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Meridian Manufacturing, Inc. v. C&B Manufacturing, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

June 9, 2017

MERIDIAN MANUFACTURING, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
C&B MANUFACTURING, INC. d/b/a HITCHDOC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING CONSTRUCTION OF DISPUTED PATENT CLAIM TERMS

          Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This action is before me for submission to the parties of a ruling on patent claims construction after a Markman hearing.[1] Plaintiff Meridian Manufacturing, Inc. (Meridian), holds United States Patent No. 6, 964, 551 B1 (‘551 patent) which, as will be discussed, involves component claims for an agricultural trailer. In its complaint, Meridian alleges that defendant C&B Manufacturing, Inc. (HitchDoc), is a competitor that also makes agricultural equipment, including trailers that infringe on the ‘551 patent. The parties dispute the construction of certain claims contained in the ‘551 patent.

         II. HISTORY

         A. Procedural History

         Meridian filed its complaint (Doc. No. 2) on November 23, 2015. On June 3, 2016, the parties presented a technical tutorial on the background of the technology at issue in the case. See Doc. No. 19. The parties filed a joint claim construction statement on October 17, 2016. Doc. No. 24. On November 1, 2016, both parties filed their claim construction briefs. Doc. Nos. 30, 31. Both parties then filed rebuttals, Doc. Nos. 35 and 37, and Meridian filed a supplement. Doc. No. 41. The parties appeared for a Markman hearing on January 11, 2017.

         B. History of the ‘551 Patent

         As the parties, or at least their attorneys, are well aware, Markman hearings often descend into competitions to confound the court with technical terminology.[2]Fortunately, this case involves a relatively simple patent - for an agricultural trailer - and primarily concerns only claims related to the mechanism by which a seed box is put on and attached to the trailer.

         A brief bit of context is necessary to explain the issues in this case. Farmers use planters, large pieces of equipment often attached to tractors, to plant seeds in their fields. Tractors drag the planters through fields and the planters deposit individual seed quantities into the ground at the appropriate locations. Before that can happen, the seeds, which come from large agri-businesses, must make their way from the agri-business to the farm and then into the planters. The agri-businesses deliver seeds to farms in large boxes, which cannot be maneuvered without mechanical assistance. A farmer must use a forklift to load the boxes onto a trailer and drive the trailer to the planter. The farmer then uses a motorized mechanism (such as an auger), attached to the trailer, to remove the seeds from the boxes and deposit them into the planter. The ‘551 patent discloses a trailer that transports seed boxes to the planter and transfers the seeds into that planter. As described in the abstract:

An improved trailer for transporting bulk seed boxes is provided. The trailer includes a bed, a hopper extending below the bed for receiving seed from the bulk seed box, and an auger for unloading seed from the hopper. The bed includes upwardly and outwardly extending guide plates to provide self-centering of the seed box when the box is loaded onto the bed with a forklift truck. The bed includes lock bars moveable between locked and unlocked positions to secure the seed box to the bed. The hopper includes a slide gate with a control arm connected to the gate and extending to the auger side of the trailer for moving the slide gate between open and closed position. The auger includes a foldable upper section which is pivotal between a folded transport position and an extended raised operative position. The folding of the upper auger section is facilitated by a gas cylinder and a lever arm.

Doc. No. 30-2 at 1.[3] Or, as illustrated in the patent:

         (Image Omitted)

Doc. No. 2-1 at 1.

         In describing the claims of the ‘551 patent that are in dispute, Meridian states:

The []551 Patent has nineteen claims, of which only claims 1, 2, 3, 9, 10 and 11 are at issue. These claims are . . .:
1. An improved trailer for transporting a bulk seed box, the box having first and second sidewalls, a bottom, a top, and a flange extending along the sidewalls adjacent the bottom of the box, the trailer comprising:
a wheeled bed for supporting a bulk seed box, the bed having a perimeter edge;
a hopper extending below the bed for receiving seed from the bulk seed box;
a conveyor operatively connected to the hopper for unloading seed from the hopper; and
the bed having guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed to facilitate centering of the box on the bed.
2. The improved trailer of claim 1 wherein the bed has four corners and the guide plates are located at the corners of the bed.
3. The improved trailer of claim 1 further comprising lock bars on the bed to overlappingly engage the flange of the seed box to secure the seed box to the bed.
9. The improved trailer of claim 1 wherein the conveyor is an auger including a first inner section and a second outer section pivotally attached to the first section for movement between transport and discharge positions, and including a gas cylinder to facilitate movement of the second section between the transport and discharge positions.
10. The improved trailer of claim 1 wherein each guide plate extends outwardly at an obtuse angle from the bed.
11. The improved trailer of claim 1 wherein the guide plates define an enlarged box entrance sloping downwardly and inwardly toward the bed so that the box will automatically center on the bed when loaded onto the bed.

Doc. No. 31 at 7-8. HitchDoc agrees these are the disputed claims. In addition, the parties generally agree on the patent history, although they disagree about what it means. Accordingly, I will highlight only the history relevant to the disputed claims.

         The original patent application (submitted by patentee Garry Friesen) was rejected on August 20, 2002, by Examiner James Keenan. Doc. No. 31-2. Relevant to this order, Keenan rejected the ‘551 patent because of a prior patent, Patent No. 6, 092, 974 (the Roth patent). Keenan stated:

Roth shows a trailer for bulk seed containers including wheeled bed 12, hopper 64, conveyor 60, and guide plates 52 which extend “upwardly and outwardly”, as broadly claimed. Although the containers are not disclosed as having a flange, it is noted that the container structure is not a positively claimed limitation. Since the trailer could be used, without modification, for flanged containers, it is considered to meet all claim limitations. . . Claims 3 and 6 are rejected under 35 U.S.C. 103(a) as being unpatentable over Roth in view of Ehlers. . .
Claims 3 and 6 are rejected under 35 U.S.C. 103(a) as being unpatentable over Roth in view of Ehlers.
Roth does not show lock bars for engaging flanges on the boxes. It would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention to have added lock bars to engage flanges on the boxes, as shown by Ehlers, as this would provide a more secure engagement of the boxes for travel over rough terrain.
Claims 11-12 are rejected under 35 U.S.C. 103(a) as being unpatentable over Ehlers in view of Titcombe (US 3, 868, 083).
Ehlers does not show the lock bars to be pivotally mounted, although the rear bar 40 is movably mounted. Titcombe shows pivotally mounted bars for lockingly engaging a flange of a container on a trailer as it is being pulled across a field. It would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention to have modified the apparatus of Ehlers by pivotally mounting the lock bars for movement between locking and unlocking positions, as shown by Titcombe, as this would accord a more convenient means of securing the boxes on the vehicle.

Doc. No. 31-2 at 4, 6-8. Keenan went on to reject several more claims (4, 5, 7, and 14-17) because of the Roth patent's claims related to lock bars and guide plates. Id. at 8-10.

         The Roth patent discloses a similar type of agricultural trailer. It claims that “[t]he top of the trailer bed 12 has two square bulk container decks 50 that are positioned end to end, and are the mirror images of each other. Each container deck 50 includes a retainer lip 52 that extends up from three sides of each deck 50 leaving the right side open to receive a bulk container 100.” Doc. No. 30-15 at 5. See below:

         (Image Omitted)

Id. at 2.

         Following the first rejection, Friesen amended his patent claims. Doc. No. 31-3. As explained in the amendment:

Claim 1 as filed provided that the guide plates extended “upwardly and outwardly” to facilitate centering of the box on the bed. The Examiner asserts that the Roth plates 52 meet this limitation, as do the Kruse plates 64. Both the Roth plates 52 and the Kruse plates 64 extend straight upwardly, and not outwardly. To further clarify “outwardly, ” Applicant has amended claim 1 to provide that the guide plates are “inclining upwardly and outwardly from the bed.” The Roth plates 52 and Kruse plates 64 clearly do not incline outwardly from the bed, as required by claim 1. Therefore, claim 1 distinguishes over the cited references so as to be in proper form for allowance. . .
New claims 26-28 also depend from claim 1 and should be allowable as depending from an allowable base claim. Furthermore, claim 26 provides that each guide plate has “a lower edge connected to the perimeter edge of the bed and an upper edge spaced upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge.” The plates 52 of Roth and 64 of Kruse do not have an upper edge spaced upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge. Therefore, claim 26 further distinguishes over the cited references so as to be allowable.
Claim 27 provides that each guide plate extends “outwardly at an obtuse angle from the bed.” The Roth plates 52 and Kruse plates 64 extend perpendicular to the bed, and therefore do not meet the limitation of claim 27. Therefore, claim 27 further distinguishes over the cited references so as to be allowable.
Claim 28 provides that the guide plates “define an enlarged box entrance sloping downwardly and inwardly toward the bed so that the box atomically centers on the bed when loaded onto the bed.” This is best seen in Figures 2 and 3, wherein the guide plate 22A slopes downwardly and inwardly toward the bed 14. The plates of Roth and Kruse do not slope downwardly and inwardly towards the bed, and thus do not satisfy the limitations of claim 28. Therefore, claim 28 distinguishes over the cited references so as to be allowable.

Id. at 7-8. Friesen also amended claim 10, adding the words:

each lock bar being pivotally connected to the bed for movement between an unlocked position spaced outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed and locked position spaced inwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed.

Id. at 4.

         The application was again rejected, this time, in relevant part, because both of the Roth patent and Patent No. 1, 675, 701 (the Fitch Patent). Doc. No. 31-4. The Fitch Patent, from 1925, is titled simply “Freight Truck.” Doc. No. 30-16 at 2. In relevant part, the corners of the bed were visually described:

         (Image Omitted)

         Doc. No. 30-16 at 2. The Fitch patent stated:

A preferred apparatus for carrying out my invention is illustrated in the drawings, wherein Fig. 1 is a side elevation of a truck. having a removable body thereon; Fig 2 is a rear elevation of the truck shown in Fig. 1; Fig. 3 is a perspective diagrammatic view of a truck with the body removed therefrom and showing a locking bolster which operates in accordance with my invention. . . To position the container on the truck while allowing it to be readily placed or removed, I provide four corner brackets, two of which 20-20 are located just behind the cab of the truck, and the other two of which 21-21 are adjacent the rear end. Each of these brackets has a side wall 22 and an end wall 23, and a bottom or floor portion 24 which forms a supporting seat for the body. As shown, the side walls and end walls of the brackets are inwardly beveled from their upward edges to enable the body to be read[]ily centered as it is put into position.

Id. at 5. In rejecting Friesen's amendment, Keenan stated:

Roth shows a trailer for bulk seed containers including wheeled bed 12, hopper 64, conveyor 60, and guide plates 52 which extend upwardly from the bed. Although the containers are not disclosed as having a flange, it is noted that the container structure is not a positively claimed limitation. Since the trailer could be used, without modification, for flanged containers, it is considered to meet this claim limitation.
Roth does not, however, show the guide plates to incline outwardly from the bed.
Fitch shows a load bed of a vehicle wherein guide plates 20-21 have inner surfaces which incline upwardly and outwardly from the bed to enable a load to be “readily centered as it is put into position” on the bed (page 1, line 90).
It would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention to have modified the apparatus of Roth by utilizing guide plates which inclined outwardly, as shown by Fitch, as this would make loading easier by compensating for some misalignment as the load is lowered onto the bed.

         Doc. No. 31-4 at 3. Keenan rejected the claims related to lock bars for the same reasons set out in the first rejection. Doc. No. 31-4 at 5-8.

         Friesen filed an appeal, stating:

Applicant's claim 1 requires “guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed to facilitate centering of the box on the bed”. These guide plates are much different than those shown in Roth, Fitch or Kruse. In the Final Office Action, the Examiner acknowledged the Applicant's specific claim language of “guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly” are not shown by Roth and Kruse (see Final Action, pages 2 and 3). Moreover, in the Final Office Action, the Examiner characterized the teaching of Fitch to be a bracket having inner surfaces which incline upwardly and outwardly from the bed (Final Office Action, page 2). It is clear in Figure 5 of Fitch that the brackets do not extend beyond the perimeter of the bed, as required by claim 1.
However, in his Answer, the Examiner has now changed his analysis of Fitch from that which is clearly shown in Fitch to a broader “concept” of an “outwardly angled bracket to position and center the container on the bed” (Answer, page 4). This is an overly broad mischaracterization of the teaching of Fitch, and is impermissible hindsight by the Examiner. All Fitch teaches is a bracket at the perimeter edge of the bed with an inwardly sloping surface. Nowhere in Roth, Kruse nor Fitch is it taught that the bracket extend outside the perimeter edge of the bed, pursuant to claim 1. Therefore, the § 103 obviousness rejection should be reversed with regard to claim 1.

         Doc. No. 31-7 at 2-3. The Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (Board) agreed with Friesen, stating:

Based on our analysis and review of Roth and claim 1, it is our opinion that the only difference is the limitation that the bed has “guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed to facilitate centering of the box on the bed.” With regard to this difference, the examiner determined (final rejection, p. 2) that (1) “[i]t would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention to have modified the apparatus of Roth by utilizing guide plates which inclined outwardly, as shown by Fitch, as this would make loading easier by compensating for some misalignment as the load is lowered onto the bed” and (2) “although the guide plates as modified do not have an upper edge that extends beyond the bed perimeter, it would have merely been a further design expediency to have so constructed the plates to compensate for even greater loading misalignment and/or misshapen containers.” We do not agree for the reasons that follow.
Based on our analysis and review of Kruse and claim 1, it is our opinion that the differences are (1) the bed lacks “guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed to facilitate centering of the box on the bed” and (2) the bed is not part of trailer so as to constitute a wheeled bed. With regard to these differences, the examiner determined (final rejection, p. 3) that (1) “it would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention to have modified the apparatus of Kruse by adding wheels thereto so as to create a trailer vehicle, as this would offer greater flexibility and support” and (2) “[i]t would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention to have modified the apparatus of Kruse by utilizing guide plates which inclined outwardly, as shown by Fitch, as this would make loading easier by compensating for some misalignment as the load is lowered onto the bed.” We do not agree for the reasons that follow.
In our view, the applied art (i.e., Roth and Fitch or Kruse and Fitch) would not have made it obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to have modified either Roth or Kruse so as to arrive at the subject matter of claim 1. Claim 1 requires that the bed has “guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed to facilitate centering of the box on the bed.” However, this limitation is not suggested by the applied prior art. In that regard, while Fitch does teach corner brackets having inclined walls within the perimeter edge of the bed, Fitch does not teach or suggest using guide plates inclining upwardly and outwardly from the perimeter edge of the bed to facilitate centering of a container on the bed. To supply this omission in the teachings of the applied prior art, the examiner made a determination that although the guide plates suggested by the applied prior art do not have an upper edge that extends beyond the bed perimeter, it would have merely been a further design expediency to have so constructed the plates. However, this determination has not been supported by any evidence that would have led an artisan to arrive at the claimed invention.
In our view, the only suggestion for modifying the applied prior art in the manner proposed by the examiner to arrive at the subject matter of claim 1 stems from hindsight knowledge derived from the appellant's own disclosure. The use of such hindsight knowledge to support an obviousness rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 103 is, of course, impermissible. See. for example, W. L. Gore and Assocs .. Inc. v. Garlock. Inc., 721 F.2d 1540, 1553, 220 U.S.P.Q. 303, 312-13 (Fed. Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 851 (1984).
For the reasons set forth above, the decision of the examiner to reject claim 1 under 35 U.S.C. § 103 is reversed.

         Doc. No. 31-9 at 8-11 (footnote omitted). The Board similarly overturned the prior rejections related to the flanges and lockbars, stating:

To supply this omission in the teachings of the applied prior art, the examiner made a determination (final rejection, pp. 4-5) that the pivoting lock bars of Titcombe, when added to the Ehlers apparatus, would necessarily be placed at the bed perimeter and the unlocked position would logically then be outside this perimeter; otherwise, loading would be difficult if not impossible. However, this determination has not been supported by any evidence that would have led an artisan to arrive at the claimed invention. In that regard, we note that if the pivoting lock bars of Titcombe where to be added to the Ehlers apparatus they would necessarily be ...

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