Federal Circuit shoots down orthodontics manufacturer’s challenge in patent lawsuit

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Nov 3, 2014

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has rejected a challenge by a leading manufacturer of orthodontic appliances and supplies in a lawsuit over its patent for a bracket for orthodontic braces.


Ormco Corporation owns U.S. Patent No. 8,393,896, which claims a bracket that avoids or reduces interference with the gums even when being mounted on a molar tooth.


Ormco, a Delaware corporation, accuses World Class Technology Corporation, based in Oregon, of infringing the ‘896 patent. World Class denies infringement.


In its ruling, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon construed two claim terms -- “support surface” and “ledge.”


In view of the court’s constructions, the parties stipulated to a judgment of non-infringement of the patent.


The Federal Circuit, which handles all U.S. patent appeals, affirmed the district court’s ruling in its Oct. 20 opinion.


In particular, the appeals court rejected Ormco’s challenge to the district court’s construction of “support surface,” which, by the parties’ stipulation, suffices for non-infringement.


The ‘896 patent, entitled “Self-Ligating Orthodontic Bracket,” describes a bracket that attaches to a tooth for orthodontic braces. The bracket includes a slot to hold the archwire that connects and exerts the desired corrective force on the teeth, with a slide that moves across the slot opening to hold the wire in place.


The specification -- a document describing the invention for which a patent is sought and setting out the scope of the protection of the patent -- noted that self-ligating brackets were already known in the art. However, the prior-art brackets, it noted, did not work well for molars because when the slide opened to release the wire it would bump into the gums, causing discomfort.


The specification disclosed a bracket that, it states, solves the problem. It described a bracket structured so that the slide, when moving from a slot-closed to slot-open position, moves at an angle away from the gums.


World Class, which has been in the metal injection molding industry for more than 25 years, brought the present case by seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement of five other Ormco patents.


But the ‘896 patent became the focus of the dispute when Ormco counterclaimed, and sought a preliminary injunction, based on the allegation that World Class was infringing the ‘896 patent.


The heart of the parties’ dispute is what constraints claim 1 places on the “support surface” during movement of the movable member, or slide.


The parties also disputed what role is played by the “ledge” surface that lies on the other side of the wire-holding slot from the support surface.


Ormco has argued that the claim does not require the support surface to play any role during slide movement until the slide crosses the slot to move into the closed position. As long as it does that, and is situated at an acute angle to the base of the slot, no further support of the slide during sliding is required.


World Class has argued that “support surface,” properly construed, requires the surface to play a slide-supporting role as the slide moves along its angled path from one side of the slot, across the slot, and into the closed position at the ledge.


The district court rejected Ormco’s argument.


In denying the requested preliminary injunction, and then again upon full consideration of the claim-construction dispute, the court held that the support surface “at least partially supports and guides the movable member during movement between the open position and the closed position.”


Ormco and World Class Technology eventually stipulated to non-infringement of the ‘896 patent under the “support surface” construction. The parties separately stipulated to non-infringement of the other five patents in the case, which are no longer at issue.


The district court entered a final judgment, and Ormco appealed.


A three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, saying the claim language does not, by itself, convey a “clear, unambiguous meaning in the respect at issue.”


“To begin with, while ‘support surface’ requires a surface that provides support, and the slide is undisputedly what must be supported, the language itself does not resolve when the slide must be supported. An ‘engaging’ must take place in the fully closed position, according to the claim,” Circuit Judge Richard G. Taranto wrote in the 11-page opinion. “But the phrase ‘support surface’ standing alone could mean that support must be provided generally during movement of the slide.


“Moreover, the claim requires two surfaces on either side of the archwire slot and gives the surfaces two different names: the ‘support surface’ and the ‘ledge’ surface.”


Taranto said that difference suggests their roles are different, which “points away” from Ormco’s suggestion that they are interchangeable regarding the timing of contact with the slide.


“Indeed, the claim not only gives them separate names, but requires the two surfaces to line up differently relative to the base surface of the slot: the support surface must be at an acute angle relative to the base surface; the ledge surface must be parallel to the base surface,” the judge wrote. “And the claim requires a specific interaction (‘engaging’) between one surface (the support surface) and a portion of the angled slide when in the closed position, with no analogous requirement for the other surface.


“Rather than providing an unambiguous, clear meaning, therefore, the claim language leaves uncertainty about whether, contrary to Ormco’s view, the slide must move along the support surface (and not the ledge surface) as it enters the bracket and moves toward the slot.”


From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at patents@legalnewsline.com.

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