Federal Circuit reverses PTAB, says Whirlpool claims are anticipated


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently issued a decision in Homeland Housewares, LLC v. Whirlpool Corporation. The original panel voted 2-1 in favor of Homeland Housewares and overturned a final written decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), which had confirmed that challenged claims from a Whirlpool patent were valid.

The Whirlpool patent before the Federal Circuit, which had the validity of the claims upheld at PTAB, is U.S. Patent No. 7581688, titled Blender with Crushed Ice Functionality. The ‘688 patent claims a cycle of operation for a blender having a motor, a container and a cutter assembly in which the motor automatically controls the cutter assembly’s rotational speed to effect a pulsing, each pulse having a constant speed phase, a deceleration phase and an acceleration phase. The resulting invention addressed shortcomings in conventional blender devices with a crushed ice functionality as those other prior art devices would often result in ice that was either over or under crushed. Further, conventional devices had difficulties mixing crushed ice with other contents to an even consistency.

Whirlpool’s ‘688 patent faced one petition for inter partes review (IPR) at the PTAB, challenged by both Homeland Housewares and Capital Brand, LLC, in June 2014; Capital Brand is described as the parent company of Homeland Housewares in the original petition for inter partes review. Petitioner Homeland Housewares argued that claims 1 through 16 (i.e., all of the claims of the ‘688 patent) were invalid as anticipated subject matter under pre-America Invents Act (AIA) 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) governing the patentability of inventions based on novelty. The petition charged that the claims of the ‘688 patent were anticipated by a series of patents, including U.S. Patent No. 6609821, titled Blender Base with Food Processor Capabilities. Issued in August 2003 and assigned to Sunbeam Products of Boca Raton, FL, it claims a blender base with a reversible motor, a user interface and a microcontroller having memory including preprogrammed motor routines associated with different sequences of motor functions. The ‘821 patent describes shortcomings in conventional blending devices, including difficulties in achieving a satisfactory mixing of ice contents, which the invention was designed to address.

The final written decision in the IPR, which issued in October 2015, found that petitioner Homeland Housewares did not prove that the challenged claims of the ‘688 patent were invalid. The final written decision notes that, during the trial, Whirlpool had challenged the PTAB panel’s construction of the term “settling speed,” arguing that the PTAB’s construction was incomplete because “it does not reflect the mechanism which allows the blender contents to be processed again.” In light of Whirlpool’s argument, supported by unrebutted testimony from an engineer of blender devices, the PTAB decided not to adopt any explicit construction of the term “settling speed” for the final written decision upholding validity of the challenged claims.

“Claim construction is an issue of law that we review de novo where, as here, there is no relevant extrinsic evidence,” the recent Federal Circuit decision reads. The Federal Circuit majority opinion (written by Judge Dyk and joined by Chief Judge Prost) disagreed with the constructions of the “settling speed” claim offered by both Whirlpool and Homeland Housewares. The Federal Circuit held that the proper construction of the claim was a “speed that slows significantly enough to allow the contents to reach the ‘settled’ condition to be processed again.” The Federal Circuit majority found this to be the broadest reasonable construction of the claim consistent with the patent’s specification.

Using its construction of “settling speed,” the Federal Circuit majority opinion held that PTAB erred in finding that figure 25 of the ‘821 patent did not anticipate Whirlpool’s ‘688 patent.

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