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June 23, 2022

Claim Construction and Jurisdictional Discovery Are More Than Skin Deep

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Referencing the use of antecedents from a "wherein" clause, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court's claim construction and vacated its summary judgment ruling of indefiniteness that relied on that construction. University of Massachusetts v. L'Oréal S.A., Case No. 21-1969 (Fed. Cir. June 13, 2022) (Prost, Mayer, Taranto, JJ.) The Court also reversed the dismissal of a defendant based on personal jurisdiction, finding error in the district court's refusal to permit jurisdictional discovery before granting a motion to dismiss on that basis.

This case involved two patents directed towards the topical treatment of skin with a composition of adenosine at a certain concentration, held by the University of Massachusetts (UMass). L'Oréal is French-based company (L'Oréal S.A.) and its US-based company (L'Oréal USA) were involved in the suit. L'Oréal S.A. moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the district court granted the motion without an opportunity for UMass to conduct jurisdictional discovery. After the dismissal, the district court ruled on the construction of a claim limitation and subsequently wielded that construction to invalidate another limitation as indefinite. The district court entered a final judgment of invalidity on this basis. UMass appealed, challenging the claim construction and lack of jurisdictional discovery.

Construction Using "Wherein" Clause

The Federal Circuit explained that there are two steps in reviewing claim construction: determining whether there is a plain meaning of a disputed term and, as necessary, properly construing the term. After determining that there was no plain meaning of the claim term "concentration," the Court addressed the construction of the phrase "topically applying to the skin a composition comprising a concentration of adenosine." The Court found that the district court erred in its determination that the "concentration applied to the dermal cells" meant that the concentration must be measured by the concentration directly applied to the dermal cells beneath the skin, rather than the composition applied to the surface of the skin. The Patent Trial & Appeal Board had adopted the same interpretation in an inter partes review, and therefore "concentration applied to the dermal cells" required no further construction.

UMass challenged that the proper construction. The Federal Circuit, citing to support in the specification, stated that the concentration of adenosine found in the composition should be construed as that applied to the epidermis. Viewing the claim as a whole and use of antecedents, the Court explained that "applied" could relate to both direct and indirect application. The Court specifically noted the use of the word "the" in the wherein clause, and found that this read, for antecedent, as the concentration of the composition. In viewing the prosecution history, the Court determined there was no disavowal of indirect application, and the specification and dependent claims supported a read of the term "concentration" to mean the composition applied to the surface of the skin, rather than requiring testing of the concentration to which the dermal cells were actually exposed. The Court also noted that in the prosecution history, UMass had distinguished two prior art references from its dependent claims by comparing the concentration of the composition as applied. Based on its construction, the Court vacated the lower court's indefiniteness ruling.

Personal Jurisdiction Discovery

UMass also challenged the dismissal of L'Oréal S.A. based on the denial of jurisdictional discovery. The Federal Circuit found the district court had abused its discretion in denying jurisdictional discovery, as UMass made "more than clearly frivolous bare allegations" that L'Oréal S.A. was subject to personal jurisdiction based on stream of commerce and agency theories. The Court noted that the evidence of development of an infringing product to license to L'Oréal USA raised the possibility that discovery may have unearthed contacts sufficient for personal jurisdiction, and therefore UMass was entitled to jurisdictional discovery before a determination based on jurisdiction was made.

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