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Hodak v. Jedco Products

February 25, 2009

JOAN HODAK T/D/B/A AQUADOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JEDCO PRODUCTS, INC., ULTIMATE SWIMMING POOLS, INC., JERRY HODAK AND LINDA HODAK, HUSBAND AND WIFE, DEFENDANTS/COUNTERCLAIM PLAINTIFFS
v.
JOAN HODAK, T/D/B/A AQUADOR, AND DAVID HODAK, COUNTERCLAIM DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge David S. Cercone

JURY TRIAL DEMANDED

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This case involves competing assemblies to seal swimming pool filters, also known as skimmers. Plaintiff Joan Hodak ("Plaintiff"), trading and doing business as Aquador, brings a claim for patent infringement against Defendants Jerry and Linda Hodak and the entites they operate ("Defendants"). Plaintiff specifically alleges that Defendants developed a skimmer sealing assembly that infringes a patent for a skimmer sealing assembly developed by Plaintiff's late husband, Frank Hodak. The Court has been asked to construe particular terms in the claims of U.S. Patent No. 5,285,538 ("the '538 patent") as required by law. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 388 (1996). On October 16, 2008, a Markman Hearing was held in which both parties masterfully presented their arguments for their proposed claim constructions. The Court's construction of the disputed terms is set forth below.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, along with her late husband Frank Hodak, have been involved in the swimming pool business for many years. (Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Docket No. 45, at 1). Together they operated the company Aquador. (Id.). Several of their children are also involved in the swimming pool business. (Id. at 2). Defendant Jerry Hodak never became involved in the operation of Aquador, but rather started his own swimming pool businesses, Jedco Products, Inc., and Ultimate Swimming Pools, Inc. (Id.).

In 1990, Frank Hodak applied for a patent on a swimming pool skimmer sealing assembly. The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted the patent application in 1992 as the '538 patent. Plaintiff is now the sole owner of the '538 patent. (Complaint, Docket No. 1, at ¶ 1). The invention consists of a faceplate that surrounds the opening of the skimmer and a flexible cover that attaches to the faceplate, thereby covering the central opening. By acting as a seal to the opening of the skimmer, this simple device allows swimming pool owners to drain their swimming pool filters in the winter without having to undertake the arduous process of draining the entire pool. (Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Docket No. 45, at 2).

Defendant Jerry Hodak developed another skimmer sealing assembly and likewise obtained a patent for it, U.S. Patent No. 7,011,747. The primary difference between the two devices is that Defendants' involves a central opening cover that is secured to the face plate by "a snap fit connection between cooperating mating elements disposed on the peripheral edge of the cover and the inner edge of the faceplate." (Defendants' Response Brief, Docket No. 46, at 3).

Plaintiff argues that Defendants' device infringes the '538 patent. The parties dispute the meaning of certain terms contained within Claim 1 of the '538 patent, namely "peripheral edge," "including peripheral edge extending therearound," and "sealing means."

The Disputed Claim Terms

The disputed terms appear in Claim 1 of the '538 patent as follows:

1. A sealing assembly for a swimming pool skimmer of the type having a skimmer body with a water receiving opening therein, said sealing assembly comprising: a face plate for engaging said skimmer body around said water receiving opening at a sidewall of the swimming pool, said face plate defined by a frame-like element having a central opening therein communicating with the opening in the skimmer body, said face plate having a substantially flat border surface extending around said central opening and including a peripheral edge extending therearound; sealing means carried by the face plate; and a detachable cover element constructed of a flexible material comprising a planar portion for closing off the central opening in the face pate, said cover element further including an outwardly extending peripheral lip portion surrounding the planar portion for sealably engaging the peripheral edge around said face plate to prevent pool water from entering the skimmer. (Emphases Added) (the '538 patent, Docket No. 45, Ex. A, col. 4, lns. 24-43).

The primary issue is whether, in light of the above claim language, the written description, and the file history, "peripheral edge" must be limited to mean only the outer edge of the faceplate. Defendant argues that the context of the claim terms themselves, certain language describing the preferred embodiments in the specification, and the prosecution history limit the meaning of "peripheral edge" to "outer edge of the face plate." (Defendants' Response Brief, Docket No. 46, at 7-8). They note that the specification describes the cover element of the device as "square or rectangular in shape, sized in plain view to fit snugly around the peripheral edge 26 of the face plate." (the '538 patent, Docket No. 45, Ex. A, col. 3, lns. 10-12) (emphasis added). Describing the "U-shaped peripheral lip portion" of the cover element, the specification states that the "U-shaped sides of the lip portion 27' are adapted to snugly engage opposed side of the raised flange 40 of the face plate completely around the outer peripheral edge 26'." (Docket No. 45, Ex. A, col. 3, lines 54-56) (Emphases added).

Plaintiff maintains that proper construction of the claim terms leads to the understanding that the term peripheral edge encompasses any edge on the face plate that is outside the central opening. In her view, the construction proffered by defendants is foreclosed by the claim language, the specification, the ordinary rules of grammar and the attendant principles of physics.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Claim Construction

A literal patent infringement analysis involves two steps: the proper construction of the asserted claim and a determination as to whether the accused method or product infringes the asserted claim as properly construed. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 976 (Fed.Cir. 1995), aff'd., 517 U.S. 370 (1996). The first step, claim construction, is a matter of law. See Id.

It is a "bedrock principle" of patent law that "the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude." Innova/Pure Water, Inc. v. Safari Water Filtration Systems, Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1115 (Fed.Cir. 2004); see also Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed.Cir. 1996) ("We look to the words of the claims themselves...to define the scope of the patented invention."). Additionally, the "written description part of the specification itself does not delimit the right to exclude. That is the function and purpose of claims." Markman, 52 F.3d at 980.

The words of a claim are "generally given their ordinary and customary meaning." Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1313 (Fed.Cir. 2005) (citing Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582). The ordinary and customary meaning of a claim term "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, 415 F.3d at 1313 (citations omitted). The inquiry into how a person of ordinary skill in the art understands a claim term provides an objective baseline from which to begin claim interpretation. Id. Because the inquiry is objective, "a court looks to those sources available to the public that show what a person of skill in the art would have understood disputed claim language to mean." Innova, 381 F.3d at 1116.

A person of ordinary skill in the art is deemed to read the claim term not only in the context of the particular claim in which the disputed term appears, but in the context of the entire patent, including the specification. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1313. In other words, a court must not examine the ordinary meaning of a term "in a vacuum," but rather within the context of all of the intrinsic evidence, including the written description and prosecution history. See Medrad, Inc. v. MRI Devices, Corp., 401 F.3d 1313, 1319 (Fed.Cir. 2005). In the written description, "a patentee may choose to be his own lexicographer and use terms in a manner other than their ordinary meaning, as long as the special definition of the term is clearly stated in the patent specification or file history." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582. Thus, to determine whether a patentee has defined a claim as inconsistent with its ordinary meaning, it is necessary to review the specification. Id.

The specification may reveal "an intentional disclaimer, or disavowal, of claim scope by the inventor." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1316.

While a court must read claims in light of the specification, a court must not read limitations from the specification into the claim. Id. at 1323; see also Voda v. Cordis Corp., 536 F.3d 1311, 1320 (Fed.Cir. 2008) ("This court has cautioned against importing limitations from the specification into claims."). However, "the distinction between using the specification to interpret the meaning of a claim and importing limitations from the specification into the claim can be a difficult one to apply in practice." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1323. This line between construing terms and importing limitations can be discerned with reasonable certainty and predictability if the court's focus remains on understanding how a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand the claim terms. Id. For instance, although the specification often describes very specific embodiments of the invention, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ("Federal Circuit") "has repeatedly warned ...


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