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Continental Circuits LLC v. Intel Corp.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 16, 2019

Continental Circuits LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
Intel Corporation, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Continental Circuits LLC asserts claims for patent infringement against Defendants Ibiden U.S.A. Corp., Ibiden Co. Ltd., and Intel Corp. The Court previously ruled on claim construction (Doc. 243), and its decision was reversed by the Federal Circuit. See Cont'l Circuits LLC v. Intel Corp., 915 F.3d 788, 792 (Fed. Cir. 2019). The case has been remanded for further litigation.

         The Court's previous ruling declined to address three means-plus-function claims. Doc. 243 at 18-20. The parties have now re-briefed the construction of these claims. Docs. 324, 325, 336, 337. This order will set forth the Court's ruling.

         A. Background.[1]

         When the claims of a patent include the “means for” doing something, they describe a function. But if a function is claimed, what structure of devices has actually been patented? Congress has answered this question in 35 U.S.C. § 112(f), which provides that “[a]n element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or a 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(f).[2] This provision “allows a patentee to express a claim limitation by reciting a function to be performed rather than by reciting structure or materials for performing that function.” Northrop Grumman Corp. v. Intel Corp., 325 F.3d 1346, 1350, 66 U.S.P.Q.2d 1341 (Fed. Cir. 2003).

         How then is a function claim construed so as to enable a fact finder to determine when the claim has been infringed? Under § 112(f), “[s]uch a limitation is construed to cover the corresponding structure, materials, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.” Id. As the Federal Circuit has explained:

Functional terms written in “means” form are “construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.” 35 U.S.C.A. § 112, ¶ 6. Infringement is found literally if the claimed function is performed by either the structure described in the patent or an equivalent of that structure. Thus construction of “means” claim terms requires review of not only the function, but also the structure by which it is performed.

Vulcan Eng'g Co., Inc. v. Fata Aluminium, Inc., 278 F.3d 1366, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2002).

         The Court's task is to identify the “function” associated with the plain language of the claim and then identify the corresponding “structure” in the specification that is associated with that function. Medtronic, Inc. v. Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 248 F.3d 1303, 1311 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (“The first step in construing such a limitation is a determination of the function of the means-plus-function limitation. The next step is to determine the corresponding structure described in the specification and equivalents thereof.”).

         The parties briefed this issue before the Court's earlier claim construction ruling, and agreed that three claims, two in the '582 patent and one in the '105 patent, are means-plus-function limitations. See Doc. 177 at 15-16.[3] The parties also agreed on the function for each term. Id.

         The first limitation identified by the parties, found in Claim 109 of the '582 Patent, is “means for joining the conductive layer to the dielectric material.” Doc. 177 at 15. The parties agreed in their previous briefing that this claim has the following function: “joining the conductive layer to the dielectric material.” Id.

         The second limitation is found in Claim 114 of the '582 Patent and reads: “means for mechanically gripping a conductive layer to the surface of the dielectric material so that the conductive layer is burrowed in and under the top surface of the dielectric material.” Id. The parties agreed on the following function for this claim: “mechanically gripping a conductive layer to the surface of the dielectric material so that the conductive layer is burrowed in and under the top surface of the dielectric material.” Id.

         The third term comes from the '105 Patent and reads: “means for interlocking a conductor part of the circuitry configured for filling cavities with an epoxy dielectric material disposed in combination with the circuitry and coupled with the conductor part.” Id. at 116.[4] The parties agree on this function: “interlocking a conductor part of the circuitry configured for filling cavities with an epoxy dielectric material disposed in combination with the circuitry and coupled with the conductor part.” Id.

         In the previous claim construction briefing, Plaintiff proposed a different structure for each of these claims. This was based in part on Plaintiff's belief that each of the claims disclosed a different function. While it is true that the language of the functions was different, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff's premise:

The Court also disagrees with Plaintiff's suggestion that the words “joining, ” “mechanically gripping, ” and “interlocking” have different meanings. These terms are not defined in the patents. Each is used to describe the means by which the layers adhere to each other. And, as Defendants note, these terms are used interchangeably in some parts of the specification.

Doc. 243 at 20. As a result, the parties' recent briefing does not address the precise functions disclosed in the three claims. Plaintiff notes that neither party appealed this decision to the Federal Circuit, and that it is now law of the case. Doc. 336 at 4 n.1.

         After reading many more means-plus-function cases in the last few days than it had time to read when ruling on the broader claim construction issues addressed in the earlier briefing, the Court reaches a different conclusion. The Court now believes that each function may have a slightly different meaning. While all of the claims describe a function that causes the layers of the device to adhere to each other, the Court concludes that the plain language of the claims should be adopted. The Federal Circuit has instructed that “[t]he function of a means-plus-function limitation . . . must come from the claim language itself.” Creo Prod., Inc. v. Presstek, Inc., 305 F.3d 1337, 1344 (Fed. Cir. 2002); see also Micro Chem., Inc. v. Great Plains Chem. Co., 194 F.3d 1250, 1258 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“The statute does not permit limitation of a means-plus-function claim by adopting a function different from that explicitly recited in the claim.”).

         The functions adopted by the Court, therefore, are as follows: “means for joining the conductive layer to the dielectric material” in Claim 109 of the '582 patent; “means for mechanically gripping a conductive layer to the surface of the dielectric material” in Claim 114 of the '582 patent; and “means for interlocking a conductor part of the circuitry configured for filling cavities with an epoxy dielectric material disposed in combination with the circuitry and coupled with the conductor part” in Claim 21 of the '105 patent. The Court apologizes to the parties for wobbling about on this issue, but concludes that these functions are truer to the actual claim language and the teachings of the Federal Circuit.

         B. The Parties' Proposed Structure Constructions.

         The parties disagree on the structure that corresponds to the functions in each claim. Plaintiff asserts that the corresponding structure for all of the claims is ...


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