Federal Circuit Vacates a Board Decision for Failure to Construe a Term as a Means Plus Function Limitation

MTD Products Inc. v. Iancu, Appeal No. 2017-2292 (Fed. Cir. August 12, 2019)

By John Isacson

MTD had a patent for steering and driving systems for zero turn radius vehicles, such as lawn mowers.  The patent was challenged in IPR, where the Board had to construe the claim term “mechanical control assembly … configured to” perform a function.  The Board construed the term as not being governed by 35 U.S.C. §112, ¶6, and held the claims to be obvious.

Upon review, the Federal Circuit explained that a term that does not employ the word “means” is presumed not be a means plus function limitation, but that presumption is rebuttable.  The court further explained that a term does not include “means” can still be subject to §112, ¶6 if the term recites function without a “sufficiently definite structure.”  The Federal Circuit characterized such terms as having nonce or generic words.

The court determined that “mechanical control assembly” was generic and that the Board improperly used the specification to expressly define this generic phrase to avoid application of 35 U.S.C. §112, ¶6.  In view of the claim construction error, the Federal Circuit vacated the obviousness judgment and remanded the case back to the Board.

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