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LTJ Enterprises, Inc. v. Custom Marketing Co., LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

June 8, 2015

LTJ Enterprises, Inc., Plaintiff,
v.
Custom Marketing Co., LLC, Defendant.

Richard O. Bartz, Esq., Bartz & Bartz PA, Edina, MN, on behalf of Plaintiff.

Donald W. Niles, Esq., Niles Law Office P.A., Wadena, MN, on behalf of Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ANN D. MONTGOMERY, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On March 31, 2015, a claim construction hearing was held before the undersigned United States District Judge in this patent infringement action brought by Plaintiff LTJ Enterprises, Inc. ("LTJ") against Defendant Custom Marketing Co., LLC ("CMC"). LTJ alleges CMC infringes claims of its United States Patent No. 6, 067, 927 (the "'927 Patent").

II. BACKGROUND

LTJ, a Minnesota corporation, has a principal place of business in Roseau, Minnesota. Compl. [Docket No. 1] ¶ 1. The '927 Patent was issued on May 30, 2000 and is currently owned after assignment by LTJ. Id. ¶ 8. In basic terms, the invention is a "bin level indicator used to provide a person with information as to the level of bulk material in a bin." Id. ¶ 6. Beginning at least as early as 2005, CMC purchased LTJ's bin level indicators for resale. Pl. Claim Construction Mem. [Docket No. 46] 1. In 2012, CMC stopped purchasing LTJ's bin level indicator and began marketing its "Grain Gauge" indicator, the allegedly infringing product. Id.

LTJ filed this infringement suit on August 15, 2013. The '927 Patent consists of 35 claims. LTJ asserts CMC's indicator infringes on claims 18, 21, 24, 26, and 27. The parties have been unable to agree on the construction of nine claim terms. The disputed terms are found in claims 18 and 24.

Claim 18 recites:

An indicator for providing an indication of the level of material in a bin containing the material, said bin having a side wall with a hole for accommodating the indicator, comprising: a body, visual means having an outer surface for indicating the level of the material in the bin, means rotatably mounting the visual means on the body for movement between an ON position and an OFF position indicating the level of the material in the bin, a transparent member attached to the body enclosing the visual means within the body and transparent member, means having a bright color on a first portion of the outer surface providing a visual indication of the ON position of the indicator, the remaining portion of the outer surface having a dark color providing a visual indication of the OFF position of the indicator, an arm, means pivotally mounting a first end portion of the arm on the body for movement between first and second positions, motion transmitting means connecting a second end portion of the arm to the visual means operable to rotate the visual means between the ON and OFF positions in response to generally upward and downward movement of the second end portion of the arm, and actuator means connected to the arm adapted to be located within the bin for moving the arm to the first position when the material in the bin engages the actuator means and moving the arm to the second position when the material in the bin does not engage the actuator means whereby the arm operates the motion transmitting means which rotates the visual means between its ON and OFF positions.

Mezera Aff. [Docket No. 47] Ex. A ("'927 Patent") 10:56-11:16. The terms in dispute in claim 18 are "body, " "arm, " and "generally upward and downward movement of the second end portion of the arm." Joint Claim Construction Statement [Docket No. 39] Schedule A 1-2. The means-plus-function terms in dispute in claim 18 are "means pivotally mounting a first end portion of the arm on the body for movement between first and second positions, " "motion transmitting means connecting a second end portion of the arm to the visual means operable to rotate the visual means between the ON and OFF positions in response to generally upward and downward movement of the second end portion of the arm, " and "actuator means connected to the arm adapted to be located within the bin for moving the arm to the first position when the material in the bin engages the actuator means and moving the arm to the second position when the material in the bin does not engage the actuator means whereby the arm operates the motion transmitting means which rotates the visual means between its ON and OFF positions." Id.

Claim 24 recites:

An indicator for providing an indication of the level of material in a bin containing the material, said bin having a side wall with a hole for accommodating the indicator, comprising: a body, visual means having an outer surface rotatable mounted on the body for movement between an ON position and an OFF position, a transparent member attached to the body enclosing the visual means within the body and transparent member, means having a bright color on a first portion of the outer surface providing a visual indication of the ON position of the indicator, the remaining portion of the outer surface having a dark color providing a visual indication of the OFF position of the indicator, an arm, means movably mounting the arm on the body for movement between first and second positions, motion transmitting means connecting the arm to the visual means operable to rotate the visual means between the ON and OFF positions in response to movement of the arm, and actuator means connected to the arm adapted to be located within the bin for moving the arm to the first position when the material in the bin engages the actuator means and moving the arm to the second position when the material in the bin does not engage the actuator means whereby the arm operates the motion transmitting means which rotates the visual means between its ON and OFF positions, the motion transmitting means includes a rack having teeth connected to the arm, and a gear joined to the visual means, said teeth of the rack being engageable with the gear whereby movement of the arm rotates the visual means between its ON and OFF positions.

'927 Patent 11:45-12:6. The terms in dispute in claim 24 are "body, " "arm, " "rack, " and "gear." Joint Claim Construction Statement, Schedule A 1-3. The means-plus-function terms in dispute in claim 24 are "means movably mounting a first end portion of the arm on the body for movement between first and second positions, " "actuator means connected to the arm adapted to be located within the bin for moving the arm to the first position when the material in the bin engages the actuator means and moving the arm to the second position when the material in the bin does not engage the actuator means whereby the arm operates the motion transmitting means which rotates the visual means between its ON and OFF positions, " and "motion transmitting means connecting the arm to the visual means operable to rotate the visual means between the ON and OFF positions in response to movement of the arm." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Claim construction is a matter of law. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995), aff'd, 517 U.S. 370 (1996). In construing claims, courts should look first to intrinsic evidence, which includes the claims, the specification, and the prosecution history. Vitrionics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996). Claim terms are "generally given their ordinary and customary meaning, " which is "the meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention, i.e., as of the effective filing date of the patent application." Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312-13 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (quotation and citations omitted). However, a patentee can choose to be "his or her own lexicographer by clearly setting forth an explicit definition for a claim term." Johnson Worldwide Assocs., Inc. v. Zebco Corp., 175 F.3d 985, 989 (Fed. Cir. 1999). Claim terms "should be construed consistently with [their] appearance in other places in the same claim or other claims of the same patent." Rexnord Corp. v. Laitram Corp., 274 F.3d 1336, 1342 (Fed. Cir. 2001). In addition, the specification is usually "dispositive; it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term." Vitrionics, 90 F.3d at 1582. Courts are nonetheless cautioned not to import limitations from the specification into the claims. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1323; Laitram Corp. v. NEC Corp., 163 F.3d 1342, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

While courts can consider extrinsic evidence to educate themselves about the patent and technology at issue, it is improper to rely on extrinsic evidence in construing claims unless, after consideration of all the intrinsic evidence, ambiguity remains. Mantech Envtl. Corp. v. Hudson Envtl. Servs., Inc., 152 F.3d 1368, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 1998); Vitrionics, 90 F.3d at 1584. Extrinsic evidence is "evidence which is external to the patent and file history, such as expert testimony, inventor testimony, dictionaries, and technical treatises and articles." Vitrionics, 90 F.3d at 1584. Dictionaries may be useful to courts in understanding the ordinary and customary meaning of words, and courts may "rely on dictionary definitions when ...


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