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Justin E. Gray

IP Litigation Attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP

Former Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University School of Law

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Refrigerator Shelf Claim Requires Snap-Securing During Assembly, Not at All Times

Gemtron Corp. v. Saint-Gobain Corp., (Fed. Cir. Jul 20, 2009)

In this case, the district court (Western District of Michigan) granted a permanent injunction in favor of Gemtron regarding Saint-Gobain's infringing refrigerator shelves. The Federal Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Linn, affirmed.

The disputed claims related to refrigerator shelves, more specifically refrigerator shelves made up of two pieces -- a plastic frame and a glass panel where the glass panel is secured in the frame using "relatively resilient" fingers so that the glass panel is "snap-secured" into the frame. There was one claim term at issue in the litigation: "relatively resilient end edge portion [of the frame] which temporarily deflects and subsequently rebounds to snap-secure [the glass into the frame]." The district court construed this term to mean that "the end edge portion is sufficiently resilient that it can temporarily deflect and subsequently rebound when glass is being inserted into the frame" (emphasis added).

The dispute concerned "precisely when the frame must be flexible to satisfy the 'relatively resilient' limitation." The evidence showed that Saint-Gobain's frames were relatively resistant while heated (i.e. after they came out of the mold but before they completely cooled) but not necessarily at room temperature. Naturally, it was shown that Saint-Gobain snapped the glass into place when its frames were warm.

Saint-Gobain argued that the term at issue should have been construed to mean that "the end edge portion is sufficiently flexible to permit the glass in the finished product to be pushed out of the frame and pushed back into the frame." More particularly, Saint-Gobain argued that the term should not mean "temporarily resilient immediately after cooking in an oven and before any opportunity to cool."

In construing the claim term, the Federal Circuit focused exclusively on the claim language and the specification, as the parties made no arguments concerning the prosecution history or extrinsic evidence. The claim itself "had no express temporal or temporal limitation requiring that the end edge portion be relatively resilient 'always,' or 'at all temperatures,' or 'when in use in a refrigerator.'" Further, use of the phrase "temporarily deflects and subsequently rebounds to snap-secure" in the claim suggested to the Federal Circuit "that the claimed resilience of the frame need only be exhibited during assembly." The patent specification also focused "on the characteristics of the frame that enable snap-secure assembly of the claimed shelf" and "every time the structure of the 'relatively resilient' edge portions is mentioned in the specification, it is in the context of a discussion of how that structure function while the shelf is assembled."

For these reasons, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's construction of the claim, only requiring that the frame be "sufficiently resilient ... when glass is being inserted into the frame." Although Saint-Gobain also argued that that this construction turned the limitation at issue into a "product-by-process limitation," the Federal Circuit pointed out that the limitation described "the structural relationship between the glass panel and the frame" which was "different from defining a structure solely by the process by which it is made." As Saint-Gobain's refrigerator shelves satisfied the claim limitations when the frames are warm and the glass is snapped into place, the Federal Circuit affirmed the finding of infringement as well.

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