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LG Electronics U.S.A., Inc. v. Whirlpool Corp.

April 2, 2007

LG ELECTRONICS U.S.A., INC. AND LG ELECTRONICS, INC., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
WHIRLPOOL CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brown, Chief Judge

ELECTRONIC PUBLICATION ONLY

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court upon defendant Whirlpool Corporation's ("Defendant" or "Whirlpool") motion for summary judgment and the parties' request for claim construction in this patent infringement action. Plaintiffs LG Electronics U.S.A., Inc. and LG Electronics, Inc. (collectively "Plaintiffs" or "LG") claim that washing machines designed by Whirlpool infringe certain of LG's patents. LG claims that Whirlpool's Calypso washer infringes U.S. Patent No. 5,339,474 (the "'474 Patent") and U.S. Patent No. 5,461,886 (the "'886 Patent"). LG also claims that Whirlpool's Duet washer infringes U.S. Patent No. 5,768,731 (the "'731 Patent"). LG filed the Complaint on May 17, 2004. On January 9, 2006, Whirlpool filed the present motion for summary judgment. The parties have also requested claim construction in this patent infringement action pursuant to Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (en banc), aff'd, 517 U.S. 370 (1996). This case was reassigned to the undersigned on September 26, 2006, and the undersigned requested the parties to submit a Joint Claim Construction Chart ("Chart"), which would identify the disputed claims, the parties' proposed constructions, and the intrinsic evidence supporting their respective constructions. The Chart was submitted on February 22, 2007, and the issues of claim construction and summary judgment are now ready for decision. The Court, having considered the parties' submissions and decided the matter without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 78, and for the reasons set forth below, will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Claim Construction

1. Standard for Claim Construction

The first step in a patent infringement analysis is to define the meaning and scope of the claims of the patent. Markman, 52 F.3d at 976. Claim construction, which serves this purpose, is a matter of law exclusively for the court. Id. at 979. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals clarified the proper methodology for claim construction in Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005). The court stated that the claims of a patent serve as the proper starting point, noting the "bedrock principle of patent law that the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude." Id. at 1312 (internal quotations omitted). The court explained that words should generally be given their ordinary and customary meaning -- particularly from the vantage point of a person of ordinary skill in the art. Id. at 1313. This provides an objective baseline from which claim construction should begin. Id.

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals further noted that 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." Id. In attempting to discern the meaning of claim terms, the court identified various sources from which the proper meaning may be determined. The claim in which the term appears and other claims of a patent, including both asserted and unasserted claims, can serve as "valuable sources of enlightenment as to the meaning of the claim term." Id. at 1314.

The court also emphasized the primacy of the specification in a claim construction analysis, noting that it is usually dispositive and "the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term." Id. at 1315. The specification may reveal whether the patentee acted as his own lexicographer by importing a special definition to the claim term, in which case the patentee's lexicography governs. Id. at 1316. Moreover, the specification can further reveal any intentional disavowal or disclaimer of claim scope. In such instances, "the inventor has dictated the correct claim scope, and the inventor's intention, as expressed in the specification, is regarded as dispositive." Id.

The prosecution history should also be taken into consideration if it is in evidence. Consisting of the complete record of the Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO") proceedings, "the prosecution history provides evidence of how the PTO and the inventor understood the patent." Id. at 1317. Unlike the specification, however, which represents the final product of ongoing negotiations between the PTO and the patentee, the prosecution history may lack clarity and serve as a less helpful tool in claim construction. Id. Nonetheless, this part of the intrinsic evidence "can often inform the meaning of the claim language by demonstrating how the inventor understood the invention and whether the inventor limited the invention in the course of prosecution, making the claim scope narrower than it would otherwise be." Id.

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals cautioned against the use of extrinsic evidence during claim construction because this type of evidence suffers from certain inherent flaws which affect its reliability in a clam construction analysis. This class of evidence includes "all evidence external to the patent and prosecution history, including expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises." Id. (internal quotations omitted). Although extrinsic evidence may be useful, "it is unlikely to result in a reliable interpretation of patent claim scope unless considered in the context of the intrinsic evidence." Id. at 1319. A court nonetheless is permitted to admit and use extrinsic evidence in its sound discretion, so long as the court remains mindful of the inherent flaws in this type of evidence and considers it accordingly. Id.

Phillips also clarified the role of dictionaries in claim construction. Placing undue reliance on dictionaries would improperly focus "the inquiry on the abstract meaning of words rather than on the meaning of claim terms within the context of the patent." Id. at 1321. The "ordinary meaning" of the claim term is properly viewed as the "meaning to the ordinary artisan after reading the entire patent." Id. Moreover, dictionaries are naturally suspect as they "provide an expansive array of definitions" and often collect all uses of a word "from the common to the obscure." Id. This may result in extending "patent protection beyond what should properly be afforded by the inventor's patent." Id. at 1322. Despite such concerns, however, courts are not precluded from using dictionaries in the appropriate manner during claim construction analysis. Id.

Lastly, a court must be mindful of the well-settled rule "that while proper claim construction requires an examination of the written description and relevant prosecution history to determine the meaning of claim limitations, additional limitations may not be read into the claims." Storage Tech. Corp. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., 329 F.3d 823, 831 (Fed. Cir. 2003). See also In re Donaldson Co., 16 F.3d 1189, 1195 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (noting the "general claim construction principle that limitations found only in the specification of a patent or patent application should not be imported or read into a claim.").

2. The Disputed Claim Terms

a. '474 Patent

LG claims that Whirlpool's Calypso machine infringes Claims 1, 3, and 4 of the '474 Patent. Claims 1, 3, and 4 recite:

1. An apparatus for determining a twist of clothes being washed in a washer, comprising:

clothes twist sensing means for sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of said washer due to the twist of clothes, to sense the distribution of impact applied to an agitator of the washer by said clothes, and generating a clothes twist signal according to the sensed impact distribution;

correlation coefficient operating means for converting said clothes twist signal into a digital signal indicative of a state value of the clothes twist signal, analyzing said state value of the clothes twist signal, and operating a correlation coefficient to be used for determining whether the clothes twist signal is a meaningful signal or a noise, based on the analysis; and

a microprocessor for performing a control for executing a clothes untwisting mode, when the clothes twist signal is determined to be said meaningful signal, from said correlation coefficient outputted from said correlation coefficient operating means.

3. A method of determining a twist of clothes being washed in a washer, comprising the steps of:

(a) determining whether the current mode of said washer is a washing mode or a rinsing mode;

(b) agitating said clothes normally and reversely for a predetermined time by driving a motor and an agitator equipped in the washer, sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to an impact from the clothes, and generating a clothes twist signal according to the sensed torque;

(c) operating a correlation coefficient of said clothes twist signal outputted at said step (b), to determine whether the clothes twist signal is a meaningful signal or a noise; and

(d) comparing said correlation coefficient outputted at step (c) with a predetermined reference value, executing a clothes untwisting mode when the correlation coefficient is higher than said reference value, determining whether the current mode has been completed when the correlation coefficient is not higher than the reference value, and reading a clothes twist signal inputted during an execution of said washing mode when the current mode has not been completed yet.

4. A method of determining a twist of clothes being washed in a washer, comprising the steps of:

(a) determining whether the current mode of said washer is a washing mode or a rinsing mode;

(b) checking whether the current mode has been completed;

[(c)] agitating said clothes normally and reversely for a predetermined time by driving a motor equipped in the washer, when the current mode has been determined as having been completed at said step (b), sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to an impact from the clothes, and generating a clothes twist signal according to the sensed torque;

(d) operating a correlation coefficient of said clothes twist signal outputted at step (c), to determine whether the clothes twist signal is a meaningful signal or a noise; and

(e) comparing said correlation coefficient outputted at said step (d) with a predetermined reference value, and executing a clothes untwisting mode when the correlation coefficient is higher than said reference value.

'474 Patent, Claims 1, 3, and 4. The parties dispute a number of the terms contained in these claims.

(1) Determining a Twist of Clothes being Washed in a Washer

The parties dispute the term "determining a twist of clothes being washed in a washer," which appears in Claims 1, 3, and 4. LG proposes construing the term to mean "determining a bundling [i.e., uneven distribution] of clothes being washed in a washer." (Chart at 1.) Whirlpool proposes instead that the term be construed to mean "deciding whether clothes being washed in a washer are entwined together." (Id.)

In arguing that the term "determining" should be construed as "deciding," Whirlpool refers to the written description, which states that "[w]hen the correlation coefficient of Y(n) has been determined to be higher than the [] reference value . . . , the clothes is determined as having been twisted . . . ." ('474 Patent, col. 9, ll. 19-22.) The Court finds nothing in that description to support Whirlpool's argument that the term "determining" means "deciding," rather than its plain meaning. The Court therefore rejects that aspect of Whirlpool's proposed construction.

With respect to the term "a twist of clothes," however, the Court agrees with Whirlpool that the term should be construed to mean "clothes . . . entwined together." The background section of the patent states that "cloths of the clothes may be damaged when operations in the washing mode and the rinsing mode are continued under a condition that the clothes has been twisted . . . ." (Id., col. 1, ll. 40-43.) "Moreover, there is a problem that the washing degree is degraded at the twisted portion of clothes." (Id., col. 1, ll. 44-46.) The summary section states that "an object of the invention is to provide an apparatus for and a method of determining a twist of clothes being washed in a washer, . . . so that when the clothes twist signal is a meaningful signal, an operation in a clothes untwisting mode is carried out for minimizing a damage of the clothes . . . ." (Id., col. 1, ll. 49-57.) The written description states that the invention makes it "possible to minimize a damage of clothes and improve the washing degree degraded at the twisted portion of clothes." (Id., col. 9, ll. 32-35.) It is clear, then, that "a twist of clothes" was understood to result in damage to the clothes and degradation of the washing degree at the twisted portion. That limitation comports with Whirlpool's proposed construction, "clothes . . . entwined together." In contrast, LG fails to explain how "bundling [i.e., uneven distribution]" of clothes would result in damage at a bundled, unevenly distributed portion of clothes.

The Court therefore construes the term "determining a twist of clothes being washed in a washer" as "determining whether clothes being washed in a washer are entwined together."

(2) "Sensing a Torque Occurring at a Drive Shaft of said Washer due to the Twist of Clothes, to Sense the Distribution of Impact Aapplied to an Agitator of the Washer by said Clothes"

The parties also dispute the term "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of said washer due to the twist of clothes, to sense the distribution of impact applied to an agitator of the washer by said clothes," which appears in Claim 1. LG proposes that the term be construed to mean "sensing torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to the bundling [i.e., uneven distribution] of clothes, to sense the distribution of impact [i.e., contact] applied to an agitator of the washer by the clothes." (Chart at 5.) Whirlpool proposes instead that the term be construed to mean "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to clothes that are entwined together, to sense the distribution of collisions between the clothes and the agitator of the washer." (Id.)

Comparing the parties' proposed constructions, the main issue is whether the term "impact" should be construed to mean "contact" or "collision[]." Figure 3 is an illustration of a washer to which the invention was applied. ('474 Patent, col. 3, ll. 21-23.) The written description of Figure 3 states that "[i]n accordance with the present invention, the clothes twist determining apparatus comprises a clothes twist sensing unit 10 for sensing a torque occurring at the drive shaft 6 due to the distribution of impact applied to the agitator 8 and generating a clothes twist signal according to the sensed torque." (Id., col. 3, ll. 42-47.) The use of the word "applied" favors Whirlpool's argument that the term "impact" means "collision" rather than "contact." The written description also states that "[b]y the normal and reverse rotations of the agitator 8, the clothes 1 are agitated normally and reversely. The clothes 1 being agitated strike against the agitator 8, so that the agitator is subjected to an impact." (Id., col. 5, ll. 18-21.) The use of the word "strike" in describing how the "impact" is applied to the agitator further supports Whirlpool's proposed construction.

The claimed invention seeks to distinguish twisted and untwisted clothes based on the "distribution of impact applied to the agitator . . . ." (Id., col. 3, ll. 42-47.) LG, however, fails to explain how determining the distribution of "contact" -- for example, differences in the amount of surface area in contact with the agitator -- would affect the torque occurring at the drive shaft.

The Court will therefore construe the term "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of said washer due to the twist of clothes, to sense the distribution of impact applied to an agitator of the washer by said clothes" to mean "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to clothes that are entwined together, to sense the distribution of collisions between the clothes and the agitator of the washer."

(3) "Sensing a Torque Occurring at a Drive Shaft of the Washer due to an Impact from the Clothes"

The parties also dispute the term "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to an impact from the clothes," which appears in Claims 3 and 4. LG proposes construing the term to mean "sensing torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to an impact [i.e., contact] from the clothes." (Chart at 6.) Whirlpool proposes instead that the term be construed to mean "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to a collision from the clothes." (Id.) For reasons already discussed, the Court will adopt Whirlpool's proposed construction. The term "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to an impact from the clothes" is therefore construed to mean "sensing a torque occurring at a drive shaft of the washer due to a collision from the clothes."

(4) "Generating a Clothes Twist Signal"

The parties also dispute the term "generating a clothes twist signal," which appears in Claims 1, 3, and 4. LG proposes construing the term to mean "generating a signal indicative of the bundling [i.e., uneven distribution] of clothes." (Id.) Whirlpool proposes instead that the term be construed to mean "generating a signal indicative of clothes that are entwined together." (Id.) For reasons already discussed, the Court will adopt Whirlpool's proposed construction. The term "generating a clothes twist signal" is therefore construed as "generating a signal indicative of clothes that are entwined together."

(5) "Executing a Clothes Untwisting Mode"

The parties also dispute the term "executing a clothes untwisting mode," which appears in Claims 1, 3, and 4. LG proposes construing the term to mean "executing a mode to unbundle [i.e., evenly distribute] clothes." (Chart at 8.) Whirlpool proposes instead that the term be construed to mean ...


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