Friday, September 5, 2014

Isolite Systems v. Zirc Dental Products - Arguing Invalidity in a Motion to Dismiss

On Tuesday, September 2nd, Judge David O. Carter in the Central District of California issued an interesting order on a Motion to Dismiss in Innerlite, Inc. d/b/a/ Isolite Sys. v. Zirc Dental Prods., Inc., et al., (No. 13-cv-7501-DOC). The relevant discussion concerns the Defendants' allegations that the asserted design patent is invalid.

The case concerns U.S. Design Patent No. D615,203.  The patent is assigned to Plaintiff Isolite Systems, and claims the ornamental features of a device for use by dental professionals to isolate the work area of a patient's mouth, retract the tongue and cheek, evacuate fluids and oral debris, and prevent inadvertent aspiration of material.  Defendant Zirc Dental Products manufactures and distributes "Mr. Thirsty," which Isolite alleges infringes the D'203 Patent.  A figure derived from the D'203 Patent is shown above, along side an image of the "Mr. Thirsty" product from Zirc Dental.

The bulk of the Court's order relates to issues that are germane to motions to dismiss in patent litigation.  In addition to the claims against Zirc Dental, Isolite's complaint recited claims of direct and indirect infringement of the D'203 Patent against Defendants Dr. Brian P. Black, the alleged designer of the product that Zirc Dental markets as the "Mr. Thirsty,"  as well as claims against two companies allegedly owned by Dr. Black, Brian P. Black DDS, Inc. and Joogatech, Inc. These Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that the complaint fails to state its claim for direct infringement against Joogatech, and its claims of induced infringement against all three of the so-called "Dr. Black Defendants."  The court agreed, and dismissed these claims without prejudice to Isolite.

The Defendants threw one additional argument into the mix: that the D'203 Patent infringement claims should be dismissed because the patent is invalid for being primarily functional, not ornamental. 

A patent can rarely be invalidated in a motion to dismiss.  At that stage in the litigation, the court's review is limited to the contents of the complaint and the material submitted with the complaint, although the court may still take judicial notice of outside facts which are generally known or whose accuracy is unquestioned.  Furthermore, all of the Plaintiff's factual allegations are assumed to be true for the purpose of this motion, and under these facts the Defendant must prove invalidity by clear and convincing evidence.  It is a very difficult case to make.

However, because invalidating a patent on a motion to dismiss is rare does not mean it is impossible.  In 2013, the Federal Circuit left this door open where "the only plausible reading of the patent must be that there is clear and convincing evidence of ineligibility."  Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 722 F.3d 1335, 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2013).  This may be particularly useful design patent patent defendants, because, as we discussed in greater detail earlier this year, design patents claim individual ornamental designs rather than a "range" of inventions.  Therefore in many cases, the only plausible reading of the design patent will be apparent at the time the complaint is filed.  This could put defendants in a better position to raise clear invalidity issues early, before the burden of litigation becomes too great.

Unfortunately for the Defendants in this case, Judge Carter found this was not the "rare" instances where invalidity could be determined from the facts pled in the complaint.  The Defendants argued that Isolite failed to identify anything non-functional in the D'203 patent.  But the burden was on the Defendants, not Isolite, to affirmatively prove invalidity by clear and convincing evidence.

While the Defendants could not prove invalidity here, this case still demonstrates that a motion to dismiss can pose a tangible threat to design patent plaintiffs.  Invalidation may be rare, defendants should not overlook this device where other defenses, including non-infringement, may be proven on the complaint alone.


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