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Justin E. Gray

Partner at Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP

Former Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University School of Law

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Federal Circuit Construes Claim Term Consistenly With the Object of the Invention

Stone Strong, LLC v. Del Zotto Products of Florida, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Oct. 17, 2011) (nonprecedential)

In this case, the Federal Circuit construed a claim term consistently with the object of the invention.  The patents in suit related to pre-cast concrete blocks and a system and method for making pre-cast concrete blocks for use in constructing retaining walls.  One issue on appeal was the proper construction of the claim term "alignment device."  Each asserted independent claim required a "lift and alignment device" or an "alignment device" to align a subsequently-placed block with respect to the first block.

The plaintiff argued that the recess on the bottom of the block can serve an alignment function regardless of its size in relation to the lift hooks on the top of the block, so long as the recess is shorter than the width of the bock from the face to the rear.  The defendant argued that the "the lifting devices must substantially fill the recess ... in order for the block to come to rest in an aligned state."

The Federal Circuit largely agreed with the defendant's construction, ultimately construing the alignment limitation "to require that when the lift loops of one block are inserted into the recess on the bottom of another, there is no enough play to allow the blocks to be misaligned without further manual adjustment."  In support of this construction, the Federal Circuit looked to the object of the invention, which it described as "to achieve alignment of retaining wall blocks, including setback, without requiring manual alignment as the block is lowered or adjustment after it has been placed."  The court then determined that plaintiff's construction was inconsistent with the object of the invention in that the alignment function "cannot be served if the recess is nearly as large as the width of the block itself ... [w]ith such a large recess, there would be too much play between the rings and the outer edges of the recess to automatically align the block with respect to another."

The Court went on to reverse the district's court finding of nonobviousness, finding that "all the relevant elements of the claimed invention ... existed in the prior art" and because the patents in suit "represent no more than the predictable use of prior art elements to address a known problem, their claims are obvious as a matter of law."