred in finding that Lazarevich did not have any "special knowledge" of the claimed invention.
Third, the district court placed great weight upon its finding that Lazarevich did not receive any compensation for either the application or the assignment of the claimed invention. EMS does not dispute that Lazarevich was compensated as an employee of Carroll Touch before he left in June, 1979, and that he received such other valuable consideration for the assignment, as well as one dollar. Employment, salary, and bonuses are all valid forms of consideration. See Shamrock Technologies, Inc. v. Medical Sterilization, Inc., 903 F.2d 789, 794, 14 USPQ2d 1728, 1733 (Fed.Cir.1990). The district court thus clearly erred in finding that Lazarevich was not compensated.
Finally, in declining to apply the doctrine of assignor estoppel to EMS, the district court apparently did not recognize that the statements contained in the Declaration were made by Lazarevich under oath and "with the knowledge that willful false statements and the like so made are punishable by fine or imprisonment, or both, under Section 1001 of Title 18 of the United States Code and that such willful false statements may jeopardize the validity of the application or any patent issued thereon." Even if we were to assume that he was testifying truthfully when he stated that he did not know what he was signing when he averred that he was an inventor of the claimed subject matter, we can hardly permit a party to avoid the effects of an equitable doctrine by claiming, as Lazarevich does here, that he violated an oath. Equity cannot aid the violator of an oath.
EMS, in fact, has admitted that "the matters sworn to by Vladeta D. Lazarevich on April 1, 1978, were believed by him at such time to be true with respect to the invention recited in the patent application as filed ... on April 24, 1978."
In light of the above, to allow Lazarevich now to challenge the validity of the '443 patent would "work an injustice against the assignee." Diamond Scientific, 848 F.2d at 1224, 6 USPQ2d at 2031. We conclude that the equities weigh in favor of applying the doctrine of assignor estoppel to EMS and thus it may not defend itself from charges of infringement by derogating the validity of a patent subject to the assignment. The district court clearly abused its discretion in deciding that the doctrine of assignor estoppel did not apply to EMS. Accordingly, that portion of the district court's judgment holding claim 24 invalid is vacated.
C. Antitrust Counterclaims
On conclusion of the trial on patent infringement, the district court addressed EMS' counterclaims, in which it alleged that (1) Carroll Touch's patent infringement suit was part of a scheme or plan to restrain trade in and monopolize the touch input panel market in violation of federal antitrust laws and (2) Carroll Touch's conduct in bringing the action constituted unfair competition and abuse of process under Illinois law. Carroll Touch moved for summary judgment on the counterclaims on the ground that it was immune from antitrust liability under Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc., 365 U.S. 127, 81 S.Ct. 523, 5 L.Ed.2d 464 (1961). In opposition, EMS maintained that Carroll Touch's conduct fell within the "sham" exception to the Noerr immunity rule because the lawsuit was instituted to harass and harm EMS competitively. The district court granted Carroll Touch's motion for summary judgment on EMS' counterclaims.
On its cross-appeal, EMS argues that the district court erred in granting Carroll Touch's motion for summary judgment on the counterclaims because there was a genuine issue of fact regarding whether Carroll Touch's action was baseless on its merits and improperly motivated by anticompetitive intent. Specifically, EMS claims that the evidence shows that the infringement action was instituted unlawfully by Carroll Touch for the sole purpose of gaining secret information, to harm EMS competitively, and to deter potential competitors from entering the market.
In Noerr, the Supreme Court held that federal antitrust laws are not violated by conduct of private parties that consists merely of attempts to solicit governmental action, for example by influencing the passage or enforcement of legislation, which may have an anticompetitive effect. See also United Mine Workers of Am. v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657, 85 S.Ct. 1585, 14 L.Ed.2d 626 (1965). The Noerr immunity rule has since been extended to protect those who petition for other forms of governmental action. See, e.g., California Motor Transp. Co. v. Trucking Unlimited, 404 U.S. 508, 92 S.Ct. 609, 30 L.Ed.2d 642 (1972) (administrative and judicial proceedings); City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 499 U.S. 365, 111 S.Ct. 1344, 113 L.Ed.2d 382 (1991) (municipal ordinances). The Noerr Court acknowledged, however, that activity which was "ostensibly directed toward influencing governmental
The Supreme Court has had occasion to further define the "sham" exception to Noerr as it applies in the litigation context. In California Motor Transport, the Supreme Court addressed whether an alleged conspiracy among private parties to restrain trade and commerce by excluding competitors from participating in the adjudicative process was actionable under the antitrust laws. The Court held that the allegations that the parties "instituted the proceedings and actions ... with or without probable cause, and regardless of the merits of the cases," id. 404 U.S. at 512, 92 S.Ct. at 612 came within the "sham" exception to Noerr. More recently, in Professional Real Estate Investors, Inc. v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 113 S.Ct. 1920, 123 L.Ed.2d 611, 26 USPQ2d 1641 (1993), the Court elaborated on California Motor Transport by setting out a two-part definition of "sham" litigation:
Id. at ___, 113 S.Ct. at 1922, 26 USPQ2d at 1646. Thus, the Court has made clear that the determination whether a lawsuit is deprived of Noerr immunity as a sham is not subject only to a subjective standard. Rather, the "sham" definition pronounced in Professional Real Estate incorporates an objective as well as a subjective prong.
In ruling on the motion for summary judgment in the instant case, the district court determined that EMS failed to come forth with evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the lawsuit fell within the "sham" exception. The court concluded that Carroll Touch's infringement suit, albeit unsuccessful, was not baseless or frivolous and was brought to obtain a favorable result with regard to enforcement of its patent.
We review the district court's decision to grant summary judgment de novo. National Cable Television v. American Cinema Editors, Inc., 937 F.2d 1572, 19 USPQ2d 1424, 1427 (Fed.Cir.1991). Thus, we determine for ourselves whether the evidence is genuinely conflicting on material issues of fact and, if not, whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment. See Avia Group Int'l, Inc. v. L.A. Gear Calif., 853 F.2d 1557, 1561, 7 USPQ2d 1548, 1552 (Fed.Cir.1988).
The law is well established that on a motion for summary judgment, the movant bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Although the evidence of record must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in its favor, see United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1961), it must do more than present minimal evidence on an issue it asserts is disputed. Avia Group, 853 F.2d at 1561, 7 USPQ2d at 1550. "Rather, the standard is that sufficient evidence must be forthcoming such as to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party." C.R. Bard, Inc. v. Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., 911 F.2d 670, 673 (Fed.Cir.1990) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).
D. Attorney Fees
EMS also cross-appeals the district court's order denying its motion for the recovery of attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 (1988). EMS argues that the district court issued no factual findings as to whether this was an "exceptional case" and thus a remand was necessary to allow the court to make the requisite findings of fact and to decide whether an award of attorney fees was warranted.
In support of its argument, EMS relies upon our decisions in Badalamenti v. Dunham's Inc., 896 F.2d 1359, 13 USPQ2d 1967 (Fed.Cir.1990), Fromson v. Western Litho Plate and Supply Co., 853 F.2d 1568, 7 USPQ2d 1606 (Fed.Cir.1988), and S.C. Johnson & Sons, Inc. v. Carter-Wallace, Inc., 781 F.2d 198, 228 USPQ 367 (Fed.Cir.1986), in which remand was deemed necessary for further "exceptional case" findings. Those cases, however, are distinguishable from the instant case. Unlike in Badalamenti, Fromson, or S.C. Johnson, the record here does provide a sufficient basis upon which we can review the exercise of the trial court's discretion. We previously explained in Consolidated Aluminum Corp. v. Foseco International Ltd., 910 F.2d 804, 15 USPQ2d 1481 (Fed. Cir.1990) that
910 F.2d at 814, 15 USPQ2d at 1488-89.
As the party moving for attorney fees, the burden was on EMS to prove the exceptional nature of the case by clear and convincing evidence. See Reactive Metals & Alloys Corp. v. ESM, Inc., 769 F.2d 1578, 1582-83, 226 USPQ 821, 824 (Fed.Cir.1985). EMS' contention that the case was exceptional was based primarily on a number of "circumstances" which it claimed warranted such a finding, viz., that its expert witness testified at trial that no reasonable person could find infringement, that Carroll Touch did not subscribe to its interpretation of the "spaced apart" term until the 1987 infringement suit, and that patent counsel for AMP advised AMP management that the accused EMS devices did not infringe the '443 patent.
The district court's determination that the accused EMS devices did not infringe claim 24 of the '443 patent was not clearly erroneous and thus we affirm its judgment holding the claim not infringed. Because claim 24 was the only claim asserted at the infringement trial and because EMS is estopped from challenging its validity, we vacate the district court's judgment holding the '443 patent invalid. The district court did not err in concluding that Carroll Touch was entitled to Noerr antitrust immunity and thus we affirm its grant of summary judgment in favor of Carroll Touch on EMS' counterclaims. Finally, the district court did not clearly err in determining that the case was not exceptional and did not abuse its discretion in denying EMS' motion for attorney fees.