Veteranclaims’s Blog

February 17, 2012

Appealing to the Federal Circuit, Points to Consider

Filed under: Uncategorized — veteranclaims @ 2:08 pm

This Federal Circuit Bar Review Journal article contains a number of points that pro se veterans need to be aware of when filing an appeal from the Veterans Court.

This pdf file can be found here:
http://www.google.com/url?url=http://www.stradley.com/library/files/krc-standards.pdf&rct=j&sa=U&ei=Tl0-T8HxDpPAtgeH0qDeBQ&ved=0CBkQFjAD&q=%22federal+circuit%22+harmless+error&usg=AFQjCNGkgVlMbKHCdAg6tBzyH49pKfAYGg

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Standards of Appellate Review in the Federal Circuit:
Substance and Semantics
Kevin Casey,* Jade Camara** & Nancy Wright***
Introduction
“Standards of review” denote the strictness or intensity with which an appellate court evaluates
the action of a trial tribunal including, for the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal
circuit, a district court judge, a jury, or an agency. At first blush, a discussion of standards of
review might appear superficial, or worse, of little consequence. Some might believe that a
standard of review is merely a semantic label affixed to a particular issue by an appellate court,
and that such labels are virtually irrelevant to the likelihood of success on the merits of an
appeal.1 It is tempting to say that standards of review are meaningless rationalizations applied to
justify a decision once made. Others might believe that standards of review are obvious: the
parties can simply look up the appropriate standards applicable to the issues involved in their
particular appeal.2
Experienced appellate advocates realize, however, that those who frame their
appellate practice using such beliefs undermine their chances of obtaining a favorable
judgment on appeal. Appellate judges who provide tips almost invariably advise advocates
* Kevin R. Casey has B.S. Degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in both Materials Engineering and
Mathematics. He received an M.S. Degree in Aerospace-Mechanical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati
and worked as an engineer with the General Electric Company. He obtained his J.D. Degree, Magna Cum Laude,
from the University of Illinois, where he was Editor-in-Chief of the law review and served for two years as a judicial
clerk to The Honorable Helen W. Nies, former Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. He has
been with the firm of Ratner & Prestia since 1989 and a shareholder since 1992.
** Jade T. Camara, Research Professor, George Mason University School of Law. J.D., George Mason
University School of Law, 2001, B.A., High Honors, George Mason University, 1998.
*** Nancy Wright, J.D., George Mason University School of Law, 2001, B.S., Accounting, Pennsylvania
State University.
1 See e.g., Armour & Co. v. Wilson & Co., 274 F.2d 143, 124 U.S.P.Q. 115 (7th Cir. 1960).
We have come to speak of questions of “facts,” “primary facts,” “subsidiary facts,” “evidentiary facts,”
“ultimate facts,” “physical facts,” “documentary facts,” “oral evidence,” “inferences,” “reasonable
inferences,” “findings of fact,” “conclusions,” “conclusions of law,” “questions of fact,” “questions of
law,” “mixed questions of law and fact,” “correct criteria of law,” and so on ad infinitum. The simple
answer is that we are all too frequently dealing in semantics, and our choice of words does not always
reflect the magic we would prefer to ascribe to them.
2 In fact, Appendix A provides a collection of the standards of review for a number of issues as applied by
the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
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to address standards of review.3 Why? Because standards of review involve complex and
subtle questions of both law and tactics, which often impact the appeal more than the facts
and the substantive law issues upon which advocates spend so much time and effort. A
thoughtful consideration and practical understanding of these questions will improve and
focus the advocate’s written and oral presentations and, therefore, will increase the chances
of obtaining a favorable judgment on appeal.4 In an appeal, the appellee’s strongest point
may well be a restrictive standard of review.5
More practically, appellate advocates must carefully assess standard of review issues
because local rules in many appellate courts, including the Federal Circuit, require parties to
state in their briefs the standard of review applicable to the issues presented.6 Federal
Circuit Rule 28(a) lists the requisite contents of briefs and Federal Circuit Rule 28 (a) (10)
specifies that briefs must contain a statement of the standard of review. Even more
important, upon choosing to ignore the standard of review labels, the advocate would simply
be forced to find some other way to identify, clarify, and address the realities of appellate
behavior.7
3 See, e.g., Judge Harry Pregerson, The Seven Sins of Appellate Brief Writing and Other Transgressions, 34
UCLA L. Rev. 431, 437 (1986) (explaining that ignoring standards of review is the fifth sin); Arthur L. Alarcon,
Points on Appeal 10 LITIG. 5, 66 (1984); Alvin B. Rubin, The Admiralty Case on Appeal in the Fifth Circuit, 43
LA. L. REV. 869, 872 (1987) (“Start the brief by stating briefly the applicable standard of review.”). Not
surprisingly, other, non-judicial commentators agree. See, eg., Barry Sullivan, Standards of Review, in
APPELLATE ADVOCACY, 59, 59 (Peter J. Carre et al. eds., 1981).
4 The Seventh Circuit has said: “The critical issue in this case is one not discussed by the parties: our
standard of review.” Fox v. Comm’r, 718 F.2d 251, 253 (7th Cir. 1983); see also 1 STEVEN A. CHILDRESS &
MARTHA S. DAVIS, FEDERAL STANDARDS OF REVIEW § 1.02, at 1-19 (2d ed. 1992) [hereinafter
CHILDRESS & DAVIS] (“The smart attorney … likely will discuss the standard and its application to the issues at
hand.”) (citing John C. Godbold, Twenty Pages and Twenty Minutes Effective Advocacy on Appeal 30 Sw. L.J. 801,
811 (1976) (“Early in his presentation counsel should state to the court the standard of review which he considers
applicable.”)).
5 “In our consideration of this issue, there is a reality check: would it matter to the outcome in a given
case which formulation of the standard a court articulates in arriving at its decision? The answer no doubt must
be that, even though in some cases it might not matter, in others it would, otherwise the lengthy debates about
the meaning of these formulations and the circumstances in which they apply would be unnecessary.” In re
Brana, 51 F.3d 1560, 1569, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1436, 1443-44 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (declining to decide whether to
consider the Board of Patent Appeals and Interference’s (BPAI) error under clearly erroneous or arbitrary and
capricious standard because it erred under either standard).
6 Circuits require that a statement of the standards of review be included as part of the briefs, by referencing
requirements of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (FED. R. APP. P. 28(a)(9)(B) (“[T]he argument …
must contain … for each issue, a concise statement of the applicable standard of review. . . .”)). The Sixth Circuit
provides a form, “Checklist for Briefs” at http://pacer.cab.uscourts.gov/formslforms.htm, which provides that the
applicable standard of review must be discussed in the brief. Several courts require by local rule, a statement on the
standard of review as part of the brief. See, e.g., 3D CIR. R. 28.1(b); 9TH CIR. R. 28-2.5, 11TH CIR. R 28- 1
(i)(iii). In addition, some states mandate that each argument in a brief include the appropriate standard of review.
See, e.g., ALASKA R. App. P. 212(c)(1)(h); ARIZ. R. App. P. 13(a)(6); HAW. R. App. P. 28(b)(5); N.H.
Sup. CT. R. 7 Notice of Appeal Form; OR. R App. P. 5.45(5); PA. R. App. P. 2111(a)(2); UTAH R. App. P.
24(a)(5).
7 For a good general discussion on the procedures for filing an appeal with the Federal Circuit, with
reference to Federal Circuit rules, see Jennifer A Tegfeldt, A Few Practical Considerations in Appeals Before the
Federal Circuit, 3 FED. CIR. B.J. 237 (1993). See also Harrie R. Samaras & Mark Abate, Practical Tips for
Using the Federal Circuit’s Rules of Practice When Filing Patent Appeals from the PTO, 4 FED. CIR. B.J. 389
(1994).
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I. The Effect of Standards of Review
Why should the appellate advocate try to understand and correctly apply the various
standards of review? Simply put, because an understanding and correct application of the
standards will help an advocate to win an appeal.8 Faced with a difficult standard, the advocate
might consider not appealing or, at least, not appealing just yet.9 If an appeal will be taken, the
advocate will want to frame the appeal to use the standards of review to his or her advantage.
The appellant wants to move the standard of review toward a plenary review; the appellee wants
a standard more deferential to the trial tribunal.
Almost all advocates realize that there are several standards of review. Many may not
realize, however, that as a practical matter, there are varying levels of review within each of the
standards.10 For example, the strictest standard of review is de novo review for legal error.
Under this standard, the trial tribunal’s decision receives little or no deference. There are at least
three levels of review within that standard: (1) the trial tribunal’s opinion will receive the most
deference, because appellate courts know that trial tribunal errors occur less often, when the trial
tribunal has simply applied settled law to the facts;11 (2) the review will be strict, but there will
be some deference to the trial tribunal in interpreting the law;12 and (3) the appellate court will
not defer at all in the relatively rare case when the trial tribunal must establish a new legal
principle (i.e., in a case of first impression).13
Different kinds of appellate tasks give rise to a more or less strict review according to the relative
capacities of the trial tribunal and appellate court, the need for uniformity among cases, the
perceived importance of the dispute, and the nature of the legal rules involved.14 All of these
8 The Federal Circuit has stated that “[t]here is a significant difference between the standards of substantial
evidence’ and of ‘clearly erroneous’” and that “in close cases this difference can be controlling.” Tandon Corp. v.
United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 831 F.2d 1017, 1019, 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1283, 1284-85 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
9 See e.g., MICHAEL E. TIGAR, FEDERAL APPEALS: JURISDICTION & PRACTICE § 5.03, AT 211
(1993) (stating that review standard is among the most important factors influencing decision whether to appeal);
ROBERT J. MARTINEAU, FUNDAMENTALS OF MODERN APPELLATE ADVOCACY § 7.21, at 132 (1985)
(nothing the decision to appeal, and development of arguments on appeal, are substantially affected by review
standards); George A. Somerville, Standards of Appellate Review, 15 LITIG. 23, 23 (1989) (stating that decision as
to when to appeal should be influenced by the shifting standard of review; for example, the decision to appeal before
judgment or an injunction). See infra Section V for a discussion of the effect of the stage of trial on the appellate
standard of review.
10 See, e.g., CHILDRESS & DAVIS, supra note 4, § 4.01, at 4-13 n.44; Somerville, supra note 9, at 24-25.
11 See infra Section II.A.1.
12 See infra Section II.A.2
13 See infra Section II.A.3
14 Of these factors, perhaps the most “fundamental notion behind a standard of review is that of defining the
relationship and power shared among judicial bodies.” CHILDRESS & DAVIS, supra note 4, § 1.01, at 1-3 (citing
James D. Phillips, The Appellate Review Function: Scope of Review, 47 LAW & CONTEMP. PROBS. 1, 1
(1984)); Edward H. Cooper, Civil Rule 52(a): Rationing & Rationalizing the Resources of Appellate Review, 63
NOTRE DAME L. REV. 645, 649 (1988) (concluding that standards of review serve a vital institutional role in
allocating the responsibility and the power of decision between trial tribunals and the courts of appeals).
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factors change over time; the standard of review applied in 1995 may differ from that applied in
1985.15 Consequently, the standards are flexible, malleable, and adaptable. The absence of
bright-line rules gives the appellate advocate much room to maneuver, and to win or lose,
depending upon the advocate’s acumen.
Appellate advocates can use such subtle distinctions to their advantage. For example,
when the appellant is characterizing what the trial tribunal did in its ruling, he or she should
argue that the court established an entirely new and erroneous legal principle, rather than that the
court applied an incorrect rule of law. The appellate court will not defer to the trial tribunal at all
under the first characterization, but might defer somewhat to the trial tribunal’s decision under
the second characterization, although both characterizations fall under the de novo standard of
review.
Apple Computer’s recent appellate strategy reaped the benefit of a wise use of standards
of review. In Apple Computer, Inc. v. Articulate Systems, Inc.,16 Apple challenged the legal
analysis and underlying claim interpretation of the court that led it to conclude that the asserted
claims of the patent are invalid as anticipated. Claim construction is an issue of law, which the
appellate court reviews de novo.17 Apple succeeded in having the appellate court reverse the
district court’s fact-finding of anticipation.18
Similarly, although a trial court’s infringement ruling is reversible only for clear error, that ruling
may turn on claim construction. Often, when the abuse of discretion standard applies, “there
may be an underlying issue of fact, making review less deferential than would at first appear. If
there is an underlying issue of law, review can become non-deferential.”19 Many other examples
of the tactical strategy inherent in standards of review might be imagined.
Clearly, the appellate advocate must know the various standards of review, appreciate the
varying levels within each individual standard, and understand why review is structured as it is.
Then, and only then, can the advocate craft written and oral presentations to the appellate court
to secure the most advantageous standard. In the brief and at oral argument, the appellate
advocate has the opportunity to characterize the trial tribunal’s actions and to suggest how
intensely the appellate court should scrutinize those actions. The semantics of such
characterizations and suggestions often spell the difference between success and failure on
appeal. Of course, as all advocates know, the most effective strategy on appeal is to have won
15 Early in its existence, for example, the Federal Circuit viewed the question of whether inequitable conduct
occurred as one of law. See In re Jerabek, 789 F.2d 886, 890, 229 U.S.P.Q. 530, 533 (Fed. Cir. 1986). As such, at
least as of 1986, the question was reviewed under a de novo standard of review. Although it expressly recognized
such precedent, the court later adopted the view that the question is equitable in nature and, therefore, “is committed
to the discretion of the trial court and is reviewed by this court under an abuse of discretion standard.” Kingsdown
Med. Consultants v. Hollister Inc., 863 F.2d 867, 876, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1384, 1392 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (en banc).
Compare Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 976-77, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1327 (Fed. Cir.
1995) (en banc) (defining the issue of claim construction as one of law, despite “a significant line of cases …
developed in our precedent … which have statements that claim construction may be a factual or mixed issue”),
affd, 517 U.S. 370 (1996).
16 234 F.3d 14, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1057 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
17 Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d 1448, 1456, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1174 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en
banc).
18 Apple, 234 F.3d at 24-25, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1061.
19 Paul R. Michel, Appellate Advocacy: One Judge’s View, 1 FED. CIR. B.J. 1, 4-5 (1991).
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below.
II. Definition of the Standards of Review
Phrases such as “de novo,” “clearly erroneous,” “substantial evidence,” and “abuse of
discretion” have no intrinsic meaning. It might be better to think of the phrases as defining a
mood, rather than a precise formula, because they cannot be precisely defined.20 Nevertheless,
many courts have attempted definitions.21 Definition is elusive, not only because language is
indefinite,22 but because a true definition must include all of the shadings along the spectrum of
20 Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985) (“[T]he meaning of the phrase ‘clearly
erroneous’ is not immediately apparent….”); United States v. Aluminum Co. of Am., 148 F.2d 416, 433, 65
U.S.P.Q. 6, 22 (2d Cir. 1945) (Judge Learned Hand recognized that “[i]t is idle to try to define the meaning of the
phrase ‘clearly erroneous.’”).
21 “Although the meaning of the phrase ‘clearly erroneous’ is not immediately apparent, certain general
principles governing the exercise of the appellate court’s power to overturn findings of a district court may be
derived from our cases. The foremost of these principles… is that ‘[a] finding is “clearly erroneous” when although
there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction
that a mistake has been committed.’” Anderson, 470 U.S. at 573 (alteration in original). See, e.g., Inwood Labs,
Inc. v. Ives Labs., Inc., 456 U.S. 844 (1982) (stating that if the district court’s account of the evidence is plausible
in light of the record viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it under the clearly erroneous
standard); Manning v. United States, 146 F.3d 808 (10th Cir. 1998) (stating that a finding of fact is clearly
erroneous if it is without factual support in the record or if the appellate court, after reviewing all the evidence, is left
with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made); Motorola, Inc. v. Interdigital Tech. Corp., 121
F.3d 1461 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (stating that court of appeals tests district court’s denial of motion for new trial under
abuse of discretion standard and this question turns on whether error occurred in conduct of trial that was so
grievous as to have rendered trial unfair); Carr v. Allison Gas Turbine Div., Gen. Motors Corp., 32 F.3d 1007,
1008 (7th Cir. 1994) (The clear-error standard “requires us appellate judges to distinguish between the situation in
which we think that if we had been the trier of fact we would have decided the case differently and the situation in
which we are firmly convinced that we would have done so.”); Northeast Utilities Serv. Co. v. Fed. Energy
Regulatory Comm’n, 993 F.2d 937, 944 (1st Cir. 1993) (“‘[P]ure’ legal errors require no deference to agency
expertise and are reviewed de novo.”); Elec. Consumers Res. Council v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n, 747
F.2d 1511, 1513 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (stating that court defers to the agency’s expertise, particularly where the statute
prescribes few specific standards for the agency to follow, so long as its decision is supported by substantial
evidence in the record and reached by “reasoned decision-making,” including an examination of the relevant data
and a reasoned explanation supported by a stated connection between the facts found and the choice made);
Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. v. Consumer Prod. Safety Comm’n, 491 F.2d 810, 812 (2d Cir. 1974) (“Here,
under the `arbitrary, capricious’ standard, our scope of review is even narrower than it was in Scenic Hudson
Preservation Conference v. FPC (Scenic Hudson II), 453 F.2d 463 (2d Cir. 1971), cert. denied, 407 U.S. 926
(1972), where the statutory standard was ‘substantial evidence’. Under either standard, at a minimum, an agency
must exercise its jurisdiction where it properly lies. It must not ignore evidence placed before it by interested
parties.”).
22 Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918) (“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the
skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in
which it is used.” (citation omitted)); Powell v. United States Cartridge Co., 339 U.S. 497, 529 (1950) (Frankfurter,
J., dissenting) (“In law as elsewhere words of many-hued meaning derive their scope from the use to which they are
put.”).
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working appellate review standards.23 Many different standards of review properly pass under a
single standard of review phrase.
Nevertheless, like most of its appellate sister circuits, the Federal Circuit has defined four
standards of review as signposts or markers along this spectrum, which it applies to review of
district court decisions. When legal error is at issue the standard of review is de novo review.
Under this standard, the Federal Circuit gives the trial tribunal little, if any, deference; the
opinion appealed receives little or no presumption of correctness.24
Somewhat more deferential to the trial tribunal is the clearly erroneous standard of
review. The United States Supreme Court defined this standard, which applies to review of
district court fact findings: “A finding is ‘clearly erroneous’ when although there is evidence to
support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction
that a mistake has been committed.”25 An even more deferential standard of review is reserved
for jury fact-findings, which are reviewed for substantial evidence. Substantial evidence “means
such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”26
The most lenient standard of review is abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion may be
found when: (1) the tribunal’s decision is clearly unreasonable, arbitrary, or fanciful; (2) the
decision was based on an erroneous conclusion of law; (3) the tribunal’s findings are clearly
erroneous; or (4) the record contains no evidence upon which the tribunal rationally could have
based its decision.27
23 Professor Monaghan defined fact and law labels, which trigger different standards of review (see infra Section
III), as having “a nodal quality; they are points of rest and relative stability on a continuum of experience.” Henry P.
Monaghan, Constitutional Fact Review, 85 COLUM. L. REV. 229,233 (1985). The defined standards of appellate
review would appear best viewed in a similar light.
24 See, e.g., Superior Fireplace Co. v. Majestic Prods. Co., 00-1233, 00-1281, 00-1282, 2001 U.S. App. LEXIS
236334 at *25 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 1, 2001) (“Statutory interpretation is a matter of law and we thus review the district
court’s interpretation of 35 U.S.C. § 255 without deference.”); Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d
1448,1456, 46 U.S.P.Q 2d 1169, 1174 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc) (stating that claim construction is an issue of law
reviewed without deference); Tex. Instruments Inc. v. Cypress Semiconductor Corp., 90 F.3d 1558, 1563,39
U.S.P.Q.2d 1492, 1496 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (grant of JMOL reviewed without deference to the district court).
25 United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948); see also SSIH Equip. S.A. v. U.S. Int’l
Trade Comm’n, 718 F.2d 365, 381, 218 U.S.P.Q. 678,692 (Fed. Cir. 1983) (Nies, J., additional views) (describing
the clearly erroneous standard as “the next level in the hierarchy” after the de novo standard). The reviewing court
may not substitute its view for that of the district court. Anderson, 470 U.S. at 573-74.
If the district court’s account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record
viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it even though convinced
that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence
differently. Where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder’s
choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.
Id. (citations omitted).
26 Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 477 (1951) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. Labor Bd.,
305 U.S. 197,229 (1938)). The standard of review does not director permit the appellate court to decide which of
two decisions is more reasonable. As long as substantial evidence supports the decision under review, the appellate
court must affirm. Cf. Fischer & Porter Co. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 831 F.2d 1574, 1577,4
U.S.P.Q.2d 1700, 1701-02 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (noting that the court may not substitute its judgment for an agency’s
final determination under the Administrative Procedure Act).
27 Abrutyn v. Giovanniello, 15 F.3d 1048,1050-51, 29 U.S.P.Q.2d 1615, 1617 (Fed. Cir. 1994); W. Elec. Co. v.
Piezo Tech., Inc., 860 F.2d 428, 430-31, 8 U.S.P.Q.2d 1853, 1855 (Fed. Cir. 1988); Heat & Control, Inc. v. Hester
Indus., Inc., 785 F.2d 1017, 1022, 228 U.S.P.Q. 926, 930 (Fed. Cir.1986). The Supreme Court, in Citizens to
Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, stated that an abuse of discretion occurs when a court’s decision represents a
“clear error of judgment. “ 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971); see also Mendenhall v. Cedarapids, Inc., 5 F.3d 1557, 1569,
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Thus, the four standards of review, arrayed in order of increasing deference to the district court
(or, in other words, from the stricter to the more forgiving), include: de novo review (is the
decision right?), clearly erroneous review (is the decision wrong?), review for substantial
evidence (is the decision unreasonable?), and review for abuse of discretion (is the decision
irrational?).28 The following table graphically summarizes the standards of review in relation
to both the type of issue under review and the degree of deference accorded the trial tribunal
by the appellate court under each standard. The following table graphically summarizes the
standards of review in relation to both the type of issue under review and the degree of
deference accorded the trial tribunal by the appellate court under each standard.
Standard of Review
(1) De novo (2) Clearly Erroneous (3) Substantial Evidence (4) Abuse of Discretion
Discretion Issue to be Reviewed:
(1) Law (2) Judge Fact (3) Jury Fact (4) Trial Supervision
Deference to Trial Tribunal:
(1) Least 􀃆 (2) (3) (4) Greatest
The Federal Circuit hears appeals from a wide variety of sources.29 This article focuses
on the standards of review applicable to district court decisions in the area of intellectual
property law. Standards of review for administrative action include these standards, and add a
few additional standards, such as arbitrary or capricious, which is unique to the agency
context. Such additional standards are considered briefly in Section VI below.
Before considering each standard of review in detail and in turn, it should be pointed out
that the Federal Circuit acknowledges that no trial is free of error. A party is entitled only to a
fair trial, not a perfect one.30 The erroneous submission of evidence to a jury requires retrial,
for example, only if the error affects “the substantial rights of the parties.”31 Stated another
way, courts of appeal must disregard harmless errors, which do not affect the parties’
substantive rights. The Federal Circuit applies often the rule of harmless error.32
28 U.S.P.Q.2d 1081, 1091 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Kingsdown Med. Consultants, Ltd. v. Hollister Inc., 863 F.2d 867, 876,
9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1384, 1392 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (en banc); PPG Indus., Inc. v. Celanese Polymer Specialties Co., 840 F.2d
1565, 1567, 6 U.S.P.Q.2d 1010, 1013 (Fed. Cir. 1988).
28 See SSIH Equip., 718 F.2d at 381, 218 U.S.P.Q. at 691-92. Unfortunately and paradoxically, the most
deferential standards of review tend to sound the most pejorative and strict when the appellate court finds that they
have been violated.
29 See 28 U.S.C. § 1295 (1994).
30 See Newell Cos., Inc. v. Kenney Mfg. Co., 864 F.2d 757, 765, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1417,1424 (Fed. Cir. 1988)
(“Procedural errors that do not unfairly affect the outcome are to be ignored. Trials must be fair, not perfect.”);
Devices for Med., Inc. v. Boehl, 822 F.2d 1062, 1066, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1288, 1292 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
31 28 U.S.C. § 2111 (1994); FED. R. Civ. P. 61 (“No error . . . is ground for granting a new trial or for setting
aside a verdict . . . unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice.”).
32 See, e.g., ATD Corp. v. Lydall, Inc., 159 F.3d 534, 549, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1332 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“In
general terms, the test of whether a substantial right of a party has been affected is whether the error in question
affected the outcome of the case.”) (quoting 1 JACK B. WEINSTEIN & MARGARET A. BERGER, FEDERAL
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For example, in Environ Products, Inc. v. Furon Co.33, the Federal Circuit applied the
doctrine of harmless error to affirm a district court’s decision on inventorship in the context of an
invalidity defense to a charge of patent infringement despite the fact that the district court’s jury
instruction was in error. The jury instruction incorrectly required the jury to decide priority of
inventorship between co-pending interfering patents under the clear and convincing standard of
proof, rather than the correct preponderance of the evidence standard. The Federal Circuit
reasoned that “the error as to the weight of proof could not have changed the result,” so that the
erroneous instruction was harmless.34
EVIDENCE § 103.41 [2] (1998)) (finding that the district court’s error in allowing as evidence the patent
infringement defendant’s tardy use of its own patent was “harmless”); Oddzon Prods., Inc. v. Just Toys, Inc., 122
F.3d 1396, 1406-07, 43 U.S.P.Q2d 1641, 1648 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (Although the district court’s exclusion of evidence
was an abuse of discretion, the Federal Circuit stated: “We find this error harmless, however, because it does not
change the result of [the] appeal.”); 0.1. Corp. v. Tekmar Co., 115 F.3d 1576, 1580, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1777, 1780 (Fed.
Cir. 1997) (“We conclude that the district court erred in applying section 112, 16, to the word passage in apparatus
claim 17, but that this error was harmless.”); Serrano v. Telular Corp., 111 F.3d 1578, 1595, 842 U.S.P.Q.2d 1538,
1544 (Fed. Cit. 1997) (holding that district court’s error in concluding that the accused device directly infringed the
patent claim was harmless because the Federal Circuit concluded that the device contributorily infringed that claim).
In Munoz v. Strahm Farms, Inc., 69 F.3d 501, 136 U.S.P.Q.2d 1499 (Fed. Cit. 1995), the court held that:
In order for Munoz to obtain a new trial, he must show that the district court abused its
discretion in admitting the challenged evidence and that such rulings prejudiced his
substantial rights and were thus not harmless error. Even assuming that the district court
erred in admitting the challenged evidence, such error would have been harmless. The
correction of an error must yield a different result in order for that error to have been
harmful and thus prejudice a substantial right of a party.
Id. at 503-04, 136 U.S.P.Q 2d at 1501-02 (citation omitted). Butsee Ultradent Prods., Inc. v. Life-Like Cosmetics,
Inc., 127 F.3d 1065, 1069, 44 U.S.P.Q.2d 1336, 1339 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (stating that the district court’s error in
interpreting the patent claim was prejudicial, and not harmless, both to the court’s grant of summary judgment of
non-anticipation and to the jury’s verdict on obviousness).
33 33 215 F.3d 1261, 55 U.S.P.Q.2d 1038 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
34 34 Id at 1266,55 U.S.P.Q2d at 1043; see also Embrex, Inc. v. Serv. Eng’g Corp., 216 F.3d 1343, 1351, 55
U.S.P.Q.2d 1161, 1166 (Fed. Cir. 2000). In Embrex, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s patent
infringement willfulness finding, despite fact that “error occurred and that the error was plain” when the district
court instructed the jury that willfulness could be proved by a preponderance of the evidence although clear and
convincing evidence is required. Embrex, 216 F.3d at 1351, 55 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1166. The Federal Circuit concluded
“that the jury would have reached the same conclusion under either the preponderance or the clear and convincing
standard.” Id. See also Va. Panel Corp. v. MAC Panel Co., 133 F.3d 860, 865, 45 U.S.P.Q.2d 1225, 1228-29 (Fed.
Cir. 1997) (stating that the district court’s failure to interpret the disputed claim term, sending the issue to the jury
instead, even after Markman, was harmless error); Para-Ordnance Mfg., Inc. v. SGS Importers Int’l, Inc., 73 F.3d
1085, 1090, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1237, 1241-42 (Fed. Cit. 1995) (“[T]he district court’s failure to set forth an explicit
explanation as to how a person of ordinary skill in the pertinent art would have combined the prior art described by
the court to arrive at the claimed invention does not require reversal.”); Cable Elec. Prods., Inc. v. Genmark, Inc.,
770 F.2d 1015, 1021, 226 U.S.P.Q. 881, 884 (Fed. Cir. 1985); Lemelson v. United States, 752 F.2d 1538, 1549, 224
U.S.P.Q. 526, 532 (Fed. Cir. 1985); Gardner v. TEC Sys., Inc., 725 F.2d 1338, 1345, 220 U.S.P.Q. 777, 782 (Fed.
Cir. 1984) (en banc); Medtronic, Inc. v. Cardiac Pacemakers, Inc., 721 F.2d 1563, 1566, 220 U.S.P.Q. 97, 99 (Fed.
Cit. 1983) (errors in decisional approach considered harmless).
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A. De Novo Review
The strictest standard of review is de novo review for legal error.35 This is the standard
that the appellant most desires. The Federal Circuit has acknowledged that the de novo standard
is “the long-recognized appellate review standard for issues of law in the trial proceeding,
regardless of whether the case was tried to a judge or a jury.36 In its de novo review of an issue
of law, such as claim construction after Markman, the Federal Circuit will reach its own
conclusion on the issue “without deference to that of the district court.”37
In theory, the appellate court decides the issue in a de novo review, “[a] new; afresh; a
second time,”38 as if the trial tribunal had not before rendered a decision on the issue. In practice,
however, the trial tribunal’s decision will at least have a subtle effect; the persuasive force of a
well-written trial tribunal opinion, which reasons forcefully and examines deftly the law and
precedent, may help the appellant even if the trial tribunal created a new legal principle.39
Conversely, a poorly written opinion should not instill confidence in the appellee despite a
favorable standard of review.40
35 The Federal Circuit has alternatively labeled the strictest standard of review plenary, full, and independent
review. See, e.g., In re Asahi/America, Inc., 68 F.3d 442, 445, 37 U.S. P.Q.2d 1204, 1206 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
(“[Q]uestions of law are subject to full and independent review (sometimes referred to as `de novo’ or `plenary’
review).”); Comair Rotron, Inc. v. Nippon Densan Corp., 49 F.3d 1535, 1536, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1929, 1930 (Fed. Cit.
1995) (“We conduct plenary review of the grant of summary judgment.”); Glaverbel Sociere Anonyme v. Northlake
Mktg. & Supply, Inc., 45 F.3d 1550, 1559, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1496, 1502 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“We give plenary review to
whether the issue was appropriately disposed of by summary judgment.”); Newell Cos., Inc. v. Kenney Mfg. Co.,
864 F.2d 757, 762-65, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1417, 1421-24 (Fed. Cit. 1988) (stating that any issue of law is subject to
independent plenary review and determination). To ease semantics, these authors have attempted to use consistently
the single label of de novo review. Perhaps the standard might better be labeled review without deference or review
to reach an independent conclusion on the record.
36 Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 984 n.13, 34 U. S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1333 n.13 (Fed. Cir.
1995) (en banc), affil, 517 U.S. 370 (1996). Because nonobviousness is generally regarded as a legal question, the
Federal Circuit extended the rule of judicial decision on legal issues into the jury context, finding that the district
court may decide the issue as law without submitting it to the jury. Newel/Cos., 864 F.2d at 762, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d at
1421.
37 Pall Corp. v. Micron Separations, Inc., 66 F.3d 1211, 1216, 36 U.S.P.Q 2d 1225, 1228 (Fed. Cir. 1995); see
also Union Pac. Res. Co. v. Chesapeake Energy Corp., 236 F.3d 684, 690, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1293, 1296 (Fed. Cir.
2001) (“Enablement is a question of law reviewed by this court independently and without deference.”).
38 BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 435 (6th ed. 1990).
39 See, e.g., Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d 1448, 1462-63, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1180 (Fed. Cir.
1998) (en banc).
Though we review that record de novo, meaning without applying a formal deferential standard of
review, common sense dictates that the trial judge’s view [on an issue of law such as claim
interpretation] will carry weight. That weight may vary depending on the care, as shown in the
record, with which that view was developed, and the information on which it is based.
Id. at 1462, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1180 (Plager, J. concurring). “In fact, reviewing courts often acknowledge that as to
particular legal issues lower tribunals have special competence and their judgments on those legal issues should be
accorded significant weight.” Id. at 1463 (Bryson, J., concurring).
40 The Supreme Court has emphasized that law determinations are not made de novo in the sense of “an original
appraisal of all the evidence.” Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 514 n.31
(1984); see also Somerville, supra note 9, at 24 (“[A] well-written trial court opinion is every appellant’s worst
enemy and every appellee’s best friend. It creates its own presumption of correctness by the force of its reasoning
and the quality of its examination of law and precedent.”); Mark Banner, Appeal: Winning on Infringement, at the
Federal Circuit, 2 Modern Trends in Intellectual Property at 40, UNIV. ILL. COLLEGE LAW (Fall 1998) (“While
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Thus, although the court reviews a dismissal for lack of an actual controversy as a
question of law subject to plenary appellate review, the Federal Circuit vows to keep in mind that
the district court’s “view of the legal effect of the fact pattern before it is not to be lightly
disregarded.”41 The court applies independent review to the legal issue of claim construction.42
The Federal Circuit has qualified such independent review, however, with the notation that “we
do not start from scratch; rather we begin with and carefully consider the trial court’s work.”43
The court has characterized what de novo review really means as follows:
This court often describes the standard of review in this context as de novo. However, the
use of the term de novo to describe our appellate function is a misnomer. As our sister
circuit noted: “To consider a matter de novo is to determine it anew, as if it had not been
heard before and no decision had been rendered.” By use of the term de novo, this court
means that it does not defer to the “lower court ruling or agency decision in question.”44
Therefore, de novo review really means that the appellate court has t] power, ability, and
competency to reach a different conclusion on the record than as determined below. This role is
more accurately defined as one of r particular deference or as an independent conclusion on the
record. addition, the intensity of the de novo review will depend on how the appellant advocate
characterizes what the trial tribunal did and, hence, what t] appellate court is asked to review: did
the trial court apply settled law to t] facts, did it interpret an existing rule of law such as a
statutory provision, did it create a new legal principle? Finally, the appellate court will not defer
to any decision that a trial tribunal fails to explain.
1. Application of Settled Law to Facts
At least some commentators view law application as a third category between the endpoints
of rulings of law and findings of fact, requiring an intermediate standard of review.45
Certainly, some types of law application have the characteristics of both law-making and factfinding,
although law application does not always involve such a combination. There is support
in the Federal Circuit for a more deferential type of de novo review for law application.
Specifically, the Federal Circuit has said that a trial tribunal “is presumed to have applied
the law correctly, absent a clear showing to the contrary.”46 At least one active Federal Circuit
judge has implied that legal conclusions made upon application of the law by trial tribunals
deserve more deference than legal interpretations: “As you know, for issues categorized by
precedent as issues of law, our review is termed ‘de novo.’ However, many such issues concern
a de novo standard of review is the least deferential standard of review available, there nevertheless is some
deference given to a lower court’s decision. . . . The key point here is that the concept of no deference is a myth.
The idea of low deference is in acct both with human nature and with actual practice.”).
41 Fina Research, S.A. v. Baroid Ltd., 141 F.3d 1479, 1481, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1461, 14 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (quoting
Arrowhead Indus. Water, Inc. v. Echolochem, Inc., 846 F.2d 7: 735, 6 U.S.P.Q2d 1685, 1688 (Fed. Cir. 1988)).
42 Markman v. Westview Instruments, 52 F.3d 967, 975, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 13 (Fed. Cir. 1995), aff’d, 517
U.S. 370 (1996).
43 Key Pharms. v. Hercon Labs. Corp., 161 F.3d 709, 713, 48 U.S.P.Q2d 1911, 19 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
44 Litton Sys., Inc. v. Honeywell, Inc., 87 F.3d 1559, 1566 n.1, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 13: 1324 n. I (Fed. Cir. 1996)
(quoting Yepes-Prado v. INS, 10 F.3d 1363, 1367 n.5 (9th 1993)).
45 See, e.g., Cooper, supra note 14, at 658.
46 Lee v. Dayton-Hudson Corp., 838 F.2d 1186, 1189, 5 U.S.P.Q.2d 1625, 1627 (Fed. Cir. 1988).
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not merely questions of law interpretation, but of ‘law application.’ The latter, we might more
accurately say, get some deference.”47
Taken in isolation, however, such statements by the court and its individual judges
probably do not signal any deliberate retreat from the Federal Circuit’s broad view of its role in
reviewing applications of law to facts. For example, the court has also affirmed its full and
independent review of law applications: “All of our precedent holds that, where the only issue
is, as here, the application of the statutory standard of obviousness (35 U.S.C. § 103) to an
established set of facts, there is only a question of law to be resolved by the trial judge, and that
the trial court’s conclusion on obviousness is subject to full and independent review by this
court.”48
Even though de novo review applies to cases that require the trial tribunal to apply settled
law to facts, such decisions seem more likely to be affirmed by unpublished orders.49 The
Federal Circuit Rules explicitly allow summary affirmance without any opinion, published or
unpublished, when the standard of review warrants such action.50
2. Interpretation
The district courts and administrative agencies reviewed by the Federal Circuit often
must interpret statutes and, on occasion, the United States Constitution when applicable to their
respective analyses. Most statutory and constitutional jurisprudence before the Federal Circuit
lies in this category of interpretation. The degree of deference accorded by the Federal Circuit to
the interpretations that it reviews depends on whether the interpretation is offered by a district
court or by an agency. Moreover, in the case of at least one agency, the U.S. Patent and
Trademark Office (USPTO), the Federal Circuit has been equivocal in defining the deference
accorded.51
When the only issue before a district court is one of statutory interpretation, the Federal
Circuit independently determines the proper interpretation, and need not defer to the district
court.52 Statutory interpretation on appeal from a district court is a question of law reviewed de
novo. In addition, the meaning or interpretation of precedent is a question of law also reviewed
47 Michel, supra note 19, at 3-4.
48 Newell Cos., Inc. v. Kenney Mfg. Co., 864 F.2d 757, 762, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1417, 1421 (Fed. Cir. 1988). So,
too, the court has indicated that it need not defer to the district court when reviewing claim interpretation, a
conclusion of law. Specialty Composites v. Cabot Corp., 845 F.2d 981, 986, 6 U.S.P.Q2d 1601, 1604 (Fed. Cir.
1988).
49 Somerville, supra note 9, at 24.
50 FED. CIR. R. 36(d). See United States Surgical Corp. v. Ethicon, Inc., 103 F.3d 1554, 1556,41 U.S.P.Q.2d
1225, 1226 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (discussing Rule 36 summary affirmance procedure). For a criticism of the Federal
Circuit’s increasing use of its Rule 36 power to decide cases without opinion, see Brief of Amicus Curiae Federal
Circuit Bar Association, CPC Int’l, Inc. v. Archer Daniels Midland Co., 1994 U.S. App. LEXIS 27584 (Fed. Cir.
1994) (Nos. 94-1045, 94-1060); see also Anastasoff v. United States, 223 F.3d 898, 899, 56 U.S.P.Q.2d 1621, 1622
(rule of Federal Court of Appeals is unconstitutional to extent that it declares that unpublished opinions of court are
not precedent), opinion vacated in rehg en banc, 235 F.3d 1054 (8th Cit. 2000).
51 But see Dickinson v. Zurco, 527 U.S. 150, 152, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1930, 1931-32 (1999); In re Gartside, 203 F.3d
1305, 1315, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1769, 1775 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (stating that because review of the Board’s decision is
confined to the factual record, the substantial evidence test is the appropriate review standard).
52 Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Royce Labs., Inc., 69 F.3d 1130, 1133, 436 U.S.P.Q.2d 1641, 1645 (Fed. Cit.
1995); Gardner v. Brown, 5 F.3d 1456, 1458 (Fed. Cit. 1993); In re Carlson, 983 F.2d 1032, 1035, 25 U.S.P.Q.2d
1207, 1209 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Hoechst Aktiengesellschaft v. Quigg, 917 F.2d 522, 526,16 U.S.P.Q.2d 1549,1552
(Fed. Cit. 1990): Chula Vista City Sch. Dist. v. Bennett, 824 F.2d 1573, 1579 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
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de novo.53 So, too, the Federal Circuit reviews de novo a trial tribunal’s interpretation of the
appellate court’s own mandate.54
Although the Federal Circuit is relatively clear in refusing to accord deference to the
district courts upon review of their statutory interpretation decisions, the standard of review
accorded USPTO decisions involving interpretation represents an area of debate. This debate
centers around the application of the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural
Resources Defense Council, Inc.,55 to decisions of law by an agency such as the USPTO. As
discussed above, the Federal Circuit normally reviews decisions of law de novo. According to
the Chevron standard of review, however, decisions of law should receive deference.56 Under
this standard, the Federal Circuit would merely ask: (1) has Congress directly spoken on the
precise issue decided by the USPTO; (2) if not, is the statute silent or ambiguous on the question
(was the USPTO’s decision reasonable)?57
In Eastman Kodak, Co. v. Bell & Howell Document Management Products Co., the
Federal Circuit held that the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board’s (TTAB) interpretation of the
Lanham Act was entitled to deference under Chevron.58 The Federal Circuit upheld the
USPTO’s decision as reasonable.59 The Federal Circuit has refused to apply Chevron, however,
in the context of patent decisions. In Merck & Co. v. Kessler,60 the Federal Circuit specifically
refused to accord deference to the Commissioner’s interpretation of the patent statute with
respect to patent term extensions, stating that “Congress has not vested the Commissioner with
any general substantive rulemaking power.”61 Even if the USPTO’s interpretation of the patent
statute might otherwise receive deference, the appellate court has refused unequivocally any
deference when the USPTO’s interpretation frustrates the policy of Congress, in the view, of
course, of the Federal Circuit.62
More generally, beyond the area of interpretation, the Federal Circuit has not tended to
accord any deference under Chevron to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences’ (BPAI)
decisions of law. Some commentators have criticized the Federal Circuit for not applying
53 YBM Magnex, Inc. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 145 F.3d 1317, 1320, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1843, 1845
(Fed. Cir. 1998).
54 Tronzo v. Biomet, Inc., 236 F.3d 1342, 1346, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1387, 1388 (Fed. Cir 2001).
55 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
56 See id. at 843-44.
57 See id. at 842-43; Eastman Kodak Co. v. Bell & Howell Document Mgmt. Prods. Co., 994 F.2d 1569, 1571,
26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1912, 1915 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
58 994 F.2d 1569, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1912 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
59 Id. at 1572, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1916.
60 80 F.3d 1543, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1347 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
61 Id. at 1550, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1351 (citations omitted) (“Such deference as we owe to the PTO’s interpretive
‘Final Determination’ . . . thus arises . . . solely from, inter alia, the thoroughness of its consideration and the
validity of its reasoning, i.e., its basic power to persuade if lacking power to control.”); see also In re Portola
Packaging, Inc., 110 F.3d 786, 788, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1295, 1297 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (reviewing the USPTO’s
interpretation of the reexamination statute “without deference to the Commissioner’s interpretation”); Animal Legal
Def. Fund v. Quigg, 932 F.2d 920, 930-31, 18 U.S.P.Q.2d 1677, 1686 (Fed. Cir. 1991) (holding Commissioner was
not conferred with statutory authority to make binding interpretations of the patent statute); Glaxo Operations UK
Ltd. v. Quigg, 894 F.2d 392, 398-99, 13 U.S.P.Q.2d 1628, 1632-33 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (interpreting “independently”
statutory interpretation of 35 U.S.C. § 156, and expressly rejecting the USPTO’s request for deference to its
interpretation).
62 Hoechst Aktiengesellschaft v. Quigg, 917 F.2d 522, 526, 16 U.S.P.Q.2d 1549, 1552 (Fed. Cir. 1990).
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Chevron to patent decisions .63 It remains to be seen whether the Federal Circuit will cede any of
its power over decisions of patent law in the future by granting any degree of deference at all to
the USPTO.
3. New Legal Principles
Cases that require a trial tribunal to select or fashion a new legal principle truly receive
the minimum of appellate deference. This is because, in these cases, the trial tribunal is
performing an appellate function: defining the law regardless of the particular facts of the case.
The lines between the levels of de novo review blur in practice. For example, when the issue
involves determining which of two conflicting legal principles applies, the court’s task in
selecting between the two principles and interpretation merge.64 Similarly, interpretation and
application often merge. Advocates need not stumble over the precise categorization; they will
simply argue for the most appealing level of review that helps their case. The advocate must also
remember that, overriding these levels, the de novo standard of review is least deferential to the
trial tribunal.
4. An Explanation
Of course, it may happen that the trial tribunal fails to explain fully its legal analysis or
the reasoning or basis for its decision. The tribunal may entirely fail to consider a legal issue, or
may consider a legal issue but offer something less than a full explanation of its analysis. The
appropriate response may be for the appellate court to remand the case to give the trial tribunal a
further opportunity to explain its decision. Alternatively, the trial tribunal may not have
considered an issue because a party did not raise it. In that case, the appropriate response may be
for the appellate court to disregard the issue except under certain circumstances.
Surprisingly, the appellate courts and even the United States Supreme Court have
addressed with regularity the situation that arises when the court below failed to address a major
issue and to explain the reasons for its decision. The typical response of the reviewing court is:
“We must know what a decision means before the duty becomes ours to say whether it is right or
wrong.”65 In Graco, Inc. v. Binks Manufacturing Co.66, the Federal Circuit noted the prerequisite
that, before it could review the district court’s finding of patent infringement, the appellate court
must know what meaning and scope the district court gave the asserted patent claims.67 The
district court had provided no enlightenment, however, on the first step of the infringement
analysis: the legal issue of claim interpretation. The district court’s opinion was “absolutely
devoid of any discussion of claim construction.”68 Therefore, the Federal Circuit stated, “[w]e
simply do not know what claim construction the trial judge gave the terms in the claims,” and
63 See, e.g., Craig Allen Nard, Deference, Defiance, and the Useful Arts, 56 OHIO ST. L.J. 1415 (1995)
(arguing that decisions of patent law, even USPTO obviousness rejections, should receive deference from the
Federal Circuit); S. Jay Plager, An Interview With Circuit Judge S. Jay Plager, 5 J. PROPRIETARY RTS. 2 (1993).
64 See, e.g., Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 449-50, 456 (1976).
65 McKeague v. United States, 788 F.2d 755, 758 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (quoting United States V. Chicago,
Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pac. R.R., 294 U.S. 499, 511 (1935)).
66 60 F.3d 785, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1255 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
67 Graco, Inc. v. Binks Mfg. Co., 60 F.3d 785, 791, 35 U.S.P.Q2d 1255, 1259 (Fed. Cit. 1995).
68 Id. at 791, 35 U.S.P.Q2d 1259.
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concluded that the “entire omission of a claim construction analysis from the opinion …
provide[s] an independent basis for remand.”69
“An appellate court may consider only the record as it was made before the district
court.”70 Thus, the basic rule is that an issue or argument not briefed and argued cannot be
entertained for the first time on appeal.71 The Federal Circuit has applied the rule relatively
consistently, explaining:
We have reviewed the briefs and other pleadings filed in the district court and cannot find therein
any assertion of this claim by the appellants . . . [who] were obliged to bring it to the attention of
the district court, so that the court could consider it. Since the district court discussed the
appellants’ contentions in some detail, its failure to even mention this argument strongly suggests
that the appellants did not raise it in that court . . . . Having in effect waived that claim in the
district court, he cannot resurrect it in this court, and we decline to consider it.72
The Federal Circuit has clearly and often expressed the rule: “No matter how
independent an appellate court’s review of an issue may be, it is still no more than that-a review.
With a few notable exceptions, such as some jurisdictional matters, appellate courts do not
consider a party’s new theories, lodged first on appeal.”73 The rule is essential so that each party
may have the opportunity to present evidence relevant to each issue raised, to give the district
court the opportunity to decide the issue, and to avoid surprise to any party should the appellate
court render a decision based on new issues first raised on appeal.
As with most rules, however, there are exceptions. As one exception, the appellate court
may resolve an issue presented for the first time on appeal when “the proper resolution is beyond
doubt or where injustice might otherwise result.”74 Thus, an argument not timely made to the
district court need not be, but within the discretion of the appellant court may be considered by
the appellate court.75 The Federal Circuit has indicated that it will consider an issue not
presented to the district court, as an exception to the general rule, if
(i) the issue involves a pure question of law and refusal to consider it would result
in a miscarriage of justice; (ii) the proper resolution is beyond any doubt; (iii) the
appellant had no opportunity to raise the issue at the district court level; (iv) the
issue presents “significant questions of general impact or of great public
concern”; or (v) the interest of substantial justice is at stake.76
69 Id., 35 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1259-60; see also Digital Equip. Corp. v. Emulex Corp., 805 F.2d 380, 383, 231
U.S.P.Q.2d 779, 781-82 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (holding that the district court’s failure to comply with FED. R. Civ. P.
52(a) and issue conclusions of law with a statement of supporting reasons, even when issuing a preliminary
injunction, requires that the Federal Circuit vacate the consequent decision).
70 Ballard Med. Prods. v. Wright, 821 F.2d 642, 643, 5 U.S.P.Q.2d 1223,1223 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
71 Boone v. Chiles, 35 U.S. 177, 208 (1836).
72 Bockoven v. Marsh, 727 F.2d 1558, 1566 (Fed. Cir. 1984); see also Cornetta v. United States, 831 F.2d 1039,
1043 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
73 Sage Prods., Inc. v. Devon Indus., Inc., 126 F.3d 1420, 1426, 44 U.S.P.Q.2d 1103, 1108 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
74 Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 121 (1976).
75 Id. (“The matter of what questions may be taken up and resolved for the first time on appeal is one left
primarily to the courts of appeals, to be exercised on the facts of individual cases. We announce no general rule.”).
76 L.E.A. Dynatech, Inc. v. Allina, 49 F.3d 1527, 1531, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1839, 1843 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (citing Dean
Witter Reynolds, Inc. v. Fernandez, 741 F.2d 355,360-61 (11th Cir. 1984)).
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B. The Clearly Erroneous Standard of Review
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) governs appellate review of facts in federal civil
cases tried to the bench.77 On its face, Rule 52(a) also applies to findings made by a judge aided
by an advisory jury as if there were no jury; the district court need not accept the jury’s
suggested findings.78 An appellate court may not set aside trial court findings unless they are
“clearly erroneous,” a standard which the United States Supreme Court has defined as follows:
A finding is “clearly erroneous” when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court
on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been
committed…. If the district court’s account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record
viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it even though convinced that had it
been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence differently.79
The clear error rule inescapably means that in many cases, the appellate court must affirm
findings of fact, although that same court would also have affirmed contrary findings.80 Under
the clear error standard, the appellate court does not ask whether the findings were correct; it
asks whether they were clearly wrong. This is a very lenient standard of review.81
77 FED. R. Civ. P. 52(a) states:
In all actions tried upon the facts without a jury or with an advisory jury, the court shall
find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon, and judgment
shall be entered pursuant to Rule 58; and in granting or refusing, interlocutory injunctions
the court shall similarly set forth the findings of fact and conclusions of law which
constitute the grounds of its action. Requests for findings are not necessary for purposes
of review. Findings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be
set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the
trial court to judge of the credibility of the witnesses. The findings of a master, to the
extent that the court adopts them, shall be considered as the findings of the court. It will
be sufficient if the findings of fact and conclusions of law are stated orally and recorded
in open court following the close of the evidence or appear in an opinion or memorandum
of decision filed by the court. Findings of fact and conclusions of law are unnecessary on
decisions of motions under Rule 12 or 56 or any other motion except as provided in
subdivision (c) of this rule.
At least one commentator believes that no provision of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure has been quoted and
cited more often that Rule 52(a). See CHARLES ALLEN WRIGHT, LAW OF FEDERAL COURTS § 96, at 689
(5th ed. 1994).
78 FED. R. Civ. P. 52(a).
79 Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1985) (citations omitted). The enduring
“conviction of mistake” formulation has its basis in United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395
(1948), and has been consistently followed in subsequent Supreme Court opinions. Every circuit court has adopted
the Gypsum formula in defining the clearly erroneous standard of review. See, e.g., Kingsdown Med. Consultants v.
Hollister Inc., 863 F.2d 867, 876, 9 U.S.P.Q2d 1384, 1392 (Fed. Cit. 1988) (en banc). Of course, fact findings bind
the Supreme Court as well as the courts of appeals. See United States v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 415 U.S. 486, 508
(1974).
80 When the district court chooses one of two permissible views of the evidence, the choice between them
cannot be clearly erroneous. Miles Labs., Inc. v. Shandon Inc., 997 F.2d 870, 874,27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1123, 1125 (Fed.
Cir. 1993); Hybritech, Inc. v. Monoclonal Antibodies, Inc., 802 F.2d 1367, 1375, 231 U.S.P.Q. 81, 87 (Fed. Cir.
1986) (quoting Anderson, 470 U.S. at 574).
81 For example, the Seventh Circuit informed one appellant that, for the trial court’s decision to be overturned as
clearly erroneous, the decision “must strike us as more than just maybe or probably wrong; it must . . . strike us as
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Consequently, an appellant whose case arises in a settled area of the law, and who has lost at trial
because the court found that the facts favored the appellee, has little chance to win on appeal.
The appellant must convince the appellate court that the findings lack any rational connection to
the record or that the vast weight of the evidence renders a finding certainly wrong. Such
circumstances are rare.
Like other standards of review, the clear error standard provides variable levels of
review.82 In fact, the flexibility in application of Rule 52 is one of its attributes.83 For the
appellate court to exercise any type of review, of course, the trial tribunal must have expressed
its factual findings. Absent express factual findings by the trial tribunal, the appellate court’s
review may simply consist of a remand with instructions to make such findings.84 In addition,
the actual degree of scrutiny applied under the clear error standard of review depends upon the
nature of the evidence in the record. There may be rare exceptions to deferential appellate
review of fact-findings for certain types of facts.
Most cases involve a mixture of oral testimony and documentary evidence. In some
circumstances, however, the trial court may decide a case entirely on the basis of documents:
stipulations, discovery materials, the transcript of a trial before another tribunal, or other paper
evidence. An appellate court may more easily find clear error when it has the same documents
for decision as were available to the trial tribunal. This different standard may practically exist
despite the express requirement in Rule 52(a) that the same “clear error” standard applies in such
cases85 as in cases involving oral testimony. In contrast, the Supreme Court has recognized that
greater deference is due under the clearly erroneous standard to findings of the trial tribunal
based upon the credibility of witnesses.86
1. Insufficient Findings
The Supreme Court indicated in Pullman-Standard v. Swint,87 that if the district court has
completely failed to make Rule 52 factual findings on decisive issues, then:
[T] he usual rule is that there should be a remand for further proceedings to permit the trial court
to make the missing findings. . . . Likewise, where findings are infirm because of an erroneous
view of the law, a remand is the proper course unless the record permits only one resolution of the
factual issue.88
wrong with the force of a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.” Parts & Elec. Motors, Inc. v. Sterling Elec., Inc.,
866 F.2d 228, 233 (7th Cir. 1988).
82 Judge Frank broke down clear error review of fact findings in excruciating detail in Orvis v. Higgins, 180
F.2d 537, 539-40 (2d Cit. 1950), delineating five tiers of review for bench trial factual findings, based on the type of
evidence considered. This article focuses on fewer tiers.
83 See Cooper, supra note 14, at 645 (rule allows flexible application on appeal).
84 For example, when the trial court adopts a proposed but unaccepted settlement offer as its judgment, it has
failed to perform its obligation to determine the case on the basis of the evidence, a clear violation of Rule 52(a).
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe v. United States, 806 F.2d 1046, 1050, 1052 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
85 See Section II.B.3 on documentary evidence below.
86 Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985); Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United
States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 500 (1984).
87 456 U.S. 273 (1982).
88 Id. at 291-92.
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Findings that are missing or legally faulty, such as those made under an incorrect
standard, must be distinguished from those found to be clearly erroneous. In the former situation,
the trial judge ordinarily should be given a chance to make findings in the first instance because
an erroneous view of the law prevented correct fact-finding; the judge never had a real chance to
assess the facts. Because the trial court is the appropriate site for an initial resolution, remand is
usual. Findings that are clearly erroneous, however, already have gone through the fact-sifting
process and come out wrong on their own terms. In such a case, the appellate court may reject or
correct those findings on their own terms and reverse without remand.89
Following the guidance of the Supreme Court in Pullman-Standard, the Federal Circuit
will no defer to findings of fact that are insufficient to allow meaningful review.90 “[Conclusory
findings are] entirely inadequate under Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It is
even impossible to determine whether the court held infringement to be literal or under the
doctrine of equivalents . . . . [T]he conclusory factual findings on infringement . . . provide an
independent basis for remand.”91 The court remanded the case “because insufficient findings
preclude meaningful review.”92 Applying a similar analysis and reaching the same conclusion in
another case, the Federal Circuit stated:
We have a substantial problem in this particular case, however, in light of the terse four-page
judgment of the trial court. This judgment lacks any rationale for the court’s decisions on the
parties’ various post-verdict motions. Specifically, with respect to the court’s entry of JMOL in
favor of Spectramed on all issues of infringement, the trial court offered no explanation as to how
it arrived at this decision. One option in such a case, not to be discarded lightly, is to vacate the
judgment of the trial court and remand the matter to that court for a full explication of the reasons
for the court’s rejection of the jury’s findings.93
Similarly, the district court’s failure to comply with Rule 52 (a) and express findings of
fact, even when issuing a preliminary injunction, requires the Federal Circuit to vacate the
consequent decision or order.94
The Federal Circuit has characterized a complete failure to make findings as a
“dereliction of duty.”95 Assuming that the district court makes at least some attempt to meet its
duty to provide findings of fact, how detailed must those findings of fact be? The ultimate test of
the adequacy of such findings is whether they are sufficiently comprehensive to form a basis for
the decision. How many and how specific the findings need to be are questions resolved on a
case-by-case basis,96 and may depend on the issue under review.97 The mere fact that the district
court does not include findings on all the evidence does mean that such evidence was not
89 Panduit Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 810 F.2d 1561, 1565-66, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1593, 1595 (Fed. Cit. 1987).
90 Rule 52(b) allows a party to make a post-judgment motion for findings not made. Counsel should not simply
ignore that rule and rely on the appellate court to seek a remand for the purpose of requiring the lower court to make
those same findings. See Consol. Aluminum Corp. v. Foseco Int’l Ltd., 910 F.2d 804, 814 n.9,15 U.S.P.Q.2d 1481,
1488 n.9 (Fed. Cir. 1990).
91 Grayco, Inc. v. Binks Mfg. Co., 60 F.3d 785, 791, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1255, 1260 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
92 Id.
93 Baxter Healthcare Corp. v. Spectramed, Inc., 49 F.3d 1575, 1582, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1120, 1125 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
94 Digital Equip. Corp. v. Emulex Corp., 805 F.2d 380, 383, 231 U.S.P.Q2d 779,18182 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
95 Loctite Corp. v. Ultraseal Ltd., 781 F.2d 861, 873, 228 U.S.P.Q. 90, 97 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (quoting Seattle Box
Co. v. Indus. Crating & Packing Inc., 756 F.2d 1574, 1578, 225 U.S.P.Q. 357, 360 (Fed. Cir. 1985)).
96 Loctite Corp., 781 F.2d at 873, 228 U.S.P.Q. at 98.
97 The Federal Circuit has indicated that there is a greater need for express findings on certain issues, such as
obviousness. Id.
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considered;98 a judge may have considered evidence even though the evidence was not
mentioned in an opinion.99 Certainly, a district court is not obligated to list, and reject, factors
that might have supported a contrary conclusion.100 Also, oral findings by a district court may be
sufficient to indicate the basis of the trial judge’s decision, and provide an adequate foundation
for appellate review.101
The Federal Circuit does recognize a narrow exception to the requirement that the district
court make Rule 52 factual findings: when the appellate court can achieve a full understanding
without the aid of separate findings.102 If the trial court has not misapplied the controlling legal
standards in its evaluation of the evidence, its ultimate finding may be reviewed in order to
conclude the controversy without unnecessary further expenditure of judicial resources, if
possible.103 When there is sufficient record, the relevant facts are not in dispute, no credibility
determinations are needed, and it appears that there can be only one acceptable resolution of the
issue, a remand is not required.104
2. Possible Exception for “Constitutional” Facts
There are rare exceptions to deferential appellate review of fact-findings. Among these
exceptions are the constitutional facts which were discussed in Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union
of United States, Inc.105 Resolving a conflict between constitutional provisions, the Supreme
Court held that Rule 52(a) does not apply to a finding that a disparaging statement about the
sound quality of the plaintiffs loudspeakers was made with “actual malice.”106 The actual reach
of such exceptions is unclear, and the value of the exceptions outside litigation involving
freedom of speech or freedom of the press is uncertain.
3. Documentary Evidence
Until recently, many federal courts applied a much stricter standard of review of findings
based on documentary evidence.107 The standard sometimes approached de novo review. These
98 N.V. Akzo v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours, 810 F.2d 1148, 1152, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1704, 1708 (Fed. Cit. 1987).
99 Winner Int’l Corp. v. Wolo Mfg. Corp., 905 F.2d 375, 376,15 U.S.P.Q 2d 1076,1077 (Fed. Cit. 1990).
100 J P. Stevens Co. v. Lex Tex Ltd., 822 F.2d 1047, 1053, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1235, 1239 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
101 Albert v. Kevex Corp., 729 F.2d 757, 762, 221 U.S.P.Q. 202, 206 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
102 Loctite Corp. v. Ultraseal Ltd., 781 F.2d 861, 872, 228 U.S.P.Q. 90, 97 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
103 ACS Hosp. Sys., Inc. v. Montefiore Hosp., 732 F.2d 1572, 1578, 221 U.S.P.Q. 929, 933 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
104 Seattle Box Co. v. Indus. Crating & Packing, Inc., 756 F.2d 1574, 1578, 225 U.S.P.Q. 357, 360 (Fed. Cir.
1985).
105 466 U.S. 485, 498-511 (1984). The Supreme Court exhaustively discussed constitutional fact-finding in
Bose.
106 Id at 514.
107 See, e.g., Orvis v. Higgins, 180 F.2d 537, 539 (2d Cit. 1950) (“If he decides a fact issue on written evidence
alone, we are as able as he to determine credibility, and so we may disregard his finding.”); Lydle v. United States,
635 F.2d 763, 765, n.1 (6th Cir. 1981) (“This Court is in as good a position as the district court to review a purely
documentary record and to arrive at conclusions of mixed law and fact.”); Swanson v. Baker Indus., Inc., 615 F.2d
479,483 (8th Cir. 1980) (“Where the construction of a contract rests upon documentation and factual findings
involving no issues of credibility, we review the district court’s construction free of Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a)’s `clearly
erroneous’ standard.”); Securities Exch. Comm’n v. Coffey, 493 F.2d 1304, 1311 (5th Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420
U.S. 908 (1975) (stating that the major rationale for deferring to district court findings is that the district court is able
to observe the demeanor of witnesses but that issue is lacking with documentary evidence). Butsee Anderson v. City
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courts reasoned that no credibility concerns were involved with documentary evidence, and
believed themselves to be in as good a position as the trial court to judge such evidence.108
Based on the institutional factors that affect the allocation of responsibility for the finding of
facts between trial and appellate courts, why should the appellate court defer to the trial court
when it can read and reach a decision based upon documents as easily as can the trial court?109
The response is that factors other than institutional factors support deference to findings based on
a paper record.”110
In any event, the Court in Anderson v. City of Bessemer City,111 and the amendments to
Rule 52(a), adopted a few weeks after that case came down in August of 1985, rejected the
stricter standard of review. Rule 52 was amended to add the emphasized clause as follows:
“Findings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be set aside unless
clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the
credibility of the witnesses.112 The Supreme Court unequivocally stated that the clearly erroneous
standard applies “even when the district court’s findings do not rest on credibility
determinations, but are based instead on physical or documentary evidence or inferences from
other facts.”113 Moreover, the Court declined to characterize the phrase added by amendment as
a mere justification for the clearly erroneous rule. Most appellate courts now follow the language
of Rule 52 (a) strictly, and state that they apply the Rule indiscriminately, regardless of the
documentary source for findings of fact.114 The Federal Circuit has indicated its support of that
approach, stating that an appellate court is not in the same position as the trial court to judge the
true significance of documentary and physical exhibits that are introduced through live witnesses
or about which live witnesses testify.115 Ostensibly, no variation, perhaps even in application, is
now permitted for documentary-based findings.
Despite the Supreme Court’s statements and the amendments to Rule 52(a), courts of
appeal may tend to review decisions based upon documentary evidence with more care than
decisions based upon other forms of evidence.116 At least to a certain extent, some judges may
of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1985) (adopting the clearly erroneous standard of review for findings
based on documentary evidence).
108 In Orvis v. Higgins, the Second Circuit ruled that, when a trial judge “decides a fact issue on written
evidence alone, we are as able as he to determine credibility, and so we may disregard his finding.” 180 F.2d 537,
539 (2d Cir. 1950) (Frank, J.) (footnote omitted).
109 The Federal Circuit has not expressly decided the question of deference in the context of purely documentary
evidence. In Gardner v. TEC Systems, Inc., the court refused to decide whether to adopt an exception to the clearly
erroneous rule where all of the evidence is documentary. 725 F.2d 1338, 1347, 220 U.S.P.Q. 777, 784 (Fed. Cir.
1984).
110 Among these reasons are that a strict standard of review would: (1) reduce the number of appeals taken,
thereby easing appellate burden and helping the parties; (2) enhance the quality of district court findings by
increasing prestige for the trial court and attracting qualified people to the bench; and (3) force the parties to focus
their case at the trial court level, because they will not have a significant second chance to win. See Cooper, supra
note 14, at 651-54.
111 470 U.S. 564 (1985).
112 FED. R. Civ. P. 52(a) (emphasis added).
113 Anderson, 470 U.S. at 574.
114 See, e.g., Tyler Refrigeration v. Kysor Indus. Corp., 777 F.2d 687, 690-91, 227 U.S.P.Q. 845, 847-48 (Fed.
Cir. 1985).
115 Preemption Devices, Inc. v. Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co., 732 F.2d 903, 905, 221 U.S.P.Q. 841, 842 (Fed.
Cir. 1984).
116 For a collection of court of appeals decisions reflecting the view that the clearly erroneous standard of
review applies differently to findings based on documentary or otherwise undisputed paper evidence, see 9A
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continue to take the source of findings into consideration when applying the Rule, even if they
do not say so explicitly.117 Clear error may be more easily found when the entire case came to
trial in undisputed documentary form. It has also been suggested that a more searching review is
appropriate when there is a conflict between testimonial and documentary evidence.118
4. Credibility Findings
In contrast to determinations made on a paper record, credibility determinations are
reviewed under an even more deferential level of clearly erroneous review. In Anderson, the
Supreme Court stated:
When findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, Rule 52(a)
demands even greater deference to the trial court’s findings . . . . When a trial judge’s finding is
based on his decision to credit the testimony of one of two or more witnesses, each of whom has
told a coherent and facially plausible story that is not contradicted by extrinsic evidence, that
finding, if not internally inconsistent, can virtually never be clear error.119
The Supreme Court expressly recognized the different levels of review under the clearly
erroneous standard, applied to documentary versus credibility determinations:
The requirement that special deference be given to a trial judge’s credibility determinations is
itself a recognition of the broader proposition that the presumption of correctness that attaches to
factual findings is stronger in some cases than in others. The same “clearly erroneous” standard
applies to findings based on documentary evidence as to those based entirely on oral testimony . . .
but the presumption has lesser force in the former situation than in the latter.120
The Federal Circuit has acknowledged that, “The trial court is in the best position to
weigh evidence that involves credibility determinations, and that such determinations should be
accorded substantial deference on appellate review.”121 Indeed, the Federal Circuit has gone so
far as to say, often, that credibility determinations are largely unreviewable by the appellate
court.122 The trier of fact, not the appellate judge, is able to evaluate the demeanor of witnesses.
CHARLES ALLEN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 2587 (3d ed.
1995).
117 Indeed, some commentators suggest that flexibility may be a proper application even of the amended Rule
52(a). See, e.g., CHILDRESS & DAVIS, supra note 4, § 2.09, at 2-65 (citing additional commentators who share
that view).
118 United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395-96 (1948). When the testimony of witnesses
is elicited by “extremely leading [questions and] is in conflict with contemporaneous documents we can give it little
weight . . . [d]espite the opportunity of the trial court to appraise the credibility of the witnesses, we cannot . . . rule
otherwise than that Finding 118 is clearly erroneous.” Id. at 396.
119 Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 575 (1985); see also Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of
United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 512 (1984) (stating that disbelieved testimony of a witness may be properly
disregarded); Amadeo v. Zant, 486 U.S. 214, 227 (1988) (noting that it is within the district court’s discretion as the
fact-finder to credit statements of certain witnesses over the self-interested testimony of a party’s attorney).
120 Bose, 466 U.S. at 500 (1984) (citation omitted).
121 Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Hercules Tire & Rubber Co., 162 F.2d 1113, 1122, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d 1767,
1772 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
122 Refac Int’l, Ltd. v. Lotus Dev. Corp., 81 F.3d 1576, 1582,38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1665, 1670 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“The
district court is best suited to make credibility determinations and we accord such determinations deference.”); Para-
Ordinance Mfg., Inc. v. SGS Imps. Int’l, Inc., 73 F.3d 1085, 1091, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1237, 1241 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
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Accordingly, Rule 52(a) requires that the appellate court give “due regard . . . to the opportunity
of the trial court to judge of the credibility of witnesses.”123 It is difficult, under this standard, to
show clear error in a trial tribunal’s decision to believe or disbelieve a single witness. It is nearly
impossible to show clear error in a choice between two or more witnesses whose testimony is at
all plausible.124
While it is difficult to hold findings based upon testimony to be clearly erroneous,
appellate courts do have the power to overrule even credibility calls of a district judge if clearly
erroneous. The deference given to findings based upon testimony is less restrictive than that
accorded jury determinations. Although Rule 52(a) itself makes credibility a due consideration,
credibility is not conclusive and contradictory evidence may make a finding reversible.125 Thus,
for example, a district court cannot rely solely on a credibility determination to find a fact
directly opposite to uncontroverted testimony.126
Once a finding is found to be clearly erroneous, the appellate court may find the correct
facts and reverse, assuming the record is adequate to permit meaningful review127. This
approach allows the appellate court to decide the case without remand. Even erroneous findings
may not justify reversal, however, if the judgment can be supported otherwise. The court may
simply apply the rule of harmless error discussed above.
C. Review for Substantial Evidence
The role of the trial court in a patent jury trial is not significantly different from its role in
a patent bench trial with respect to legal issues. The Federal Circuit applies the same standard of
review, therefore, to legal conclusions on issues such as patent validity. Thus, the Federal
Circuit’s duty to be satisfied that the law has been correctly applied to the facts is the same
regardless of whether a judge or a jury determines those facts.128
(“This court gives great deference to the district court’s decisions regarding credibility of witnesses.”); Hambsch v.
Dep’t of the Treasury, 796 F.2d 430, 436 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (stating that “[t]o the extent that the petitioner’s claim is
based on a challenge to the presiding official’s credibility determinations, we reiterate our previous holdings that
these determinations are virtually unreviewable”).
123 123 FED. R. Civ. P. 52(a).
124 A1-SiteCorp. v. VSI Int’l, Inc., 174 F.3d 1308, 1317, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1161, 1165 (Fed. Cit. 1999) (“As the
finder of fact, the jury receives deference for its function of weighing witness demeanor, credibility, and meaning.”).
Thus, when the evidence consists solely of competing expert opinions, the Federal Circuit has indicated that it has
no basis for overturning the district court’s credibility determinations. See Amstar Corp. v. Envirotech Corp., 823
F.2d 1538, 1545, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1412, 1417 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
125 See Anderson, 470 U.S. at 575 (“Documents or objective evidence may contradict the witness’ story; or the
story itself may be so internally inconsistent or implausible on its face that a reasonable factfinder would not credit
it.”); United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395-96 (1948) (rejecting testimony in conflict with
documentary evidence); Cooper, supra note 14, at 650-51 (wondering whether the opportunity to evaluate the
demeanor of witnesses at trial actually enhances the fact-finding process because the outward signs of lying are
usually extraordinarily subtle).
126 Moore v. Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. Co., 340 U.S. 573, 576-77 (1951); Hybritech Inc. v. Monoclonal
Antibodies, Inc., 802 F.2d 1367, 1375, 231 U.S.P.Q81, 87 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
127 See, e.g., Gypsum, 333 U.S. at 395. When a district court or board fails to make findings of fact, the Federal
Circuit can make such findings when: (1) the facts are undisputed, or (2) the facts are disputed but as a matter of
law only one of the factual findings is permissible. Black & Decker, Inc. v. Hoover Serv. Ctr., 886 F.2d 1285, 1290,
12 U.S.P.Q.2d 1250, 1254 (Fed. Cit. 1989); B.D. Click Co. v. United States, 614 F.2d 748, 755 (Ct. Cl. 1980).
128 “When a legal issue is submitted to a jury without an objection, we treat the jury’s verdict on the legal issue
as a resolution of all genuinely disputed underlying factual issues in favor of the verdict winner.” Lough v.
Brunswick Corp., 86 F.3d 1113, 1119, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1100, 1103 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
Doc. #869018v.1
The standard of review applied by the appellate court to factual issues is affected,
however, by the different type of trial. Although the clearly erroneous standard of review applies
to bench trial findings of fact, Rule 52 does not prescribe the standard of review for jury
findings. Findings of fact by the jury are more difficult to set aside. They are reviewed under the
substantial evidence test. This discrepancy is not unique to patent law.129 The foundation for
jury trials in civil litigation is, of course, the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.130
Appellate challenges to jury findings of fact rarely succeed, because the Seventh Amendment
proscribes review of such findings even more than Rule 52 restricts review of trial court findings
of fact.
Compare the clearly erroneous standard applied to review fact-findings by the court and
the substantial evidence standard applied to review factfindings by a jury. The clearly erroneous
test requires less deference to the trial tribunal, and the appellate court need not affirm a finding
under that standard if supported by substantial evidence as it would if a jury had found the fact.
Findings can be clearly erroneous even if supported by substantial evidence,131 but findings
unsupported by substantial evidence are clearly erroneous. In practice, of course, the two tests
often reach the same result (affirming) because both are fairly deferential. Nevertheless,
important differences remain. The jury test is more deferential-based on the policy judgment that
bench trial findings are less sacrosanct on review than are jury verdicts.
Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence taken from the record as a whole as might
be accepted by a reasonable mind as adequate to support the finding under review.132 That a
contrary determination would be sustained if it were the decision under review does not mean
that the determination must be overturned. Both decisions may be reasonable based on the
entirety of the record, a concept some litigants find difficult to accept. The Federal Circuit may
not substitute its judgment for the final determination of the decision maker on the ground that
the court believes a contrary determination is more reasonable than the determination under
review.133
As a practical matter, the Federal Circuit “look[s] at which evidence . . . supports the
[jury’s factfinding] and then review[s] the entire record to determine whether factors such as
‘exaggeration, inherent improbability, self-contradiction, omissions in a purportedly complete
account, imprecision, and errors’ detract from the weight of that particular evidence.”134 The
129 See, e.g., United States v. Grimaldo, 214 F.3d 967, 975 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 939 (2000) (stating
that the court must view the evidence in a criminal conviction to determine if there is substantial evidence to
convince a reasonable jury of a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not evidence which rules out all
reasonable hypotheses of innocence); United States v. McMurray, 34 F.3d 1405, 1409 (8th Cir. 1994) (stating that
the court will disturb the district court’s findings of fact in a criminal law proceeding only if it finds them to be
clearly erroneous).
130 “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by
jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States,
than according to the rules of the common law.” U.S. CONST. amend. VII.
131 Cooper, supra note 14, at 650 (discussing and explaining the differences in deference to juries and judges:
“[j]udge findings are accorded somewhat less deference than jury findings”).
132 Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (defining substantial evidence as “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion”); Tol-O-Matic, Inc. v.
Proma Produckt-und Mktg. Gesellschaft, 945 F.2d 1546, 1549, 20 U.S.P.Q.2d 1332, 1335 (Fed. Cir. 1991).
133 Fischer & Porter Co. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 831 F.2d 1574, 1577, 4 U.S.P.Q2d 1700, 1701-02
(Fed. Cir. 1987).
134 Dixon v. Dep’t of Transp. Fed. Aviation Admin., 8 F.3d 798, 804 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (quoting Spurlock v.
Dep’t of justice, 894 F.2d 1328, 1330 (Fed. Cir. 1990)).
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Federal Circuit will reverse only if such factors so detract from the weight of the evidence, or the
evidence is so sparse, that a reasonable fact finder would not find the fact proved.135 As might be
expected, the jury’s assessment of the character and credibility of witnesses is entitled to
especially great deference.136
The substantial evidence nomenclature is misleading in the sense that it implies a
quantitative amount of evidence. The dictionary definition of “substantial” is “of ample or
considerable amount, quantity, size, etc.”137 This is not the legal definition. Rather, legally, the
standard of review requires evidence minimally sufficient, more than a mere scintilla, such that
“a reasonable mind might accept the evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.” 138It may be
helpful to read substantial evidence non-numerically, as meaning “evidence of substance.”139
D. Review for Abuse of Discretion
Abuse of discretion is a phrase that sounds worse than it really is.140 When an appellate
court reviews a decision for abuse of discretion, it will be predisposed to affirm the decision.141
The appellant faces a difficult task in securing a reversal because the abuse of discretion standard
of review reflects an appellate judgment that some decisions are best left to the trial tribunal.142
On many matters, the trial tribunal has a range of choice in deciding an issue. The appellate
court will not disturb its choice as long as the choice is within the predetermined range, and is
not influenced by any mistake of law or erroneous findings of fact. Thus, for equitable issues
that come before the Federal Circuit, like injunctions, inequitable conduct, multiple damages,
and attorney fees, the standard of appellate review is abuse of discretion. “At least where the
ruling is essentially a judgment call rather than derivative of a legal or factual decision, it gets
great deference.”143
A ruling on a discretionary matter involving admission of evidence, discovery, or other
trial management issues is rarely reversed.144 The appellate court’s deference to the trial
tribunal’s decisions in these areas recognizes the tribunal’s superior knowledge of the issues, the
record, the proceedings, and the people. Such deference also recognizes the variety of cases in
which such decisions arise, making legal rules difficult or impossible to formulate. Finally,
135 ROBERT L. HARMON, PATENTS & THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT § 17.1(6)(ii), at 864 (4th ed. 1998).
136 Baxter Healthcare Corp. v. Spectramed, Inc., 49 F.3d 1575, 1584, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1120, 1127 (Fed. Cir.
1995) (“[T]he persons accused of inequitable conduct actually testified as witnesses, and the jury’s assessment of
their character and credibility is entitled to great deference.”) (quoting Modine Mfg. Co. v. Allen Group, Inc., 917
F.2d 538, 542, 16 U.S.P.Q.2d 1622, 1625 (Fed. Cir. 1990)).
137 RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY 1897 (2d ed. 1999).
138 Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).
139 CHILDRESS & DAMS, supra note 4, § 3.04, at 3-47.
140 In re Josephson, 218 F.2d 174, 182 (1st Cir. 1954).
141 Before it will find an abuse of discretion, the appellate court may have to determine that the trial tribunal has
nearly taken leave of its senses. Datascope Corp. v. SMEC, Inc., 879 F.2d 820, 828, 11 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1326 (Fed.
Cir. 1989) (quoting PPG Indust. v. Celanese Polymer Specialties Co., 840 F.2d 1565, 1572, 6 U.P.S.Q 2d 1010,
1016 (Fed. Cir. 1988)); see Henry J. Friendly, Indiscretion About Discretion, 31 EMORY L.J. 747, 763 (1982).
142 J P. Stevens Co. v. LexTex Ltd., 822 F.2d 1047, 1051, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1235, 1239 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (noting that
the lower court has a range of choice, and that its decision will not be disturbed as long as it stays within that range);
PPG Indus., Inc. v. Celanese Polymer Specialties Co., 840 F.2d 1565, 1570-72, 6 U.S.P.Q 2d 1010, 1015-16 (Fed.
Cir. 1988) (Bissell, J., additional views) (stating that appellate review of discretionary rulings should be limited).
143 Michel, supra note 19, at 4.
144 See, e.g., ATD Corp. v. Lydall, Inc., 159 F3d 534, 544, 48 U.S.P.Q2d 1321, 1328 (Fed. Cir.1998); Abbott
Labs. v. Brennan, 952 F.2d 1346,1350, 21 U.S.P.Q 2d 1192,1196 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
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deference to decisions on subjects such as discovery represents application of the principle that
trials must be fair, but need not be perfect, as an incorrect decision on a discovery matter rarely
affects the basic fairness of a trial.
Just as for de novo and clearly erroneous review, review for abuse of discretion also has
several identifiable levels.145 Again, the intensity of the review will depend on how the appellate
advocate characterizes what the trial tribunal did and, therefore, what the appellate court is asked
to review. The three levels of review for abuse of discretion ask whether the trial tribunal
conformed with enunciated standards in exercising its discretion, based its decision on a legal
error or on an erroneous factual underpinning, or failed to explain the reasons for its decision. In
addition, the degree of scrutiny applied by the Federal Circuit may depend, at least for certain
issues, on the severity of the final result ordered by the trial tribunal following exercise of its
discretion.
1. Conformance with Standards
The trial tribunal does not have unlimited leeway when exercising its discretion. The
exercise of discretion must conform to standards announced by the Federal Circuit, and the
appellate court will review the decision carefully to assure that the trial tribunal applied those
standards. If the trial tribunal considers impermissible factors or fails to consider factors that it
should have evaluated, the Federal Circuit may reverse. In this category are cases seeking a
preliminary injunction, a declaratory judgment, or an exercise of supplemental jurisdiction.
Consider the trial tribunal’s decision to grant or deny a preliminary injunction motion as
an example. Whether a preliminary injunction should issue turns on four factors: (1) the
movant’s reasonable likelihood of success on the merits; (2) the irreparable harm the movant will
suffer if preliminary relief is not granted; (3) the balance of hardships tipping in its favor; and (4)
the adverse impact on the public interest.146 The trial tribunal may not ignore any of the factors
en route to its determination; otherwise, it may have failed its obligation to consider the requisite
factors and risks reversal.147 Certainly, a trial tribunal must consider all four factors before
granting a preliminary injunction in order to determine whether the moving party has carried its
burden to establish each of the four factors. Although it is preferable that the trial tribunal always
make findings regarding each of the four factors that weigh in the balance concerning whether to
deny a preliminary injunction, the tribunal is not required to articulate findings on the third and
145 “Abuse of discretion is a flexible term whose application can vary broadly. . . . When judicial discretion is
exercised to restrain commercial communications, it is subject to special scrutiny.” Mikohn Gaming Corp. v. Acres
Gaming, Inc., 165 F.3d 891, 895,49 U.S.P.Q 2d 1308, 1310-11 (Fed. Cir. 1998). Professor Maurice Rosenberg
discerns at least four levels of discretion in action. See Maurice Rosenberg, Appellate Review of Trial Court
Discretion, in 79 FEDERAL RULES DECISIONS 173, 173-75 (1979). Judge Friendly began his own study of
judicial discretion wanting to apply one definition across the board, but soon concluded that “the differences are not
only defensible but essential. Some cases call for application of the abuse of discretion standard in a `broad’ sense
and others in a `narrow’ one.” Friendly, supra note 141, at 763-64.
146 Thus, the Federal Circuit applies the four-factor test, that is applied in most jurisdictions, to determine
whether a preliminary injunction should issue. See, e.g., Smith Int’l, Inc. v. Hughes Tool Co., 718 F.2d 1573, 1578-
79, 219 U.S.P.Q. 686, 690-91 (Fed. Cir. 1983); Roper Corp. v. Litton Sys., Inc., 757 F.2d 1266, 1269, 225 U.S.P.Q.
345, 346 (Fed. Cir. 1985); Payless Shoesource, Inc. v. Reebok Int’l Ltd., 998 F.2d 985, 991, 27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1516,
1521 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
147 See, e.g., Chrysler Motors Corp. v. Auto Body Panels of Ohio, Inc., 908 F.2d 951, 954, 15 U.S.P.Q.2d
1469,1472 (Fed. Cir. 1990); Illinois Tool Works, Inc. v. Grip-Pak, Inc., 725 F. Supp. 951, 952, 13 U.S.P.Q.2d 1463,
1464 (N.D. 111. 1989).
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fourth factors when the tribunal denies a preliminary injunction because a party fails to establish
either of the first two critical factors, which the moving party is required to prove.148
How carefully must the trial tribunal consider each of the preliminary injunction factors?
The grant or denial of a preliminary injunction motion is within the sound discretion of the trial
tribunal.149 Again, however, the scrutiny applied by the Federal Circuit appears to depend upon
whether it is reviewing the grant or denial of the motion. The Federal Circuit has stated that it
will reverse a trial tribunal’s issuance of a preliminary injunction unless the tribunal makes
comprehensive findings in support of the injunction.150 The court seems to treat the denial of a
preliminary injunction motion less strictly, however, as shown by the recent case of
Jeneric/Pentron, Inc. v. Dillon Co.151 In that case, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district
court’s denial of a preliminary injunction motion in a patent infringement case, “under the highly
deferential standard of review applicable to a preliminary injunction,” even though the district
court did not even conduct an equivalents analysis.152
The results also may slant the degree of scrutiny applied by the Federal Circuit in other
issues to which the abuse of discretion standard of review applies. The trial court’s decision on a
discovery matter is reviewable only to determine whether the court abused its discretion.153 I
The decision whether to impose discovery sanctions also rests within the sound discretion of the
trial court, and is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. Such discretion is not
unfettered, however, especially if the de facto result of sanctions imposed is dismissal.154
The Federal Circuit strives to provide guidance on how the district court should exercise
its discretion on the issues reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. For the equitable
defense of laches, for example, which is committed to the sound discretion of the district court,
the Federal Circuit discussed in A. C. Aukerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Construction Co.,155 the
factors that a district court must consider in exercising its discretion.156 The Federal Circuit
summarized those factors for the district courts: “Thus, for laches, the length of delay, the
seriousness of prejudice, the reasonableness of excuses, and the defendant’s conduct or
culpability must be weighed to determine whether the patentee dealt unfairly with the alleged
infringer by not promptly bringing suit.”157 Given such guidance, if a district court fails to
consider these factors, the Federal Circuit may reverse.
148 Reebok Int’l Ltd. v. J. Baker, Inc., 32 F.3d 1552, 1554, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1781, 1782 (Fed. Cit. 1994)
(affirming denial of preliminary injunction when district court found only that the moving party failed to establish
irreparable harm).
149 See 35 U.S.C. § 283 (1994 & Supp. 111996); see also Ortho Pharm. Corp. v. Smith, 959 F.2d 936, 945, 22
U.S.P.Q.2d 1119, 1127 (Fed. Cit. 1992); H.H. Robertson Co. v. United Steel Deck, Inc., 820 F.2d 384, 387, 2
U.S.P.Q.2d 1926, 1927 (Fed. Cit. 1987).
150 See, e.g., Conair Group Inc. v. AutomatikApparate-Maschinenbau, 944 F.2d 862, 866, 20 U.S.P.Q2d 1067,
1070 (Fed. Cir. 1991).
151 205 F.3d 1377, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1086 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
152 Id. at 1384, 54 U.S.P.Q 2d at 1092.
153 Adkins v. United States, 816 F.2d 1580, 1581-82 (Fed. Cit. 1987) (citing National Hockey League v. Metro.
Hockey Club, Inc., 427 U.S. 639, 642 (1976)).
154 Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. United States, 857 F.2d 1448,1451 (Fed. Cir. 1988).
155 960 F.2d 1020, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (en banc).
156 Id at 1032, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1327.
157 Id. at 1034, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1329.
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2. Legal Error/Erroneous Factual Underpinning
One reason why almost all exercises of discretion may actually get meaningful appellate
review is that a discretionary judgment often has legal or factual components.158 Legal error may
be embedded in an apparently discretionary decision, for example, when the trial tribunal fails to
recognize that an issue is discretionary and wrongly believes that it is bound by a rule of law.
Review of a decision to grant an injunction provides another example of a discretionary
judgment that has legal components.159 Although the standard of review for the issuance and
scope of an injunction is abuse of discretion, whether the terms of the injunction fulfill the
specificity required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(d) is a question of law that is
reviewed de novo.160
In High Tech Medical Instrumentation, Inc. v. New Image Industries, Inc.,161 the district
court granted a patent holder’s motion for a preliminary injunction in a patent infringement suit.
The Federal Circuit reversed, concluding “that the district court committed legal errors in its
analysis of the issues of likelihood of success and irreparable harm.”162 The appellate court
thoroughly and critically reviewed the district court’s analysis.
Review of a decision to award attorney fees provides an example of a discretionary)
judgment that has factual components. A finding by the district court that a case is exceptional
under 35 U.S.C. § 285 (1994) is a factual determination, whereas the decision to award attorney
fees based on that finding is discretionary. One factor that may warrant finding a case
exceptional is willful infringement.
It thus appears that the court’s conclusion that Binks [the defendant] willfully infringed also
served as the basis for the finding that the case was exceptional. The Findings of Fact made by the
court do not provide any other basis for its ruling. We have, however, reversed the court’s finding
of willful infringement. As such, the court’s finding that this case was exceptional must also be
reversed, since the court provided no other factual findings to support the award. The court’s
award of attorney’s fees and expenses is therefore reversed.163
Therefore, review under the abuse of discretion standard may become either de novo
review or a more intensive review of fact-finding. The goal of the appellant is, of course, to
avoid a deferential abuse of discretion standard. The appellant may successfully do so by finding
an underlying error and arguing for a more intensive review.
158 Glaverbel Societe Anonyme & Fosbel, Inc. v. Northlake Marketing & Supply, Inc., 45 F.3d 1550, 1557, 33
U.S.P.Q 2d 1496, 1500 (Fed. Cit. 1995) (“The determination of the issue of inequitable conduct . . . is within the
district court’s discretion . . . . Thus the district court’s ruling on the issue of inequitable conduct will be affirmed
unless it was based on a clearly erroneous finding of fact or a misinterpretation or misapplication of law, or
manifested a clear error of judgment.” (citations omitted)); A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960
F.2d 1020, 1039, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1333 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (en banc) (“An appellate court, however, may set aside
a discretionary decision if the decision rests on an erroneous interpretation of the law or on clearly erroneous factual
underpinnings. If such error is absent, the determination can be overturned only if the trial court’s decision
represents an unreasonable judgment in weighing relevant factors.” (citations omitted)).
159 Signtech USA Ltd. v. Vutek Inc., 174 F.3d 1352, 1356, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1372, 1374 (Fed. Cit. 1999).
160 Id.
161 49 F.3d 1551, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 2005 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
162 Id at 1558, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d at 2010.
163 Graco, Inc. v. Binks Mfg. Co., 60 F.3d 785, 795, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1255, 1263 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
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3. Explanation
The Federal Circuit is willing to scrutinize the trial tribunal’s decision for reasons to
support its exercise of discretion.164 Stated negatively, the Federal Circuit will not tolerate an
exercise of discretion when the trial tribunal fails to explain its reasons. Findings adequate to
permit meaningful review of the trial court’s exercise of discretion are essential.165 The Federal
Circuit has an institutional interest in reviewability that demands articulation of the trial
tribunal’s reasons. Absent reasons on the record, the Federal Circuit has no basis for its review.
Insistence on detailed fact-findings, for example, may help to transfer substantial portions of the
institutional responsibility for a correct decision to the court of appeals—regardless of the abuse
of discretion category for the standard of review. The Federal Circuit has said, for example, that
denial of relief without any justifying reason is not an exercise of discretion; it is an abuse of
discretion.166
Thus, the trial tribunal must provide reasons to support its exercise of discretion. How
detailed and thorough must those reasons be? The answer to that question is uncertain. The
Supreme Court’s answer may be that a somewhat less than detailed explanation is acceptable,
but there at least needs to be some kind of explanation from the court.
In Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp.,167 the Supreme Court held that, although a
determination of sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 involves both factual and
legal issues, all aspects of the Rule 11 determination are reviewed for an abuse of discretion.168
That deferential standard is appropriate, the Court held, because “the district court is better
situated than the court of appeals to marshal the pertinent facts and apply the fact-dependent
legal standard mandated by Rule 11.”169 The Court also noted that sanctions are often sought in
cases in which they are manifestly unwarranted, and it would impose an undue burden on district
courts to require a detailed explanation for the denial of sanctions in every case. When the
requesting party makes a strong showing that Rule 11 violations may have occurred, however,
the district court should provide some explanation for disregarding the proffered showing.
The Federal Circuit has answered the question of how detailed and thorough the trial
tribunal’s reasons must be to support its exercise of discretion with a similar, and perhaps
appropriate, lack of precision. The appellate court has required an adequate explanation for an
exercise of discretion. For example, in S. Bravo Systems, Inc. v. Containment Technologies
Corp.,170 the Federal Circuit held that a district court abused its discretion by denying a party’s
164 See, e.g., Townsend v. Consulting Corp., 929 F.2d 1358, 1366 (9th Cir. 1990) (“We must know to what we
defer; when we are not certain of the district court’s reasoning, or when we cannot discern whether the district court
considered the relevant factors, we must remand.”). Although the Federal Circuit will try to discern from the trial
court’s opinion the basis for its decision, such discernment cannot be made from “a naked phrase for which no basis
is set forth.” Fromson v. Western Litho Plate & Supp. Co., 853 F.2d 1568, 1570, 7 U.S.P.Q.2d 1606, 1608 (Fed.
Cir. 1988).
165 See, e.g., S.C. Johnson & Sons, Inc. v. Carter-Wallace, Inc., 781 F.2d 198, 201, 228 U.S.P.Q. 367, 369 (Fed.
Cir. 1986).
166 Kalman v. Berlyn Corp., 914 F.2d 1473, 1480, 16 U.S.P.Q.2d 1093, 1098 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (quoting Ondis v.
Barrows, 538 F.2d 904, 909 (1st Cir. 1976)).
167 496 U.S. 384 (1990).
168 Id. at 405.
169 Id. at 402.
170 96 F.3d 1372, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1140 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
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Rule 11 motion without adequate explanation.171 Consequently, the Federal Circuit remanded
the case to the district court for further consideration of the motion.172
The S. Bravo Systems, Inc. holding raises another important point. A victory in securing
a reversal from the Federal Circuit on the basis that the trial tribunal failed to explain its exercise
of discretion may prove hollow. The usual result will be a remand to the trial tribunal for a
statement of its reasons, which is what occurred. In Transmatic, Inc. v. Gulton Industries,
Inc.,173 the Federal Circuit held that the district court “failed to support its damage award [which
is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard] with sufficiently comprehensive factual
findings pursuant to Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.”174 Accordingly, the
appellate court vacated the district court’s damage award and remanded for the district court to
make further factual findings and, if appropriate, to reconsider the amount of the award.175
III. Why Is It Never Black and White?
A. Mixed Questions of Law and Fact
Questions of law receive strict, non-deferential, de novo appellate review; questions of
fact receive the more deferential clearly erroneous (judge factfinding) or substantial evidence
(jury fact-finding) standards of review. Thus, the type of issue under review, law versus fact,
helps to determine the standard of review. Implicit in selecting a standard of review is a crucial
policy decision: Whether the trial court, that deals with questions of fact, or the appellate court,
that deals with questions of law, is better suited to decide a particular issue in a case.
At first blush, the determination of what is fact and what is law appears easy. Generally,
facts are those findings that “respond to inquiries about who, when, what, and where.”176 Justice
Brennan offered more generally that questions of fact are those for which resolution is “based
ultimately on the application of the fact-finding tribunal’s experience with the mainsprings of
human conduct.”177 On the other hand, “Declarations of law are fact-free general principles that
are applicable to all, or at least to many, disputes and not simply to the one sub judice.”178 Thus,
“law” is a statement of a general principle or rule, made in advance of a case, awaiting
application to particular facts that may arise. Facts are case-specific.
The distinction between law and fact for purposes of identifying the standard of review is
often a difficult line to draw.179 In part, this is because the line “varies according to the nature of
the substantive law at issue.”180 More fundamentally, many believe that the distinction blurs
171 Id. at 1376, 40 U.S.P.Q2d at 1143.
172 Id. at 1373, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1141.
173 53 F.3d 1270, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1035 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
174 Id at 1275, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1039.
175 Id at 1272, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1037.
176 Monaghan, supra note 23, at 235.
177 Comm’r v. Duberstein, 363 U.S. 278, 289 (1960).
178 Martin B. Louis, Allocating Adjudicative Decision Making Authority Between the Trial and Appellate
Levels: A Unified View of the Scope of Review, the Judge/Jury Question, and Procedural Discretion, 64 N.C. L.
REV. 993, 994 (1986) (citations omitted); see also Francais H. Bohlen, Mixed Questions of Law and Fact, 72 U.
PA. L. REV. 111, 112 (1924); Clarence Morris, Law &Fact, 55 HARV. L. REV. 1303, 1303-04 (1942).
179 The United States Supreme Court has noted the “vexing nature” of the fact-law dichotomy and has
concluded, “We yet know of . . . [no] rule or principle that will unerringly distinguish a factual finding from a legal
conclusion.” Pullman-Standard v. Swint, 456 U.S. 273, 288 (1982).
180 Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of the United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 501 n.17 (1984).
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because “[c]haracterization of an issue . . . as fact or law for purposes of identifying a formalized
standard of review depends on the perceived need for review, not on the actual status of the
issue.”181 “The `magic’ of de novo appellate determination . . . serves not to reflect a nuanced
definition of law and fact, but to affect trial/appellate authority and . . . [when a jury is involved]
the role of the jury.”182 Judge Friendly observed that “what a court can determine better than a
jury, [is] perhaps about the only satisfactory criterion for distinguishing ‘law’ from ‘fact.’”183
Such a policy-oriented definition may sound empty, but may offer a more functional meaning
than attempts to resolve difficult institutional questions by simple resort to the definitional trump
cards law and fact. Semantics may at times be less useful than a case-based inquiry into the
appropriateness of leaving a particular question to the trial court rather than resolving it anew or
on a more generalized level. The cases support that belief. The Supreme Court has unequivocally
stated:
[T]he fact/law distinction at times has turned on a determination that, as a matter of the sound
administration of justice, one judicial actor is better positioned than another to decide the issue in
question. Where, for example … the relevant legal principle can be given meaning only through its
application to the particular circumstances of a case, the Court has been reluctant to give the trier
of fact’s conclusions presumptive force …. In contrast, other considerations often suggest the
appropriateness of resolving close questions concerning the status of an issue as one of “law” or
“fact” in favor of extending deference to the trial court.184
Courts must take care not to answer every standard of review question, which in turn
allocates who decides an issue, simply by asking who decides it. Thus, they should recognize
that even the Supreme Court’s most pragmatic approach does not abandon analytical factors, and
it acknowledges no need for policy review where there is a clear natural classification. Law-fact
often is more of a continuum than a simple duality.185
Most law-fact dilemmas boil down to an analysis of how the court treats so-called mixed
questions. In a mixed question of law and fact, the trial court has applied existing law to fact
through a process of three steps: (1) establish a fact, (2) select the applicable rule of law, and (3)
apply the law to the fact to determine whether the rule has been violated.186 Nationally, courts
are split over the proper standard of review for mixed questions of law and fact.187
181 Cooper, supra note 14, at 660; see also Paul D. Carrington, The Power of District Judges and the
Responsibility of Courts of Appeal 3 GA. L. REV. 507, 518 (1969) (“ [F]indings of fact may be defined as the class
of decisions we choose to leave to the trier of fact subject only to limited review, while conclusions of law are the
class of decisions which reviewers choose to make for themselves without deference to the judgment of the trial
forum.”).
182 Lough v. Brunswick Corp., 103 F.3d 1517, 1521, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1385, 1388 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
183 United States v. J.B. Williams Co., 498 F.2d 414, 431 (2d Cir. 1974) (citation omitted).
184 Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 114 (1985) (citations omitted); see also United States v. Taylor, 487 U.S.
326, 336-37 (1998).
185 For a good review of questions of law versus questions of fact as related to the constitutional right to a jury
trial, especially in the context of a declaratory judgment action, see In re Lockwood, 50 F.3d 966, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d
1406 (Fed. Cir.), vacated sub nom. by, Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Lockwood, 515 U.S. 1182 (1995). The Federal Circuit
issued an published order (1) granting Lockwood’s petition for a writ of mandamus and directing the district court to
reinstate Lockwood’s jury demand, and (2) declining a suggestion for rehearing en banc. Id. at 980, 33 U.S.P.Q 2d
at 1417-18. See also the dissenting opinion by Judges Nies, Archer, and Plager from the denial of the suggestion for
rehearing en banc. Id. at 980-90, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1908-16.
186 See In re Brana, 51 F.3d 1560, 1568, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1436, 1443 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (quoting Campbell v. Merit
Sys. Prot. Bd., 27 F.3d 1560, 1565 (Fed. Cit. 1994)).
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One approach to mixed questions avoids generalizations about the application of law to
facts; it breaks the mixed questions down into unmixed halves of fact and law. It simplifies the
inquiry by making it a two-step analysis and separating the analysis into two groups that are
clearer than one blended conclusion. The Federal Circuit has adopted this approach, and tends to
break down a number of inquiries into law and fact elements and then applies separate standards
of review to each element. Using this analysis, appellate courts may avoid the inconsistent
characterizations that have resulted from viewing the mixed question as a unified entity. Of
course, because the facts may be dispositive of an ultimate issue such as validity, a mixed
question, in that sense it is an over statement to say that validity, a legal conclusion, is always
reviewed de novo.
In Dennison Manufacturing Co. v. Panduit Corp.,188 the Supreme Court offered the
Federal Circuit a unique opportunity to foray into the gray area 1 presented by mixed questions
of law and fact when faced with the problem of assessing the obviousness of a patented
invention. The district court held the patent in suit invalid on the ground that the invention
would have been obvious to a person skilled in the art at the time of the invention.189 The
Federal Circuit reversed, without mentioning the clearly erroneous standard or explaining why
that standard was inapplicable.190 The Supreme Court remanded to the Federal Circuit for a
statement of its “informed opinion on the complex issue of the degree to which the obviousness
determination is one of fact.”191
On remand, the Federal Circuit reaffirmed its rule that a determination of obviousness is
a conclusion of law subject to independent review, without deference to Rule 52(a), although that
conclusion is based upon underlying factual questions.192 The appellate court analyzed
functional factors, including the decisional process, a literal impression in which the inquiry
“partakes” more of law, drawn from facts, and precedent, citing the circuits and scholars and
analyzing previous Supreme Court dicta. Perhaps the most important part of its opinion was the
observation that treating the question as one of law would “facilitate a consistent application of
[the patent] statute in the courts and in the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).”193 A major
purpose of conferring jurisdiction over appeals in patent cases on the Federal Circuit was to
reduce the wide variations in patent law that had emerged from review by the regional circuits.194
With regard to judgment calls, those questions that fall “[s]omewhere near the middle of the factlaw
spectrum,” this court has recognized “the falseness of the fact-law dichotomy, since the
determination at issue, involving as it does the application of a general legal standard to particular
facts, is probably most realistically described as neither of fact nor law, but mixed.”
Brana, 51 F.3d at 1568, 34 U.S.P.Q 2d at 1443.
187 Evan Ben Lee, Principled Decision Making and the Proper Role of Federal Appellate Courts: The Mixed
Questions Conflict, 64 S. CAL. L. REV. 235, 235-36 (1991).
188 475 U.S. 809, 229 U.S.P.Q. 478 (1986).
189 Panduit Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 774 F.2d 1082, 1086-90, 227 U.S.P.Q. 337, 339-41 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
190 Id. at 1102, 227 U.S.P.Q. at 351.
191 Dennison, 475 U.S. at 811, 229 U.S.P.Q. at 479.
192 Panduit Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 810 F.2d 1561, 1565-66, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1593, 1594-95 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
193 Id. at 1567, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1596. See generally Maureen McGirr, Note, Panduit Corp. v. Dennison
Manufacturing Co.: De Novo Review and the Federal Circuits Application of the Clearly Erroneous Standard 36
Am. U. L. REV. 963 (1987).
194 HOWARD T. MARKEY, THE FIRST Two THOUSAND DAYS, REPORT OF THE UNITED STATES
COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT, 1982-1988, at 2-4 (1988).
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Consideration of the congressional desire to achieve national uniformity in determining the scope
of review seems entirely appropriate.
The determination of obviousness is just one example of many mixed issues that the
Federal Circuit characterizes as a legal conclusion based upon underlying factual inquiries.195
The court consistently separates the analysis of such issues into two steps: the legal conclusion
is reviewed under the de novo standard, and the factual inquiries are reviewed under a more
deferential standard of review. As another example, consider the determination of whether an
invention was placed on sale more than one year before a patent application covering the
invention was filed. If so, the inventor is not entitled to a patent.196 The Federal Circuit has
stated: “The ultimate determination that a product was placed on sale under section 102(b) is a
question of law, based on underlying facts. We review the ultimate determination de novo, but
any subsidiary fact findings must be reviewed, in this case, for clear error.197
B. Mixed Questions of Fact and Discretion
As it does for mixed questions of fact and law, the Federal Circuit’s approach to mixed
questions of fact and discretion avoids generalizations about the application of discretion to
facts; it breaks the mixed questions down into unmixed halves of fact and discretion. Because it
is an equitable issue, for example, the ultimate determination of inequitable conduct is
committed to the discretion of the trial court, and is reviewed by the Federal Circuit for abuse of
discretion.198 Establishing that inequitable conduct occurred during prosecution of a patent
requires proof by clear and convincing evidence of two underlying facts: that a misrepresentation
or omission was material, and that the patentee acted with intent to deceive.199 Although the
ultimate determination of whether inequitable conduct occurred is reviewed under the abuse of
discretion standard, the question of whether the trial judge correctly found the existence of these
underlying facts is reviewed under the traditional standard for fact finding, the clearly erroneous
standard.200
Another issue that mixes fact finding with discretionary determinations is the
determination of patent infringement damages. The amount of a prevailing party’s damages for
patent infringement is a finding of fact.201 “However, certain subsidiary decisions underlying a
damage theory are discretionary with the court, such as the choice of an accounting method for
determining profit margin or the methodology for arriving at a reasonable royalty. Such
decisions are, of course, reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard.”202 Note that the
Federal Circuit emphasized that the trial tribunal does not have the discretion to choose between
lost profits damages or a reasonable royalty as the basis for an award; that it is not choosing
195 See Appendix.
196 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) (1994).
197 Ferag AG v. Quipp Inc., 45 F.3d 1562, 1566, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1512, 1514-15 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (citation
omitted).
198 Kingsdown Med. Consultants v. Hollister Inc., 863 F.2d 867, 876, 9 U.S.P.Q2d 1384, 1392 (Fed. Cir. 1988)
(en banc).
199 Id. at 872, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1389.
200 Baxter Healthcare Corp. v. Spectramed, Inc., 49 F.3d 1575, 1584, 34 U.S.P.Q2d 1120, 1127 (Fed. Cir.
1995).
201 SmithKline Diagnostics, Inc. v. Helena Labs. Corp., 926 F.2d 1161, 1164, 17 U.S.P.Q.2d 1922, 1924-25
(Fed. Cir. 1991).
202 Id., 17 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1925.
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methodology. Rather, if a patent owner seeks and proves lost profits, then he or she is entitled to
an award reflecting the amount of profits lost.203
Still another issue that mixes fact-finding with discretionary determinations is the
decision of whether to award attorney fees. “In considering an award of attorney fees, ‘[t] he
district court must first determine whether the case is exceptional, a factual determination that we
review for clear error; if the case is found to be exceptional, the court must then determine
whether attorney fees should be awarded, a determination that we review for abuse of
discretion.’”204 Thus, for all such issues, the Federal Circuit breaks the mixed questions down
into unmixed halves of fact and discretion.
IV. You Mean There’s More Gray?
The review standard should also include within it any burdens or presumptions from the
substantive law applicable to the issue under review at the trial level.205 Judge Nies, former
Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit, directly tackled the interplay between standards of proof at
the trial level and standards of review at the appellate level, at least with respect to questions of
fact.206 Judge Nies did so because she perceived “a recurring confusion” between the different
standards.207 Because her perception of such confusion was and, unfortunately, remains entirely
accurate, the thorough analysis provided by Judge Nies is highly recommended. Judge Nies’
colleagues on the Federal Circuit have turned often to that analysis.208
Standards of proof are typically judge-made requirements shaped in accordance with
considerations of due process, the importance of certain facts, or both. The function of a standard
of proof is “to instruct the factfinder concerning the degree of confidence our society thinks he
should have in the correctness of factual conclusions for a particular type of adjudication.”209
Thus, the standard serves to allocate the risk of error between the litigants and to indicate the
relative importance attached by society to the ultimate decision. The three standards of proof
generally recognized for facts at the trial level are proof by a preponderance of the evidence,
proof by clear and convincing evidence, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
203 Id at 1164 65 n.2, 17 U.S.PQ.2d at 1925 n.2.
204 Union Pac. Res. Co. v. Chesapeake Energy Corp., 236 F.3d 684, 694, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1293, 1299 (Fed. Cir.
2001) (quoting Enzo Biochem, Inc. v. Calgene, Inc., 188 F.3d 1362, 1370, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1129, 1134-35 (Fed. Cir.
1999)).
205 CHILDRESS & DAVIS, supra note 4, § 3.06, at 3-61.
206 SSIH Equip. S.A. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 718 F.2d 365, 379-83, 218 U.S.P.Q. 678, 690-93
(Fed. Cir. 1983) (Nies, J., additional views).
207 Id. at 379, 218 U.S.P.Q. at 690.
208 A partial list of the Federal Circuit cases (written by judges other than Judge Nies) which have cited Judge
Nies’s additional views in SSIH includes: In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559,156465,31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1820 (Fed. Cir.
1994); A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960 F.2d 1020, 1045, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1338 (Fed. Cir.
1992) (en banc); Buildex Inc. v. Kason Indus. Inc., 849 F.2d 1461, 1463, 7 U.S.P.Q.2d 1325, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 1988);
Luciano Pisoni Fabbrica Accessori Instrument Musicali v. United States, 837 F.2d 465,467 (Fed. Cir. 1988);
Jaskiewicz v. Mossinghoff, 822 F.2d 1053, 1058, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1294, 1299 (Fed. Cir. 1987); Akzo N. V. v. United
States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 808 F.2d 1471, 1479, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1241, 1245 (Fed. Cir. 1986); Surface Tech. Inc. v.
United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 801 F.2d 1336, 1340 n.8,231 U.S.P.Q. 192,196 n.8 (Fed. Cir. 1986); DeGeorge
v. Bernier, 768 F.2d 1318, 1321, 226 U.S.P.Q. 758,760 (Fed. Cit. 1985); In re Caveney, 761 F.2d 671, 674,226
U.S.P.Q. 1, 3 (Fed. Cir. 1985); and Atlantic Sugar, Ltd. v. United States, 744 F.2d 1556, 1562 n.23 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
209 In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 370 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring).
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In civil cases, litigants are generally required to prove facts by a preponderance of the
evidence.210 Such evidence is the rock bottom at the fact-finding level of civil litigation.211
Because society has minimal concern with the outcome of most civil suits, which involve only
money, the plaintiffs burden of proof is a mere preponderance of the evidence—evidence which
is more convincing to the trier than the opposing evidence. The litigants thus share the risk of
error in approximately equal fashion.
In a criminal case, the interests of the defendant are magnified so that they are protected
by a standard of proof designed to exclude as nearly as possible the likelihood of an erroneous
finding of fact. Society imposes on itself almost the entire risk of error. Thus, the state must
prove the guilt of an accused defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.
The clear and convincing standard of proof of facts is an intermediate standard that lies
between beyond a reasonable doubt and a preponderance of the evidence.212 Although not
susceptible to precise definition, clear and convincing evidence has been described as evidence
that produces in the mind of the trier of fact “an abiding conviction that the truth of [the] factual
contentions are ‘highly probable.’”213 This intermediate standard applies in civil cases involving
allegations of fraud or some other quasi-criminal wrongdoing by the defendant. The interests at
stake are more substantial than mere loss of money and, therefore, the risk to the defendant of
receiving erroneously a tarnished reputation warrants an increase in the plaintiffs burden of
proof.214
The interrelationship between the two standards of proof applicable in civil appeals heard
by the Federal Circuit can be illustrated by reviewing the process of obtaining a patent from the
USPTO and enforcing that patent against an infringer in a district court. Patents are entitled to a
presumption of validity.215 A party asserting patent invalidity must support the assertion of facts,
therefore, by clear and convincing evidence.216 In contrast, patent applications are not entitled to
the procedural advantages of § 282, and the standard of proof required of the USPTO to
properly reject claims of a patent application is necessarily lower than that required to invalidate
claims of an issued patent—the USPTO must meet only the lower preponderance of the evidence
standard in rejecting claims.217 When the USPTO rejects claims based on a violation of the duty
of disclosure,218 however, clear and convincing evidence is required.219 A higher standard for
proving inequitable conduct is warranted due to the seriousness of such alleged wrongdoing.220
210 A.C. Aukerman Co., 960 F.2d at 1045, 22 U.S.P.Q2d at 1338; 9 JOHN HENRY WIGMORE, WIGMORE
ON EVIDENCE § 2498 (Chadbourn ed. 1981).
211 SSIH Equip., 718 F.2d at 380, 218 U.S.P.Q. at 690.
212 Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 423-24 (1979); see also SSIH Equip., 718 F.2d at 380, 218 U.S.P.Q at
691 (Nies, J., additional views).
213 Buildex, Inc. v. Kason Indus., Inc., 849 F.2d 1461, 1463, 7 U.S.P.Q.2d 1325, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (quoting
Colorado v. New Mexico, 467 U.S. 310,316 (1984); MCCORMICK ON EVIDENCE § 340, at 796 (Edward W.
Cleary, ed., 3d ed. 1984)).
214 The Federal Circuit has adopted the preponderance of the evidence standard as the appropriate evidentiary
standard to establish the facts relating to the laches issue. It has adopted the same standard in connection with the
proof of equitable estoppel factors, “absent special circumstances, such as fraud or intentional misconduct.”
Aukerman, 960 F.2d at 1046, 22 U.S.P.Q2d at 1339.
215 See 35 U.S.C. § 282 (1994).
216 Ryco Inc. v. Ag-Bag Corp., 857 F.2d 1418, 1423, 8 U.S.P.Q.2d 1323, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (“Under 35
U.S.C. § 282, a patent is presumed valid, and the party attacking validity has the burden of proving facts supporting
a conclusion of invalidity by clear and convincing evidence.”).
217 In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559,1563, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1820 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (stating that preponderance of
the evidence is the standard that must be met by the USPTO in making rejections).
218 See 37 C.F.R. § 1.56 (2001).
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The application of the wrong quantum of proof is an error of law subject to plenary
review.221 For example, in DeGeorge v. Bernier,222 the Federal Circuit vacated a decision by the
BPAI because it applied an erroneously high standard of proof (a standard above the correct
clear and convincing standard that is closer to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard) to the
party who copied claims to provoke an interference.223
The nature of the questions to be resolved affects the standard of proof in the same way
as the standards of review. The preponderance of the evidence standard applied to most issues in
civil litigation represents, for example, a varying standard of persuasion having a variety of
levels.224 Taken together, the standards of proof, like the standards of review, form a continuum
rather than discrete categories.225
In reality, application of the standard of review varies according to the standard of proof
imposed at trial. The Supreme Court stated that application of a directed verdict standard should
be adjusted to reflect that more evidence is required to persuade a rational jury if the proposition
must be proved by clear and convincing evidence than if the proposition must be proved only by
a preponderance of the evidence.226 The policies that justify an enhanced standard of proof apply
equally to justify a strict standard of review.227
An agency, such as the Veterans Administration, is required to prove its case before the
Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) in an action to establish an employee’s misconduct by a
preponderance of the evidence.228 The relevant regulation defines preponderance of the evidence
as: “That degree of relevant evidence that a reasonable person, considering the record as a
whole, would accept as sufficient to find that a contested fact is more likely to be true than
219 In re Caveney, 761 F.2d 671, 674, 226 U.S.P.Q. 1, 3 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
220 Id. at 674 n.4, 226 U.S.P.Q. at 3 n.4.
221 Gargoyles, Inc. v. United States, 113 F.3d 1572, 1577 n.4, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1760, 1765 n.4 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
222 768 F.2d 1318, 226 U.S.P.Q. 758 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
223 Id. at 1321, 226 U.S.P.Q at 760; see also Jamesbury Corp. v. Litton Indust. Prods. Inc., 756 F.2d 1556, 1559,
225 U.S.P.Q. 253, 255 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (reversing a district court judgment of patent invalidity because the district
court committed legal error when it instructed the jury that anticipation must be proven by a preponderance of the
evidence rather than by clear and convincing evidence).
224 As a simple illustration, Professor Cooper points out that “it is more important that the defendant be correctly
identified as one who had some involvement with the events in suit than it is that each element of damages be
precisely determined following a proper determination of liability.” Cooper, supra note 14, at 656.
225 Perhaps in contrast to the shifting nature of standards of review, however, “[o]nce the standard of proof has
been determined . . . it applies without regard to the circumstances of a particular case. Permitting [an] exception . . .
could significantly undermine the designated standard of proof, since litigants always can assert, and sometimes
effectively, that their cases involve special circumstances.” Hess v. Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 106 F.3d
976, 980, 41 U.S.P.Q2d 1782, 1786 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
226 Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477, U.S. 242, 254 (1985) (stating that in assessing whether the defendants
are entitled to summary judgment, the court must view the evidence “through the prism of the substantive
evidentiary burden” [e.g., clear and convincing evidence]); Glaverbel Societe Anonyme v. Northlake Mktg. &
Supply, Inc., 45 F.3d 1550, 1554, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1496, 1498 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“When trial is to the court, the district
court’s finding with respect to anticipation is reviewed for clear error, with due regard to the burden and standard of
proof.”); Klein v. Peterson, 866 F.2d 412, 414, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1558, 1559 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (The question on appeal is
“whether a reasonable mind could have found the evidence of misconduct clear and convincing.”).
227 Pall Corp. v. Micron Separations, Inc., 66 F.3d 1211, 1221, 36 U.S.P.Q.2d 1225, 1232 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
(stating that willfulness finding requires proof by clear and convincing evidence because it is a punitive finding).
228 5 U.S.C. § 7701(c) (1994).
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untrue.”229 The MSPB may not sustain an agency decision unsupported by substantial evidence
if the action is in Chapter 43.
230
Therefore, a true standard of review takes into consideration, at least implicitly, the
burden under which the trial tribunal first decided the issue. This is because the process of
review realistically asks how the trial tribunal performed its initial job; review necessarily
considers the assumptions the trial tribunal understood and applied. Trial burdens are relevant in
applying Rule 52, for example, in that the judgment whether the court was clearly erroneous may
include consideration of the appropriate burdens used below at trial.231 Thus, the substantial
evidence review test offers various degrees of deference depending on the trial tribunal’s burden
of proof. As the Federal Circuit has stated,
When reviewing a factual finding, a reviewing court must consider the quantum of proof required
to prove the fact at trial in applying its standard of review. Thus, when this court reviews the
factual findings underlying the ITC’s conclusion of invalidity for “substantial evidence,” we must
review those findings to ascertain whether they were established by evidence that a reasonable
person might find dear and convincing. We must determine not only that the findings were
satisfactorily established, but also whether those findings form an adequate predicate for the legal
determination of invalidity.232
In some cases, confusion may arise because the Federal Circuit applies the same
substantive test on review that the district court earlier applied. This occurs, for example, when
both the court of appeals and the district court ask whether a genuine dispute over material facts
precludes summary judgment. Each court reviews the preliminary record and determines whether
the test of Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is met.233 The appellate court’s
standard of review is actually de novo, however, because it arrives at its substantive decision
irrespective of the trial court’s decision.234
V. At What Stage Are We?
The standard of review may vary depending upon the route by which the question reaches
the Federal Circuit including, without limitation, such procedural routes as summary judgment,
motions for dismissal, preliminary injunction motions, bench trial or jury trials, motions for relief
from a final judgment, contempt proceedings, or motions for sanctions. Some of these
procedural aspects of a case have been addressed above during the course of discussion of the
various standards of review. They are briefly collected below to illustrate how the stage of trial
independently serves as an additional factor in defining the scope of appellate review.
229 5 C.F.R. § 1201.56(c)(2) (2000).
230 See Lovshin v. Dep’t of Navy, 767 F.2d 826,840-43 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (en banc) (stating that chapter 43,
covering unacceptable performance, does not provide the exclusive procedures for performance-based adverse
actions by an agency covered by Chapter 75).
231 Cooper, supra note 14, at 650 (“Application of the clear error standard also should vary according to the
standard of proof imposed at trial.”).
232 Checkpoint Sys., Inc. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 54 F.3d 756, 761 n.5, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1042, 1046
n.5 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
233 Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-26 (1986).
234 See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 975, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
(en banc) (“On appeal, we review de novo the correctness of the district court’s grant of JMOL by reapplying the
JMOL standard.”), aff’d 517 U.S. 470 (1996).
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A. Pretrial
Of course, the trial tribunal may decide a case, or at least certain issues involved in a
case, before a full trial on the merits. Summary judgment is appropriate, for example, when “the
pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving
party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”235 The Federal Circuit applies the same legal
standard as that applied by the trial court in determining whether summary judgment was
appropriate.236 In reviewing a denial of a motion for summary judgment, the Federal Circuit
gives considerable deference to the trial court, and “will not disturb the trial court’s denial of
summary judgment unless we find that the court has indeed abused its discretion.”237 Neither a
denial of summary judgment nor a reversal of summary judgment on appeal are dispositive;
these decisions merely remit the case for trial.238 On the other hand, the Federal Circuit
undertakes plenary or de novo review of a grant of summary judgment, which does finally decide
at least an issue if not the entire case.239
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) provides that, in a non-jury case, the defendant
may move, after the plaintiff has presented its case, for a dismissal on the grounds that the facts
and the law show no right to relief.240 The trial judge evaluates and resolves conflicts of
evidence and credibility, and findings entered following such a motion are “reviewed under the
same clearly erroneous standard as are findings entered at the close of all the evidence.”241 “A
dismissal pursuant to Rule 41(b) is deemed to be on the merits unless the dismissing court
specifies otherwise.242
The injunctive orders reviewed by the Federal Circuit are usually those granting or
denying preliminary relief before a trial on the merits. The district court is given broad
discretion, pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 283, in determining whether the facts of a case warrant an
injunction and in determining the scope of the injunctive relief.243 The grant, denial, or
modification of an injunction under § 283 is reviewed by the Federal Circuit under an abuse of
discretion standard.244
235 FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-26 (1986).
236 Nike Inc. v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 43 F.3d 644, 646, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1038, 1039 (Fed. Cit. 1994);
Imperial Van Lines Int’l, Inc. v. United States, 821 F.2d 634, 637 (Fed. Cit. 1987).
237 Elekta Instrument S.A. v. O.U.R Scientific Int’l, Inc., 214 F.3d 1302, 1306, 54 U.S.P.Q2d 1910, 1912 (Fed.
Cir. 2000) (quoting Suntiger, Inc., v. Scientific Research Finding Group, 189 F.3d 1327, 1333, 51 U.S.P.Q2d 1811,
1815 (Fed. Cir. 1999)).
238 SRI Int’l v. Matsushita Elec. Corp. of Am., 775 F.2d 1107, 1116, 227 U.S.P.Q. 577, 582 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
239 Scaltech Inc. v. Retec/Tetra, 178 F.3d 1378, 1381, 51 U.S.P.Q2d 1055, 1057 (Fed. Cit. 1998) (“We
undertake plenary review of a grant of summary judgment.”); Petrolite Corp. v. Baker Hughes Inc., 96 F.3d 1423,
1425,40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1201,1203 (Fed. Cir.1996) (“We review a district court’s grant of summary judgment de
novo.”).
240 FED. R. Civ. P. 41(b).
241 Lemelson v. United States, 752 F.2d 1538,1547, 224 U.S.P.Q 526,530-31 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
242 Kearns v. General Motors Corp., 94 F.3d 1553, 1555, 39 U.S.P.Q2d 1949, 1951 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
243 35 U.S.C. § 283 (1994 & Supp. II 1997).
244 Ortho Pharm. Corp. v. Smith, 959 F.2d 936, 945, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1119, 1127 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
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B. Bench Versus Jury Trial
The standard by which the appellate court reviews the judgment of a district court differs
from the standard applied to a jury verdict. When the judgment arises from a jury verdict, the
appellate court gives greater deference to the judgment because appellate review is more limited
as compared to review of a trial judge’s decision. The jury’s verdict must be affirmed unless the
evidence is of such quality and weight that reasonable persons in the exercise of impartial
judgment could not have returned that verdict.245 Indeed, reviewability of a jury verdict for
sufficiency of the evidence absent a post-verdict motion is extremely limited. In the Federal
Circuit, there is virtually no review, absent some post-verdict disposition either by a deferred
ruling or a motion.246
A party during a jury trial may file a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (JMOL)
after the opposing party has been fully heard on an issue and when “there is no legally sufficient
evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for [the opposing] party.”247 The moving party
may renew its request for JMOL, assuming that it was initially denied, by filing a motion no later
than ten days after the entry of judgment.248 The same reasonable standard applies whether or
not the trial judge grants or denies the motion and whether or not the motion is decided before or
after the jury deliberates. Courts often restate their reasonableness review in terms of a test for
substantial evidence. “[I]t is clear that the courts intend no real difference in meaning or
result.”249 They present this substantial evidence test as the flip-side of review for
reasonableness. Many circuits, including the Federal Circuit, seem settled on reviewing the
whole record and, especially, rejecting a scintilla or complete absence threshold.250
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), when a motion for JMOL is made after a
verdict is returned, the court may allow the judgment to stand, order a new trial, or direct entry of
judgment as a matter of law.251 The Federal Circuit reviews the district court’s grant of JMOL
245 FED. R. Civ. P 50(a)(1).
246 Advanced Display Sys., Inc. v. Kent State Univ., 212 F.3d 1272, 1281, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1673, 1678 (Fed. Cir.
2000). “[A] party’s failure to make a motion for JMOL, see FED. R. Civ. P. 50(b), at any phase of the litigation
precludes an appellate court from reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence underlying the jury verdict.” Id.
(citations omitted). Thus, it behooves counsel to file non-frivolous motions for JMOL or for a new trial. “Where a
party fails to make a motion for JMOL at the close of the evidence, the sufficiency of the evidence underlying
presumed jury findings of fact cannot be challenged through a renewed motion for JMOL or on appeal.” Young
Dental Mfg. Co. v. Q3 Special Prods., Inc., 112 F.3d 1137, 1141, 2 U.S.P.Q.2d 1589, 1592 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
Generally, Rule 50(b) precludes a motion for JMOL after a jury’s verdict unless the motion was first presented at the
close of evidence under Rule 50(a). A narrow exception to that preclusion exists when the Rule 50(b) motion
challenges an irreconcilably inconsistent jury verdict, such as when the jury finds a broader, independent claim not
invalid but the narrower, dependent claim invalid.
247 FED. R. Civ. P. 50(a). As of December 1, 1991, Motions for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV)
and for directed verdict are now Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law (JMOL); the change in name was made to
emphasize the correlation in standards for grant of JNOV and directed verdict motions, as well as motions for
summary judgment under Rule 56, and did not change the existing standard of review. See Brooktree Corp. v.
Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., 977 F.2d 1555, 1569 n.2, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d 1410, 1421 n.2 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
248 Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b).
249 CHILDRESS & DAVIS, supra note 4, § 3.01, at 3-11.
250 Connell v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 722 F.2d 1542, 1546, 220 U.S.P.Q 193, 197 (Fed. Cir. 1983).
251 When a motion for JMOL is made under Rule 50(a), but not followed by a motion for JMOL under Rule
50(b), the appellate court that determines a jury verdict was not supported by substantial evidence ordinarily has
authority only to order a new trial. See Johnson v. N.Y., New Haven, & Hartford R.R., 344 U.S. 48, 54 (1952); see
also R.R. Dynamics, Inc. v. A. Stucki Co., 727 F.2d 1506, 1511, 220 U.S.P.Q. 929, 934 (Fed. Cir. 1984); Smith v.
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“by reapplying the JMOL standard. After a jury verdict, the standard involves two inquiries.
First, the court determines whether substantial evidence supports the jury’s express or implied
factual findings. Second, the court determines the correctness of any legal conclusions implied
in the verdict.”252 Similarly, “[i]n reviewing the trial judge’s denial of [a party’s] motion for
JMOL, [the judges of the Federal Circuit] keep in mind [their] standard of review, which is the
same standard that was applicable at the trial court level.”253 The Federal Circuit cautions that
“granting a JMOL for the party bearing the burden of proof is reserved for `extreme’ cases,” but
a non-movant party’s own admissions or other evidence it presents may support the moving
party’s JMOL motion.254
The court may grant anew trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, “even where
substantial evidence supports the verdict, if the verdict is against the clear weight of
evidence.”255 Whether the trial was conducted before the bench or a jury, the question of
whether a new trial motion should be granted turns on “whether an error occurred in the conduct
of the trial that was so grievous as to have rendered the trial unfair.”256 The appellate court may
inquire into the action of the trial court on a motion for new trial only under certain
circumstances.257 “Because the denial of a motion for a new trial is a procedural issue not unique
to patent law, [the Federal Circuit often applies] the law of the regional circuit where the appeal
from the district court would normally lie.”258 Typically, however, the Federal Circuit reviews
the grant or denial of a motion for a new trial under the abuse of discretion standard.259
In a jury trial, the court may require the jury to return a special verdict in the form of a
special written finding on each issue of fact. The court may also “submit to the jury . . . written
TransWorld Drilling Co., 772 F.2d 157 (5th Cir. 1985); 5A J. MOORE & J. LUCAS, MOORE’s FEDERAL
PRACTICE 150.12 (2d ed. 1988).
252 Motorola, Inc. v. Interdigital Tech. Corp., 121 F.3d 1461, 1466, 43 U.S.P.Q2d 1481, 1484 (Fed. Cir. 1997)
(citations omitted); see also Nobelpharma AB v. Implant Innovations, Inc., 141 F.3d 1059, 1064, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d
1097, 1101 (Fed. Cir. 1998). Affirming the district court’s denial of a JMOL and a motion for a new trial following
the jury verdict imposing antitrust liability on the patentee, the Federal Circuit stated: “We review a district court’s
grant of a motion for JMOL under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1) de novo by reapplying the standard applicable at the
district court.” Nobelpharma, 141 F.3d at 1059, 46 U.S.P.Q2d at 1101.
253 Dawn Equip. Co. v. Kentucky Farms Inc., 140 F.3d 1009, 1014, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1109, 1111 (Fed. Cir. 1998);
see also SmithKline Diagnostics, Inc. v. Helena Labs. Corp., 926 F.2d 1161, 1164-65 n.2, 17 U.S.P.Q2d 1922, 1925
n.2 (Fed. Cir. 1991) (“The damage award, thus, is reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard when fixed by the
court and under the more restrictive substantial evidence standard when we review a denial of a motion for JNOV.”)
(citing SSIH Equip. S.A. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 718 F.2d 365,38 183, 218 U.S.P.Q. 678, 690-93
(Fed. Cir. 1983) (Nies, J., additional views)).
254 Nobelpharma, 141 F.3d at 1065,46 U.S.P.Q2d at 1102 (Fed. Cit. 1998) (quoting 9A CHARLES ALLEN
WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 2535, at 325 (2d ed. 1994));
see generally Christopher R. Benson, Jury Decisions, in FEDERAL CIRCUIT PATENT LAW DECISIONS
(Kenneth E. Krosin ed., 2d ed. 1992).
255 Litton Sys., Inc. v. Honeywell, Inc., 84 F.3d 1559, 1576,39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 133233 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
256 Orthokinetics, Inc. v. Safety Travel Chairs, Inc., 806 F.2d 1565, 1581, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1081, 1092 (Fed. Cir.
1986) (quoting DMI, Inc. v. Derre & Co., 802 F.2d 421, 427, 231 U.S.P.Q. 276, 280 (Fed. Cir. 1986)).
257 Cabot Corp. v. United States, 788 F.2d 1539,1542-43 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (holding that the trial court’s order
was not a final, appealable order, therefore the appellate court could not review it); Fairmount Glass Works v. Coal
Co., 287 U.S. 474, 482 (1932).
258 WMS Gaming Inc. v. Int’l Game Tech., 184 F.3d 1339, 1361, 51 U.S.P.Q.2d 1385, 1401 (Fed. Cir. 1999).
259 Advanced Display Sys., Inc. v. Kent State Univ., 212 F.3d 1272, 1284, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1673, 1681 (Fed. Cir.
2000) (“This court reviews a denial of a motion for a new trial under the abuse of discretion standard.”); Litton Sys.,
Inc. v. Honeywell, Inc., 87 F.3d 1559, 1576, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1333 (Fed. Cit. 1996) (“The decision to grant or
deny a new trial rests with the sound discretion of the trial court.”).
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interrogatories on one or more issues of fact, the decision of which is necessary to a verdict.”260
The Supreme Court has endorsed and encouraged the use of special verdict interrogatories as
“very useful in facilitating review, uniformity, and possibly post-verdict judgments as a matter of
law.”261 The Federal Circuit strongly recommends use of these techniques,262 especially in
complex cases.263
C. Post Trial
On motion and upon such terms as are just, the district court may relieve a party or a
party’s legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for a variety of reasons
enumerated in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). In reviewing rulings under Rule 60(b), the
Federal Circuit generally defers to the law of the regional circuit because “such rulings
commonly involve procedural matters that are not unique to patent law.”264 When the district
court’s Rule 60(b) determination turns on substantive matters unique to patent law, however, the
Federal Circuit applies its own law.265 The grant or denial of a motion for relief from judgment
under Rule 60(b) is discretionary under Federal Circuit law, and the standard of review is abuse
of discretion.266 The Federal Circuit applies Rule 60(b) most liberally to judgments in default,
and “even a slight abuse [of discretion] may justify a reversal” of a denial of a party’s motion to
be relieved from a default judgment.267
The Federal Circuit set forth a standard for deciding whether an accused infringer is in
contempt of an injunction entered under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, which prohibited
future infringement, in KSM Fastening Systems, Inc. v. H.A. Jones Co.268 Essentially, to show
contempt, the patent owner must prove by clear and convincing evidence that “the modified
device falls within the admitted or adjudicated scope of the claims and is, therefore, an
infringement.”269 A contempt proceeding is “not a sword for wounding a former infringer who
has made a good-faith effort to modify a previously adjudged or admitted infringing device to
remain in the marketplace.”270 Therefore, “the modifying party generally deserves the
opportunity to litigate the infringement question at a new trial, `particularly if expert and other
260 FED. R. Civ. P. 49.
261 Warner-Jenkinson Co. v. Hilton Davis Chem. Co., 520 U.S. 17, 39 n.8, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1865, 1875 n.8
(1997).
262 Richardson-Vicks, Inc. v. Upjohn Co., 122 F.3d 1476, 1484-85, 44 U.S.P.Q.2d 1181, 1188 (Fed. Cit. 1997)
(recommending special verdicts); Comark Communications, Inc. v. Harris Corp., 156 F.3d 1182, 1190, 48
U.S.P.Q2d 1001, 1008 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (recommending a special jury interrogatory informing the court how each
claim limitation was met, i.e., literally or by equivalents, because otherwise the defendant challenging a district
court’s denial of its motion for JMOL based on non-infringement must demonstrate why there is no substantial
evidence from which a jury could find that a particular limitation is met literally, and then demonstrate the
deficiency of the evidence on equivalents).
263 Union Oil Co. of Cal. v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 208 F.3d 989, 997, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1227, 1232 (Fed. Cir.
2000) (reiterating the Federal Circuit’s “counsel to use special verdicts in complex cases”).
264 Broyhill Furniture Indus., Inc. v. Craftmaster Furniture Corp., 12 F.3d 1080, 1082, 29 U.S.P.Q.2d 1283,
1284 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
265 Id. at 1083, 29 U.S.P.Q2d at 1285.
266 Id.
267 Info. Sys. & Networks Corp. v. United States, 994 F.2d 792, 795 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (quoting Seven Elves, Inc.
v. Eskenazi, 635 F.2d 396, 402 (5th Cir. 1981)).
268 776 F.2d 1522, 227 U.S.P.Q. 676 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
269 Id. at 1530, 227 U.S.P.Q. at 682.
270 Arbek Mfg., Inc. v. Moazzam, 55 F.3d 1567, 1570, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1670, 1671 (Fed. Cit. 1995).
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testimony subject to cross-examination would be helpful or necessary.’”271 “If there are any
substantial open issues with respect to infringement to be tried, contempt proceedings are
inappropriate.”272
Before entering a finding of contempt of an injunction in a patent infringement case, a
district court must address two, separate questions. The first is whether a contempt hearing is an
appropriate forum in which to determine whether a redesigned device infringes, or whether the
issue of infringement should be resolved in a separate infringement action.273 That decision
turns on whether the differences are such that “substantial open issues” of infringement are
raised by the new device. If contempt proceedings are appropriate, the second question is
whether the new accused device infringes.274 Whether to proceed by way of contempt rather
than supplemental complaint for violation of an injunction against patent infringement is within
the discretion of the court.275 If the correct legal standards for contempt are applied, a finding of
civil contempt invokes the clearly erroneous standard.276
All aspects of determinations to award sanctions under either Rule 11 or 28 U.S.C.
§ 1927 are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard.277 “In matters of sanctions, particular
deference is owed the trial court’s discretion, for the trial judge has viewed the matter first hand,
has considered all the circumstances, and made assessments of [witness] credibility and other
intangibles that escape the written record.”278 Sanctions pursuant to local court rules, as well as
the terms of a disciplinary order issued under the trial court’s inherent authority to sanction
attorneys for unprofessional conduct, are also reviewed for abuse of discretion.279
The Supreme Court has suggested that less searching review may be warranted “as the
trial becomes longer and more complex . . . when trial judges have lived with the controversy for
weeks or months instead of just a few hours.”280 Some courts and commentators have suggested
that a “more searching appellate review is appropriate if a trial court had adopted, essentially
verbatim, findings proposed by one party.”281 The Federal Circuit has indicated that adoption of
a party’s proposals verbatim “may increase wariness on review.”282 The Supreme Court has
271 Id. (quoting KSM, 776 F.2d at 1531, 227 U.S.P.Q at 683).
272 KSM, 776 F.2d at 1532, 227 U.S.P.Q. at 683-84.
273 Additive Controls & Measurement Sys., Inc. v. Flowdata, Inc., 154 F.3d 1345, 1349, 47 U.S.P.Q2d 1906,
1908 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (citations omitted).
274 Id, at 1349, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1908 (citations omitted). Following entry of an injunction, it is not
unreasonable for a district court to require the defendant to obtain the court’s permission before attempted sales of
modified machines. See Spindelfabrik Suessen-Schurr v. Schubert & Salzer Maschinenfabrik Aktiengesellschaft,
903 F.2d 1568, 1577, 14 U.S.P.Q 2d 1913, 1921 (Fed. Cir. 1990); Additive Controls, 154 F.3d at 1356, 47
U.S.P.Q2d at 1914.
275 KSM, 776 F.2d at 1530, 227 U.S.P.Q. at 682.
276 Preemption Devices, Inc. v. Minn. Mining & Mfg. Co., 803 F.2d 1170, 1173 n.4, 231 U.S.P.Q 297, 299 n.4
(Fed. Cir. 1986).
277 S. Bravo Sys., Inc. v. Containment Tech. Corp., 96 F.3d 1372, 1375, 40 U.S.P.Q2d 1140, 1143 (Fed. Cir.
1996) (“[A]ll aspects of the Rule 11 determination are reviewed for an abuse of discretion.”); Baldwin Hardware
Corp. v. Franksu Enterprise Corp., 78 F.3d 550, 561, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1829, 1836 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review all
aspects of a sanctions award under section 1927 for abuse of discretion.”).
278 Abbott Labs. v. Brennan, 952 F.2d 1346, 1350, 21 U.S.P.Q.2d 1192, 1196 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
279 Baldwin Hardware, 78 F.3d at 562, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1837.
280 Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 500 (1984).
281 See, e.g., Cooper, supra note 14, at 655.
282 Pentec, Inc. v. Graphic Controls Corp., 776 F.2d 309, 313, 227 U.S.P.Q 766, 768 (Fed. Cir. 1985). Arguing
such wariness is particularly warranted when the adopted findings were proposed by a party before trial. See
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stated, however, “that even when the trial judge adopts proposed findings verbatim, the findings
are those of the court and may be reversed only if clearly erroneous.”283 The Federal Circuit has
followed that statement, despite its strong criticism of verbatim adoption of a prevailing party’s
proposed findings or brief.284
VI. Where Are We?
The standard of review applied by the Federal Circuit may also be dictated, or at least
affected, by the type of court or administrative agency that conducted the proceeding under
review. Consideration of the various courts and agencies from which the Federal Circuit hears
appeals is given below. Moreover, as a matter of common sense and of human nature, the level
of appellate scrutiny may be adjusted according to the level of confidence reposed in the
particular trier-of-fact who decided the case initially. Years of experience with a particular
judge, for example, may provide a court of appeals with a basis to conclude that the judge’s
decisions are more trustworthy than those of other judges. Court observers have asserted that this
variability occurs in fact.285
A. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1295, the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over an appeal
from the decision of “the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences of the United States Patent
and Trademark Office with respect to patent applications and interferences.”286 Similarly, Under
28 U.S.C. § 1295, the court has exclusive jurisdiction over appeals from decisions of “the Under
Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and
Trademark Office or the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board with respect to applications for
registration of marks” and other proceedings under the Trademark Act of 1946.287
The standards for review of administrative agency action are set forth in the
Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 706 (1994). The Act adopts the four standards
emphasized above, in Section II, for review of court decisions. Section 706 mandates that “the
reviewing court shall decide all relevant questions of law.”288 With regard to factual
determinations, § 706 requires the reviewing court to “hold unlawful and set aside agency action,
findings and conclusions found to be (A) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or
otherwise not in accordance with law;289 . . . [or] (E) unsupported by substantial evidence in a
Lindemann Maschinenfabrik v. American Hoist & Derrick Co., 730 F.2d 1452, 1457, 221 U.S.P.Q. 481, 485 (Fed.
Cir. 1984).
283 Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 572 (1985).
284 See, e.g., FMC Corp. v. Manitowoc Corp., 835 F.2d 1411, 1413 n.1, 5 U.S.P.Q.2d 1112, 1113 n.1 (Fed. Cir.
1987) (citing Anderson, 470 U.S. at 571-73).
285 See, e.g., Cooper supra note 14, at 655 n.39 (1988) (citing FLEMING JAMES, JR. & GEOFFREY C.
HAZARD, JR., CIVIL PROCEDURE § 12.8, at 668 (3d ed. 1985)); Louis, supra note 178, at 1015-16 & n.160.
286 28 U.S.C. § 1295 (a)(4)(A) (1994).
287 Id. at § 1295 (a)(4)(B); see also 35 U.S.C. § 141(1994); 15 U.S.C. § 1071(a)(1) (1994).
288 5 U.S.C. § 706 (2000).
289 Id. at § 706(2)(A). “Agency action [USPTO in refusing late payment of maintenance fee] may be set aside if
it is ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.’ Id. The scope of review
under the arbitrary and capricious standard is narrow and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the
agency.” Ray v. Lehman, 55 F.3d 606, 610, 34 U.S.P.Q2d 1786, 1789 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
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case subject to sections 556 or 557 of this title or otherwise reviewed on the record of an agency
hearing provided by statute.”290
As with all reviews of agency legal conclusions, the Federal Circuit reviews the
USPTO’s legal conclusions de novo.291 In contradiction to the APA, however, the Federal
Circuit reviewed fact-findings by the USPTO under the clearly erroneous standard until
recently.292 This standard is less deferential than the APA’s standards,293 and “allows the
appellate court to review factual findings based on its own reasoning, while the APA requires the
court to review a case based on the agency’s reasoning.”294
The Federal Circuit’s application of the clearly erroneous standard to USPTO factual
determinations ended in 1999 when the Supreme Court, in Dickinson v. Zurko,295 reversed the
Federal Circuit, and held that it must apply the standards set forth in the APA.296 The Court
required the Federal Circuit to affirm USPTO fact-findings unless those findings are unsupported
by substantial evidence, or are arbitrary and capricious.297 The Supreme Court held that the
clearly erroneous standard of review applied by the Federal Circuit to review court fact-findings
under Rule 52(a) does not apply to review of agency fact-findings.298 Furthermore, the Supreme
Court rejected the Federal Circuit’s position that § 559 of the APA, which creates an exception
for an additional requirement that was recognized before 1947, permits the Federal Circuit to
review factual findings relating to the USPTO’s patentability determinations for clear error.299 In
the opinion written by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court stated:
The upshot in terms of judicial review is some practical difference in outcome depending upon
which standard is used. The court/agency standard, as we have said, is somewhat less strict than
the court/court standard. But the difference is a subtle one-so fine that (apart from the present
case) we have failed to uncover a single instance in which a reviewing court conceded that the use
of one standard rather than the other would in fact have produced a different outcome.300
The Supreme Court declined to decide precisely which APA standard should apply.301
The Federal Circuit has recently determined, however, that it will apply the substantial evidence
290 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(E) (2000).
291 Chatam Int’l, Inc. v. UDV N. Am., Inc., 99-1410, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 2087, at *1 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 15,
2000) (unpublished opinion).
292 In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559, 1563, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1819 (Fed. Cit. 1994). The Federal Circuit has
applied the same standard in non-jury trials from district courts pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a).
293 SSIH Equip. S.A. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 718 F.2d 365, 382, 218 U.S.P.Q. 678,692 (Fed. Cir.
1983) (Nies, J., concurring) (“A ‘substantial evidence’ standard restricts an appellate court to a greater degree than
‘clearly erroneous’ review.”).
294 Christian A. Chu, Comment, Berkeley Technology Law Journal Annual Review of Law and Technology,
Patent: Standards of Review: Dickinson v. Zurko, 15 BERKELEYTECH. L.J. 209, 212 (2000).
295 527 U.S. 150, 50 U.S.P.Q2d 1930 (1999).
296 Id. at 165, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1937.
297 Id at 164, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1936.
298 Id. at 155, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1933.
299 Id. at 161, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1935.
300 Id. at 162-63, 50 U.S.P.Q2d at 1936. The Supreme Court then spent a paragraph explaining why the
distinction in standard of review may be one without difference.
301 Id at 158, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1934 (citing Ass’n of Data Processing Serv. Orgs., Inc., v. Bd. of Governors of
Fed. Reserve Sys., 745 F.2d 677, 683-84 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (finding no difference between the APA’s arbitrary and
capricious standard and its substantial evidence standard as applied to court review of agency fact findings)).
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standard of review to factual findings of the USPTO.302 Thus, findings of fact by both the BPAI
and by the TTAB are upheld unless they are unsupported by substantial evidence after Zurko.
An interesting contrast concerns the standard of review in actions brought (1) pursuant to
35 U.S.C. § 145 in the district court attacking USPTO patent application rejections,303 or (2)
pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 146 in the district court attacking USPTO interference proceedings.304
Under § 145, an inventor can sue the Director in the U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia following final rejection of the claims of a patent application, in lieu of a direct appeal
to the Federal Circuit, pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 141.305 In such an action, the district court may
adjudge that the applicant is “entitled to receive a patent for his invention … as the facts in the
case may appear.306
Similarly, under § 146, a party to an interference dissatisfied with an adverse final
decision of the USPTO may file a complaint in a district court, again, in lieu of a direct appeal to
the Federal Circuit, pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 141. In such an action, “the record in the Patent and
Trademark Office shall be admitted on motion of either party . . . without prejudice to the right
of the parties to take further testimony. The testimony and exhibits of the record in the Patent
and Trademark Office when admitted shall have the same effect as if originally taken and
produced in the suit.”307
In actions under % 145 and 146, the Federal Circuit reviews the district court’s factual
findings for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo, as with any bench trial.308 The degree
of deference inherent in the standard of review applied by the district court to the USPTO’s
decision, however, is not so clear. Of course, the district court reassesses the USPTO’s
conclusions of law de novo.309 To the extent the parties rely solely on the record before the
USPTO, the Federal Circuit has previously held that the district court reviews factual findings
made on this record under the clear error standard.310 The basis for the court’s holding was
historical, and the continued vitality of that holding after Zurko is unclear.311
What is clear is that, in the context of an appeal under 35 U.S.C. % 145 or 146 to a
district court from a USPTO decision, when the district court admits live testimony on an issue,
the district court conducts an entirely de novo trial on that issue.312 Thus, as the law now stands,
there are three different standards of review applied to USPTO fact-finding, depending on which
court performs the review and whether live testimony is introduced before the district court:
302 On-Line Careline, Inc. v. Am. Online, Inc., 229 F.3d 1080, 1085, 56 U.S.P.Q2d 1471, 1474 (Fed. Cir. 2000)
(holding that the substantial evidence standard applies when review of the Board’s decision is confined to the factual
record compiled by the Board) (citing In re Gartside, 203 F.3d 1305, 1315, 52 U.S.P.Q.2d 1769, 1775 (Fed. Cir.
2000)); Han Beauty, Inc. v. Trevive, Inc., 236 F.3d 1333, 1336, 57 U.S.P.Q2d 1557, 1559 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (“This
court upholds the [Trademark Trial and Appeal] Board’s factual findings if supported by substantial evidence.”).
303 35 U.S.C. § 145 (1994).
304 35 U.S.C. § 146 (1994).
305 35 U.S.C. § 141 (1994).
306 35 U.S.C. § 145 (1994).
307 35 U.S.C. § 146 (1994).
308 Genentech, Inc. v. Chiron Corp., 220 F.3d 1345, 1351, 55 U.S.P.Q2d 1636, 164041 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (citing
Winner Int’l Royalty Corp. v. Wang, 202 F.3d 1340, 1344-45, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1580, 1583 (Fed. Cit. 2000)).
309 Winner Int’1 Royalty Corp. v. Wang, 202 F.3d 1340,1344-45,53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1580, 1583 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
310 Fregeau v. Mossinghoff, 776 F.2d 1034, 1038, 227 U.S-P.Q. 848, 851 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
311 See Winner, 202 F.3d at 1347 n.4, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1585 n.4.
312 Genentech, 220 F.3d at 1349, U.S.P.Q.2d at 1640 (noting that the district court is not required to give any
deference to a finding by the Board when live testimony is introduced); Winner, 202 F.3d at 1346, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d at
1584-85 (citing Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Quigg, 822 F.2d 1581, 1584, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1436, 1439 (Fed. Cir. 1987)).
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(1) on all appeals directly to the Federal Circuit, the APA substantial evidence standard of review
applies;313 (2) on appeals to the district court in which the parties rely solely on the record before
the USPTO, the district court apparently reviews factual findings made by the USPTO under the
clear error standard, and the Federal Circuit applies that same standard to its review of the
district court’s findings;314 and (3) on appeals to the district court in which the district court
admits live testimony on an issue, the district court owes no deference at all to the factual
findings made by the USPTO, and the Federal Circuit still applies the clear error standard in its
review of the district court’s findings.315
B. Masters
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53(a) defines a “master” as including “a referee, an
auditor, an examiner, a commissioner, and an assessor.” Courts have used masters to explain
technology to the judge or jury or to make findings of fact on specific issues.316 The district
court’s decision to refer all or part of a case to a master is considered discretionary.317
Rule 52(a) specifically provides: “The findings of a master, to the extent that the court
adopts them, shall be considered as the findings of the court.” Accordingly, the clearly
erroneous rule applies on appeal of the fact-findings made by the master and adopted by the
district court.318 Rejection of a master’s credibility determinations is regarded as “highly
unusual.”319 In turn, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53(e)(2) states that, in an action tried to the
bench without a jury, “the court shall accept the master’s findings of fact unless clearly
erroneous.” The interplay between Rules 52 and 53(e)(2) establishes a two-tiered “review of
review.”
The Federal Circuit examined this two-tier system in Milliken Research Corp. v. Dan
River, Inc.320 One party had urged that the appellate court review the master directly, citing
cases in the Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits; the opponent
wanted review of the district court only, and cited the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits’
precedent for support.321 The Federal Circuit rejected both arguments, because deference to both
judge and master was due under Rules 52(a) and 53(e)(2).322 The court applied a two-step
process: (1) reviewing the correctness, as a matter of law, of the judge’s setting aside any fact
findings by the master, and (2) if that is upheld, reviewing any substitute or additional findings of
the judge under Rule 52(a).323
313 See supra text accompanying note 293.
314 See supra text accompanying notes 303-05.
315 See supra text accompanying note 307.
316 See Structural Rubber Prods. Co. v. Park Rubber Co., 749 F.2d 707, 720, 223 U.S.P.Q 1264, 1274 (Fed. Cir.
1984) (citing J. Williams & B. Thierstein, Use of Masters in Litigation, 12 AIPLA Q.J. 227 (1984); Robert
Kaufman, Masters With the Federal Courts, Rule 53, 58 COLUM. L. REV. 452 (1984)).
317 See Wright, supra note 77, § 97, at 697 (stating, however, that “this is a power to be exercised only in rare
cases”).
318 TWM Mfg. Co. v. Dura Corp., 789 F.2d 895, 899, 229 U.S.P.Q. 525, 528 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
319 Id. at 900.
320 739 F.2d 587, 222 U.S.P.Q. 571 (Fed. Cit. 1984).
321 Id. at 592, 222 U.S.P.Q. at 575.
322 Id. 592-93, 222 U.S.P.Q. at 575-76.
323 Id. at 593, 222 U.S.P.Q. at 576.
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C. Magistrate Judges
Under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 72-76 and 28 U.S.C. §§ 631-639,324 district
courts may refer matters to magistrate judges with authority ranging from acting on nondispositive,
pre-trial matters, to conducting full trials.325 The standard of review applied to
matters decided by magistrate judges hinges both on the basis for the referral and whether the
parties have consented to that referral. When magistrate judges decide non-dispositive, pre-trial
matters, with or without the consent of the parties, the district court can modify or set aside any
portion of the decision “found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law.”326 The district court
makes a de novo determination of those portions of the magistrate judge’s report or specified
proposed findings or recommendations to which a party objects when the district court assigned
the magistrate judge without consent of the parties to hear a dispositive claim or defense.327
The circuits increasingly approve full civil trials before magistrate judges, under 28
U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Rule 73(a) and (b), by party consent. The parties may appeal directly to
the appropriate court of appeals from the judgment of the magistrate judge “in the same manner
as an appeal from any other judgment of a district court.”328 Alternatively, the parties may
further consent to appeal on the record to a judge of the district court and, then only upon
petition, seek review of the district court’s decision by the court of appeals.329
Neither the United States Code nor the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure specify the
standard of review after a magistrate judge conducts a full trial whether the review is by the
district court or the circuit court. The Advisory Committee Notes to Rule 74 assert that the
clearly erroneous standard applies when the parties have agreed that an appeal from a magistrate
judge exercising civil trial jurisdiction shall be taken to the district court.330 It would appear
logical that the magistrate judge’s findings of fact should get the same clear error standard of
review, as in trials by the district judge, regardless of which court reviews those findings.
D. Other Trial Tribunals
Finally, although the scope of this article is limited to intellectual property standard of
review matters, it would not be complete unless it made at least passing reference to the
following other subject matter jurisdictional areas of the Federal Circuit: (1) appeals from the
Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), (2) appeals from the United States Court of Federal
Claims (COFC), (3) cases arising under the Vaccine Act, (4) appeals from district courts in
“Little Tucker Act” cases, (5) appeals from the Board of Contract Appeals, (6) appeals from the
Court of International Trade (CIT) and the International Trade Commission (ITC), (7) appeals
324 The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 changed the appeal route from magistrate judges with consent
by deleting former 28 U.S.C. § 636(4) and (5). S. REP. No. 104-366, at 31 (1996), reprinted in 1996 U.S.C.C.A.N.
4202, 4211.
325 Under the Judicial Improvements Act of 1990, magistrate judges are now officially called United States
Magistrate Judges. See Judicial Improvements Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-650, § 321, 104 Stat. 5089, 5117
(1990).
326 FED. R. Civ. P. 72(a); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) (1994).
327 FED. R. Civ. P. 72(b); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (1994).
328 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3) (1994); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 73(c).
329 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(4) and (5) (1994).
330 The allocation of review of magistrate trial decisions between district courts and courts of appeal is explored
in WRIGHT & MILLER, supra note 116, § 3901.1.
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from the Court of Veterans Appeals, and (8) appeals of decisions by the Secretaries of
Agriculture and Commerce.331
1. MSPB
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA)332 provides a statutory scheme governing
labor relations between federal agencies and their employees. The CSRA created the MSPB to
review adverse personnel actions taken by federal agencies against employees and applicants for
employment.333 The Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction to hear appeals of a “final order or
decision” from the MSPB.334
In reviewing agency decisions, the Federal Circuit’s standard of review is deferential.
The Federal Circuit must affirm the MSPB decision unless it is “(1) arbitrary, capricious, an
abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law; (2) obtained without procedures
required by law, rule, or regulation having been followed; or (3) unsupported by substantial
evidence.”335 Thus, the Federal Circuit reviews factual determinations of the MSPB under the
substantial evidence standard.336 Pursuant to this standard of review, the Federal Circuit will not
overturn a decision if it is supported by “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”337 In determining whether the MSPB’s decision is
supported by substantial evidence, the Federal Circuit is limited to a review of the administrative
record,338 but must look to the record as a whole.339 The burden of establishing reversible error
in a MSPB decision rests upon the petitioner.340
Although appeals of MSPB decisions are generally heard in the Federal Circuit, the
Federal Circuit may not review a final order or decision from the MSPB in cases involving
claims of discrimination,341 which include claims under § 717(c) of the Civil Rights Act of
1964;342 § 15(c) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967;343 or § 16(b) of the Fair
331 The jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit is prescribed generally by 28 U.S.C. § 1295 (1994). In general, § 1295
(a) and 38 U.S.C. § 4092 (1994), which gives the Federal Circuit jurisdiction over appeals from the Court of
Veterans Appeals and rulemaking of the Veterans Administration, give the court virtually exclusive jurisdiction in
certain fields of law. Those fields include international trade, federal personnel, patents, government contracts and
other claims for money against the federal government, and veterans affairs.
332 5 U.S.C. § 1101 (1994).
333 5 U.S.C. §7701 (a) (1994) (an employee may appeal to the MSPB “from any action which is appealable to
the Board under any law, rule or regulation”).
334 Id. at § 7703(a)(1), (b)(1); see also 28 U.S.C. §1295(a)(9) (1994) (giving exclusive jurisdiction to the Federal
Circuit).
335 Id. at § 7703(c)(1)-(3) (1994 & Supp. IV 1999); see also Hayes v. Dep’t of the Navy, 727 F.2d 1535, 1537
(Fed. Cir. 1984).
336 Jackson v. Veterans Admin., 768 F.2d 1325, 1329 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (citing the applicable statute, 5 U.S.C. §
7703(c)).
337 Bradley v. Veterans Admin., 900 F.2d 233, 234 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305
U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).
338 Lucas v. Dep’t of Def., No. 00-3264, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 25538, at *3 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 12, 2000)
(unpublished opinion).
339 Kimm v. Dep’t of Treasury, 61 F.3d 888, 891 (Fed. Cit. 1995).
340 Harris v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, 142 F.3d 1463, 1467 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
341 Williams v. Dep’t of the Army, 715 F.2d 1485, 1492 (Fed. Cir. 1983).
342 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c) (1994).
343 29 U.S.C. § 633a(c) (1994).
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Labor Standards Act of 1938.344 Claims of discrimination under these statutes must be brought
in a district court with review available in the appropriate regional circuit court.345
Furthermore, the Federal Circuit may not review a final order or decision from the MSPB
in “mixed” cases. Mixed cases involve a discrimination claim under one of the precluded
statutes along with other claims that would otherwise be reviewable by the Federal Circuit.346
Mixed cases must also be brought in a district court with review available in the appropriate
regional circuit court.347 Although the Federal Circuit may not entertain appeals of
discrimination claims subject to 5 U.S.C. § 7702 (1994) or mixed claims on the merits, it has
jurisdiction to review procedural or threshold matters not related to the merits of discrimination
claims.348
2. COFC
Under 28 U.S.C. §1295, the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over an appeal
from a final decision of the COFC (formerly the Claims Court and, before that, the Court of
Claims).349 The principal statute governing jurisdiction is the Tucker Act.350 Although the
Tucker Act covers a variety of claims, most can be categorized as contract, taking, Indian, pay
(civilian and military), tax, and vaccine claims.351 One type of compensable taking involves
patents. The theoretical basis for recovery is the doctrine of eminent domain,352 and the
governing statutory provision is 28 U.S.C. § 1498 (1994).353 To maintain a cause of action
pursuant to the Tucker Act that is based on a contract, the contract must be between the plaintiff
and the government.354 Further, under the “Little Tucker Act,”355 a district court shares original
344 Id at § 216(b); see also 63 A.L.R. FED. 503, 505 (1983) (“The legislative history of the [CSRA] indicates
that Congress excepted cases involving complaints of discrimination from the purview of § 7703 in order to protect
the existing rights of employees to a trial de novo in discrimination cases.”)
345 See Cruz v. Dep’t of the Navy, 906 F.2d 689, 691 (Fed. Cir. 1990).
346 Daniels v. United States Postal Serv., 726 F.2d 723, 724 (Fed. Cir. 1984); Hilliard v. United States Postal
Serv., 722 F.2d 1555,1555 (Fed. Cir. 1983); Granadov. Dep’t of Justice, 721 F.2d 804, 807 (Fed. Cir. 1983).
347 See Barnes v. Small, 840 F.2d 972, 979 (D.C. Cir. 1988).
348 Smith v. Merit Sys. Protection Bd., 813 F.2d 1216, 1218 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (stating Federal Circuit has
jurisdiction to hear appeals from MSPB orders dismissing employees’ claims for lack of jurisdiction); Ballentine v.
Merit Sys. Protection Bd., 738 F.2d 1244,1246 47 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
349 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(3) (1994).
350 The Tucker Act states, in pertinent part: “The United States Court of Federal Claims shall have jurisdiction
to render judgment upon any claim against the United States founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of
Congress or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United
States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort.” 28 U.S.C. § 1491 (a) (1) (1994).
351 UNITED STATES COURT OF FEDERAL CLAIMS BAR ASSOCIATION, THE UNITED STATES
COURT OF FEDERAL CLAIMS, A DESKTOP FOR PRACTITIONERS, at 3-47, 62-79 (1998).
352 Motorola, Inc. v. United States, 729 F.2d 765, 768, 221 U.S.P.Q 297, 299 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
353 28 U.S.C. § 1498 (1994). Section 1498(a) states, in pertinent part:
Whenever an invention described in and covered by a patent of the United States is used or
manufactured by or for the United States without license of the owner thereof or lawful right to
use or manufacture the same, the owner’s remedy shall be by action against the United States in
the United States Court of Federal Claims for the recovery of his reasonable and entire
compensation for such use and manufacture.
354 Greenbrier v. United States, 193 F.3d 1348, 1354 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (stating that there must exist privity of
contract between the plaintiff and the government that equates to finding a waiver of sovereign immunity).
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jurisdiction with the COFC in non-tax Tucker Act cases not exceeding $10,000 in amount.356
The Federal Circuit freely reviews the decisions of district courts in Little Tucker Act cases for
errors of law, but will not set aside findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous.357
In reviewing decisions of the COFC, the Federal Circuit examines findings of fact for
clear error and reviews legal conclusions completely and independently.358 Also, the Federal
Circuit applies the same standard of review as the COFC.359 In other words, the Federal Circuit
might grant a de novo review on a legal question and use the standard of review applied by the
COFC.
The Federal Circuit considers a question of jurisdiction to be an issue of statutory
interpretation over which it exercises plenary review.360 Likewise, the Federal Circuit reviews a
grant of summary judgment in the COFC “under [the] de novo standard of review, with all
justifiable factual inferences drawn in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.”361
“Summary judgment is appropriate only when the movant has established that no genuine issue
of material fact exists and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”362 In some
cases, in finding that the COFC correctly construed the law, the Federal Circuit will simply adopt
the lower court’s decision as its own.363
As with summary judgment cases, the Federal Circuit reviews without deference the
COFC’s decision to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.364 The
court has also stated that, “Because granting a motion [to dismiss for failure to state a claim]
summarily terminates the case on its merits, courts [should] broadly construe the complaint.”365
In contract cases, “[the issue of] whether a contract exists is a mixed question of law and
fact.”366 Where the parties do not dispute the relevant facts, however, the issue is reduced to a
question of law and, thus, is reviewed de novo.367 Specifically, contract interpretation itself is a
question of law to be reviewed de novo.368 Likewise, “The underlying questions of treaty
interpretation are questions of law which [the Federal Circuit] also review[s] de novo.369
355 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2) (1994).
356 United States v. Hohri, 847 F.2d 779,779 (Fed. Cit. 1988); Cornetta v. United States, 851 F.2d 1372, 1375
(Fed. Cir. 1988) (en banc).
357 See, e.g., Spindelfabrik Suessen-Schurr Stahlecker & Grill v. Schubert & Salzer Maschinenfabrik
Aktiengesellschaft, 829 F.2d. 1075, 1077,4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1044, 1049 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
358 Columbia Gas Sys., Inc. v. United States, 70 F.3d 1244, 1246 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
359 McCall Stock Farms, Inc. v. United States, 14 F.3d 1562, 1568 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (citing Heinemann v. United
States, 796 F.2d 451, 454-55 (Fed. Cir. 1986)).
360 Ed A. Wilson, Inc. v. Gen. Servs. Admin., 126 F.3d 1406, 1408 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
361 Cook v. United States, 86 F.3d 1095, 1097 (Fed. Cir. 1996); see also Union Pac. Corp. v. United States, 5
F.3d 523, 525 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (stating that in an appeal from a grant of summary judgment, all facts are construed
in favor of the non-movant); Montana v. United States, 124 F.3d 1269, 1273 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (stating that the
Federal Circuit “employs complete and independent review over an appeal of the propriety of summary judgment”).
362 Montana, 124 F.3d at 1273.
363 Crenkovich v. United States, 202 F.3d 1325, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“Because the Court of Federal Claims’
analysis needs no amplification, this court adopts as its own the opinion of the Court of Federal Claims . . . .”).
364 Rigsbee v. United States, 226 F.3d 1376, 1378 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
365 Ponder v. United States, 117 F.3d 549, 552-53 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
366 Greenbrier v. United States, 193 F.3d 1348, 1354 (Fed. Cit. 1999) (citing Cienega Gardens v. United States,
162 F.2d 1123, 1129-30 (Fed. Cit. 1998)).
367 Id.
368 Id (citing Cienega Gardens, 162 F.3d at 1129-30).
369 Cook v. United States, 86 F.3d 1095, 1097 (Fed. Cit. 1996).
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With regulatory interpretations, the Federal Circuit, adopting the Chevron test, must give
substantial deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations.370 “Deference is
particularly appropriate when the agency is applying its regulations to a complex or changing
circumstance, thus requiring the agency to bring to bear its unique expertise and policy-making
prerogatives.”371 “When such judicial deference is appropriate, [the Federal Circuit] must accept
the agency’s reasonable interpretation of a regulation, even if there may be other reasonable
interpretations to which the regulation is susceptible, and even if the [Federal Circuit] would
have preferred an alternative interpretation.”372 The Federal Circuit has found, however, that it
would be unfair to give the government a distinct advantage during an ordinary breach of
contract litigation by giving deference to an agency’s contract interpretation where the agency
itself is a party to the contract.373
Prejudice in an award of a government contract is a question of fact in a post-award bid
protest.374 In a post-award protest, the Federal Circuit applies the standard of review for agency
action under the APA.375 Therefore, the Federal Circuit reviews the administrative record before
the agency and the COFC using the arbitrary or capricious standard.376 “This standard requires
[the Federal Circuit] to sustain an agency action evincing rational reasoning and consideration of
relevant factors.”377 Finally, “Where no adequate basis exists upon which to review the appealed
judgment due to insufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law, the judgment should be
vacated and the action remanded for further consideration.”378
3. Vaccine Act Cases
Concerns regarding the remedies available to victims of vaccine injuries, and the
decreasing availability of vaccines due to prior litigation, led Congress to enact the national
Childhood Vaccine Injury Act .379 The Act consists of two parts: the National Vaccine Program
and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.380 By eliminating the need for
plaintiffs to demonstrate either a defendant-manufacturer’s negligence in producing or marketing
the drug, or a vaccine’s defectiveness, Congress hoped the federal alternative would reduce the
number of civil actions filed in state court.381
370 Princess Cruises, Inc. v. United States, 201 F.3d 1352, 1359-60 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
371 S. Cal. Edison Co. v. United States, 226 F.3d 1349, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (citing Martin v. Occupational
Safety & Health Review Comm’n, 499 U.S. 144, 151 (1990)).
372 Id.
373 Id.
374 Advanced Data Concepts, Inc. v. United States, 216 F.3d 1054, 1057 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
375 Section 706 directs a reviewing court to: “(2) hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and
conclusions found to be—(A) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with
law . . . (E) unsupported by substantial evidence in a case subject to sections 556 and 557 . . . or otherwise reviewed
on the record of an agency hearing provided by statute . . . .” 5 U.S.C. § 706 (1994).
376 Advanced Data, 216 F.3d at 1057.
377 Id. at 1058.
378 Patton v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 1021, 1031 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
379 42 U.S.C. §§ 300aa-1-300aa-34 (1994 & Supp. II 1998).
380 Id. at §§ 300aa-10-300aa-17.
381 H.R. REP. No. 99-908, at 12 (1986), reprinted in 1986 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6346, 6353.
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Jurisdiction is established in the COFC, where each contest is assigned to a special
master who hears the arguments.382 If either party disagrees with the decision of the special
master, they may appeal to the COFC for review of the special master’s decision.383 After that,
the Federal Circuit will take appeals within sixty days of the date of the judgment of the
COFC.384
The applicable statute provides no standard of appellate review in Vaccine Act cases.385
The Federal Circuit has interpreted the statute, however, as instructing it to affirm a special
master’s factual findings unless they are arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion under 42
U.S.C. § 300aa-12(e)(2)(B).386 Further, the Federal Circuit will consider only the record
developed by the special masters in the proceedings below.387
On the other hand, the Federal Circuit will review legal decisions of the lower court de
novo.388 In that light, the Federal Circuit has determined that the COFC’s review under the
arbitrary and capricious standard of the special master’s findings is a question of law. Thus, the
Federal Circuit reviews de novo the COFC’s determination as to whether or not the special
master’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in
accordance with law.389 For example, the Federal Circuit reviews issues of statutory
interpretation under a “not in accordance with the law standard,” which is a de novo standard.390
Therefore, the Federal Circuit does not defer to the interpretation of the statute by the special
master.391
4. Boards of Contract Appeals
The Contract Disputes Act of 1978 (CDA)392 gives the heads of executive agencies the
right to establish Boards of Contract Appeals.393 The different Boards of Contract Appeals hear
cases arising from disputes between the government and a contractor, with “contractor” defined
as “a party to a Government contract other than the Government.”394 Each Board handles cases
within its own subject matter jurisdiction, ranging from contracts with the Armed Services to the
382 382 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-12(a)-(b) (1994).
383 Id. at § 300aa-12(e).
384 Id. at § 300aa-12(f).
385 Id.
386 Whitecotton v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 81 F.3d 1099 (Fed. Cir. 1996):
Our review of the special master’s findings of fact is very limited. As we have recognized in the
past, `Congress assigned to a group of specialists, the Special Masters . . . the unenviable job of
sorting through these painful cases and, based upon their accumulated expertise in the field,
judging the merits of the individual claims.’ For this reason, Congress has instructed us to affirm a
special master’s factual findings unless they are arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.
Id. at 1104 (citations omitted).
387 Hodges v. Sec’y of Dept. of Health & Human Servs., 9 F.3d 958,961 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
388 Whitecotton, 81 F.3d at 1106.
389 Hines v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 940 F.2d 1518, 1524 (Fed. Cir. 1991).
390 Euken v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 34 F.3d 1045, 1047 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
391 Id.
392 41 U.S.C. § 601-13 (1994 & Supp. III 1997).
393 41 U.S.C. § 607(a) (1994).
394 Id at § 601(4).
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Department of Transportation.395 Each Board’s jurisdiction is limited to claims from contracting
officers’ final decisions.396 Either the government or the contractor may appeal an unfavorable
decision to the Federal Circuit.397 Before the government may appeal a Board decision,
however, the head of the agency must determine that an appeal should be taken and obtain the
approval of the attorney general.398
The CDA gives a contractor the option of filing an appeal with either the COFC399 or an
agency’s Board of Contract Appeals.400 In either case, under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1295(a)(3) (1994) and
1295(a)(10), the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over any subsequent appeal. The
standard of review under the CDA for reviewing a Board decision on a question of law “shall not
be final or conclusive,” but the decision on a question of fact “shall be final and conclusive and
shall not be set aside unless the decision is fraudulent, or arbitrary, or capricious, or so grossly
erroneous as to necessarily imply bad faith, or if such decision is not supported by substantial
evidence.”401 Substantial evidence is defined as “relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”402
Although questions of law are freely reviewable, the Federal Circuit has frequently stated
that “some deference is given to the Board’s expertise in interpreting contract regulations.”403
The Federal Circuit has also stressed that, even if adequate evidence exists to support an
alternative finding of fact, the Board’s finding-if supported by substantial evidence-”is binding
on this court regardless of how we might have decided this issue upon a de novo review.”404
Note that the factual findings of the Boards of Contract Appeals, reviewed under the substantial
evidence standard, are apparently accorded greater deference than the factual findings of the
COFC, which are reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard.405
Finally, in order to sue the government, privity must exist between the parties.406 The
rules governing this relationship are known as the Severin doctrine.407 As a general rule,
subcontractors under government contracts do not have standing to sue the government.408 If the
prime contractor is liable for damages to the subcontractor, however, then the prime contractor
395 There are eleven Boards of Contract Appeals: the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA), the
Corps of Engineers Board of Contract Appeals (ENGBCA), the Department of Agriculture Board of Contract
Appeals (AGBCA), the Department of Energy Board of Contract Appeals (EBCA), the Department of Housing and
Urban Development Board of Contract Appeals (HUDBCA), the Department of Interior Board of Contract Appeals
(IBCA), the Department of Labor Board of Contract Appeals (LBCA), the Department of Transportation Board of
Contract Appeals (DOTBCA), the Department of Veterans Affairs Board of Contract Appeals (VABCA), General
Services Board of Contract Appeals (GSBCA), and the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals (PSBCA).
396 141 U.S.C. § 607(d) (1994).
397 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(10) (1994); 41 U.S.C. § 607(g)(1) (1994).
398 41 U.S.C. § 607(g)(1).
399 Id. at § 609(a)(1).
400 41 U.S.C. § 606 (1994 & Supp. III 1997); Id. at § 607(d).
401 41 U.S.C. § 609(b).
402 United States v. Gen. Elec. Corp., 727 F.2d 1567, 1572 (Fed. Cit. 1984) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
403 See, e.g., SMS Data Prods. Group, Inc. v. United States, 900 F.2d 1553, 1555 (Fed. Cir. 1990).
404 Blount Bros. v. United States, 872 F.2d 1003, 1005 (Fed. Cir. 1989).
405 See supra text accompanying note 350.
406 W.G. Yates & Sons Constr. Co. v. Caldera, 192 F.3d 987, 990-91 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (citing Severin v. United
States, 99 Ct. Cl. 435, 442 (1943)).
407 Id at 991.
408 Id at 990-91.
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has standing to sue the government in a pass-through suit on behalf of the subcontractor.409 In
addition, if dismissal is sought, the burden of proof rests with the government in proving that the
prime contractor is not responsible for the damages incurred by the subcontractor.410
5. CIT and ITC
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(5)-(a)(6) (1994), respectively, the Federal Circuit has
exclusive jurisdiction “of an appeal from a final decision of the United States Court of
International Trade” and to “review the final determinations of the [International Trade
Commission] relating to unfair practices in import trade, made under section 337 of the Tariff
Act of 1930.”411 The CIT (formerly the United States Customs Court) “was intended to [have]
. . . broad residual authority over civil actions arising out of federal statutes governing import
transaction.”412 The most frequent types of cases appealed to the Federal Circuit from the CIT
involve classification or valuation of goods and antidumping or countervailing duties.413
a. CIT
The Federal Circuit reviews the CIT’s fact-findings under a clearly erroneous standard;
“questions of law are subject to full and independent review [i.e., de novo review].”414 The
Federal Circuit applies a different standard of review, however, when reviewing a decision by
the CIT to reverse or affirm an agency determination. Under 19 U.S.C. § 1516(a) (b) (1) (B), the
CIT reviews an agency determination for substantial evidence.415 Beginning with Atlantic Sugar
Ltd. v. United States,416 the Federal Circuit announced that it would “review the [CIT’s] review
of an ITC determination by applying anew the statute’s express judicial review standard.”417
Therefore, the Federal Circuit must affirm the CIT’s decision unless it concludes that the
agency’s determination was not supported by substantial evidence or was “otherwise not in
accordance with law.”418 In essence, by focusing on whether the agency’s determination was
supported by substantial evidence, the Federal Circuit is duplicating the efforts of the CIT.419
409 Id at 991.
410 Id.
411 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(5)-(a)(6) (1994).
412 United States Shoe Corp. v. United States, 114 F.3d 1564, 1571 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (emphasis added) (quoting
Conoco, Inc. v. United States Foreign-Trade Zones Bd., 18 F.3d 1581, 1588 (Fed. Cir. 1994)).
413 Edward D. Re, Litigation Before the Court of International Trade, in 19 U.S.C.A. XXV, XXX (West Supp.
1999).
414 Medline Indus. v. United States, 62 F.3d 1407, 1409 (Fed. Cir. 1995); see also Superior Wire v. United
States, 867 F.2d 1409, 1411 (Fed. Cir. 1989).
415 Section 1516(a)(b)(1)(B) states: “The court shall hold unlawful any determination, finding, or conclusion
found in an action brought under paragraph (2) of subsection (a) of this section, to be unsupported by substantial
evidence on the record, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” 19 U.S.C. § 1516(a)(b)(1)(B) (1994).
416 744 F.2d 1556 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
417 Id. at 1559.
418 Id; see also Am. Permac, Inc. v. United States, 831 F.2d 269, 273 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
419 Because of this duplication, the “anew” standard of review announced in Atlantic Sugar has been criticized.
Judge Plager, in his concurring opinion in Zenith Electronics Corp. v. United States, 99 F.3d 1576 (Fed. Cir. 1996),
stated:
For us to purport to review again the agency record of decision to determine if substantial
evidence exists has at least three pernicious consequences. First, it encourages disappointed
Doc. #869018v.1
The case of Luciano Pisoni Fabbrica Accessori Instrumenti Musicali v. United States,420
illustrates these principles. A producer and an importer of pads for woodwind instrument keys
successfully challenged, in the CIT, an antidumping order issued by the ITC .421 They “then
applied for attorney fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C.
§ 2412(d)(1)(A).”422 Although it had determined that the order was unreasonable and not in
accordance with law, the CIT declined to award fees and expenses because the government’s
actions were substantially justified.423 The Federal Circuit heard the appeal by the producer and
importer and affirmed the denial of fees and expenses.424 The court stated that’ Under the EAJA,
we review the trial tribunal’s finding that the government’s position was substantially justified
under the clearly erroneous standard because that is a factual decision.”425 The appellate court
distinguished its review, under the substantial evidence standard, of facts determined by the trial
tribunal on the merits as opposed to the fee application.426
b. ITC
In Corning Glass Works v. United States International Trade Commission,427 the Federal
Circuit set forth in detail its appellate function when appeals are taken from the ITC. “Any
person adversely affected by a final determination of the Commission under subsection (d)
[exclusion orders], (e) [temporary exclusion orders], (f) [cease-and-desist orders against
defaulting persons]” is authorized to appeal to the Federal Circuit in accordance with the APA.428
litigants with deep pockets to seek a second bite at the apple, often with no visible benefits except
to the litigators since generally we are not likely to reverse on that ground. Second, such appeals
waste scarce judicial resources and deflect our attention from substantive issues which might be
determinative. And third, the judges of the CIT cannot help but feel their efforts at review of the
record, often extensive and thorough, are unappreciated.
Id. at 1579.
420 837 F.2d 465 (Fed. Cir. 1988).
421 Id. at 466.
422 Id.
423 Id.
424 Id at 469.
425 Id at 467.
426 Id at 466-67.
427 799 F.2d 1559, 230 U.S-P.Q. 822 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
428 Id. at 1565, 230 U.S.P.Q. at 825 (quoting 19 U.S.C. § 1337(c) (1994)). APA § 706 provides:
To the extent necessary to decision and when presented, the reviewing court shall decide all
relevant questions of law, interpret constitutional and statutory provisions, and determine the
meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action. The reviewing court shall—
(1) compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed; and
(2) hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be—
(A) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law;
(B) contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity;
(C) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right;
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The APA requires the Federal Circuit to “decide all relevant questions of law” and set aside
findings of fact found to be unsupported by substantial evidence.429 Therefore, the Federal
Circuit reviews the ITC’s interpretation of statutory provisions de novo as questions of law.430 In
contrast, “Deference must be given to an interpretation of a statute by the agency charged with
its administration.431 The administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision is part of the record, of
course, and the appellate court accords that decision “such probative force as it intrinsically
commands.”432
Accordingly, following the APA, the Federal Circuit determines whether, on the record,
the holding of the ITC is arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in
accordance with the law.433 In contrast, issues of fact may be overturned “only if unsupported by
substantial evidence.”434 Under this standard, the Federal Circuit will not disturb the ITC’s
factual findings if they are supported by “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”435 Finally, “[a]dvisory opinions issued by the
Commission are not final determinations and are not reviewable on appeal.”436
6. Veterans Appeals
The Veterans Judicial Review Act of 1988437 established the United States Court of
Veterans Appeals (CVA), now the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
(CAVC),438 as an Article I court for the review of Board of Veterans Appeals decisions.439 The
(D) without observance of procedure required by law;
(E) unsupported by substantial evidence in a case subject to sections 556 and 557 of this title
or otherwise reviewed on the record of an agency hearing provided by statute; or
(F) unwarranted by the facts to the extent that the facts are subject to trial de novo by the
reviewing court.
5 U.S.C. § 706 (1994).
429 Corning Glass, 799 F.2d at 1565, 230 U.S.P.Q. at 826 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706); see SSIH Equip. S.A. v.
United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 718 F.2d 365, 371-72, 218 U.S.P.Q. 678, 684 (Fed. Cir. 1983).
This court reviews factual findings of the ITC under the “substantial evidence” standard. Under
this standard, we will not disturb the ITC’s factual findings if they are supported by “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” We review de
novo the ITC’s legal determinations, including those relating to claim interpretation and patent
validity.
Checkpoint Sys., Inc. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 54 F.3d 756, 759-60, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1042, 1045 (Fed.
Cir. 1995) (citations omitted).
430 Farrel Corp. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 949 F.2d 1147, 1151 (Fed. Cir. 1991).
431 Corning Glass, 799 F.2d at 1565, 230 U.S.P.Q. at 826.
432 Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474,495 (1951); see also Fischer & Porter Co. v. United States
Int’l Trade Comm’n, 831 F.2d 1574, 1577, 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1700, 1701 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
433 5 U.S.C. § 706.
434 Corning Glass, 799 F.2d at 1565, 230 U.S.P.Q. at 826 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(E)).
435 Id. at 1566 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).
436 19 JAMES WM. MOORE ET AL., MOORE’s FEDERAL PRACTICE § 208.21, at n.17 (3d ed. 2000)
(citing Allied Corp. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 850 F.2d 1573, 1578 (Fed. Cir. 1988)).
437 Pub. L. No. 100-687, 102 Stat. 4105 (codified as amended at 38 U.S.C. § 7292 (2000)).
438 Pub. L. No. 105-368, § 512(a)(1), 112 Stat. 3315, 3340.
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decisions of the CAVC are subject to review on issues of law by the Federal Circuit.440 The
limited jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit over appeals from the CAVC is outlined in 38 U.S.C.
§ 7292. 441 Under § 7292(a), the Federal Circuit may review a decision involving “the validity or
interpretation of any statute or regulation [other than a factual matter determination] relied on by
the CAVC.”442 As a limitation on the Federal Circuit’s review, however, § 7292(d)(2) provides
that, “Except to the extent that an appeal under this chapter presents a constitutional issue, the
Court of Appeals may not review (A) a challenge to a factual determination, or (B) a challenge to
a law or regulation as applied to the facts of a particular case.”443 Thus, the Federal Circuit’s
scope of review is very narrow.
The Federal Circuit’s first task is to determine whether it has subject matter jurisdiction
over the action.444 Specifically, if it is an appeal from the CAVC, the Federal Circuit must be
satisfied that the CAVC had jurisdiction as well.445 “For the purpose of determining a court’s
jurisdiction, [the Federal Circuit] accept[s] the allegations in the complaint or petition as true,
making reasonable factual assumptions and drawing plausible inferences in favor of the
petitioner.”446 Unless without any “plausible basis, [disputed facts] are resolved in favor of the
petitioner for jurisdictional purposes.”447 “Jurisdiction is established when the factual allegations
and inferences place the subject matter within the court’s authority as assigned by statute.”448 In
addition to its appellate function, the Federal Circuit has original jurisdiction over an action of
the Secretary of Veterans Affairs pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 502.449
439 Pub. L. No. 100-687, 102 Stat. 4105 (codified as amended at 38 U.S.C. § 7292).
440 38 U.S.C. § 7292(d)(1) (2000).
441 Id. at § 7292.
442 Summers v. Gober, 225 F.3d 1293, 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2000). 38 U.S.C. § 7292(a) states:
After a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is entered in a case,
any party to the case may obtain a review of the decision with respect to the validity of any statute
or regulation (other than a refusal to review the schedule of ratings for disabilities adopted under
section 1155 of this title) or any interpretation thereof (other than a determination as to a factual
matter) that was relied on by the Court in making the decision. Such a review shall be obtained by
filing a notice of appeal with the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims within the time and in the
manner prescribed for appeal to United States court of appeals from United States district courts.
443 38 U.S.C. § 7292(d)(2).
444 Aronson v. Brown, 14 F.3d 1578, 1580 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (“We first determine whether it is within this court’s
authority to review any of these issues.”).
445 Bailey v. West, 160 F.3d 1360, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“Because our review of this decision involves a
question of statutory interpretation—namely the ability of the Court of Veterans Appeals to equitably toll a
particular statutory time limit and thereby exercise jurisdiction over a late-filed notice of appeal—we have
jurisdiction over this matter.”); see Mayer v. Brown, 37 F.3d 618, 619 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (Federal Circuit reviews
Court of Veterans Appeals’ interpretation of its jurisdictional statutes).
446 Ephraim v. Brown, 82 F.3d 399, 401 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
447 Id.
448 Id.
449 38 U.S.C. § 502 (1994) states: “An action of the Secretary to which section 552(a)(1) or 553 of title 5 (or
both) refers . . . is subject to judicial review [which] may be sought only in the United States Court of Appeals for
the Federal Circuit.” Splane v. West, 216 F.3d 1058, 1062 (Fed. Cir. 2000). Jurisdiction is proper where the action
being “challenged is the creation and publication of an agency rule—in the form of a precedential general counsel
opinion-which falls under the ambit of Sections 552(a)(1) and 553.” Id.
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Once jurisdiction is established, “the Federal Circuit will reach the merits” of the
appeal.450 “Construction of a statute or regulation is a question of law that [the Federal Circuit]
review[s] de novo.”451 The “‘court shall hold unlawful and set aside any regulation or any
interpretation thereof . . . relied upon in the decision of the [CAVC]’ held to be, among other
things, ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with
law.’”452 In upholding § 7292(d) (1), the Federal Circuit applies the two-step test articulated in
Chevron, because its review of Veterans Court judgments entails the review of the underlying
agency action.453
Under the first step in Chevron, if the Federal Circuit finds that the statutory “intent of
Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter.”454 To define congressional intent, the Federal
Circuit looks “to the language of the . . . statute. If the statutory language is ‘unambiguous,’ the
Federal Circuit will treat its unambiguous meaning as controlling, ‘absent a clearly expressed
legislative intention to the contrary.”455 In determining ambiguity, the Federal Circuit will
consider the “plain meaning” of a statute, using various methods.456 For example, the court may
look to the ordinary meaning of the language used,457 the relationship of terms within the
statute,458 or the purpose of the statute.459
If the plain meaning of the statute cannot be derived, the Federal Circuit may look to
legislative history to determine congressional intent.460 A very strong showing of legislative
450 Gershon M. Ratner, The Federal Circuit’s Approach to Statutory and Regulatory Construction, with
Emphasis on Veterans Law, 6 FED. CIR. B.J. 243, 246 (1996).
451 Summers v. Gober, 225 F.3d 1293, 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
452 Smith v. Brown, 35 F.3d 1516, 1517 (Fed. Cir. 1994). 38 U.S.C. § 7292(d)(1) (2000) states:
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit shall decide all relevant questions of law, including
interpreting constitutional and statutory provisions. The court shall hold unlawful and set aside
any regulation or any interpretation thereof (other than a determination as to a factual matter) that
was relied upon in the decision of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims that the Court of
Appeals for the Federal Circuit holds to be-
(A) arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law;
(B) contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity;
(C) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or in violation of a statutory right;
or
(D) without observance of procedure required by law.
453 Smith, 35 F.3d at 1517 (citations omitted).
454 Skinner v. Brown, 27 F.3d 1571, 1572 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (citing Chevron, 467 U.S. at 842).
455 Ratner, supra note 450, at 248 (quoting Jones v. Brown, 41 F.3d 634, 640 (Fed. Cir. 1994)).
456 Id at 248-55.
457 Jones v. Brown, 41 F.3d 634, 638 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
458 Smith v. Brown, 35 F.3d 1516, 1524 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (The meaning of a term is “directly controlled and
limited, under the principle of noscitur a sociis (it is known from its associates)”.).
459 Jones, 41 F.3d at 640 (“[I]n a statutory provision dealing specifically with fee proceedings, it would be
illogical to assume that Congress did not intend the phrase `any case or appeal pending’ to include pending fee
proceedings.”).
460 Id. (“ [L] egislative history may aid our understanding of the function and purposes of [a] statute, and in
cases of doubt assist in interpretation of the language . . . .”); Burton v. Derwinski, 933 F.2d 988, 989 (Fed. Cir.
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intent is necessary, however, to convince the Federal Circuit that Congress meant something
different than what it actually said.461
The last measure the court may take in determining the congressional intent of a statute is
to apply broad construction.462 The Federal Circuit has explained that the veterans benefits
statute should be construed liberally to effectuate the statute’s purposes.463 If the statute has an
explicit plain meaning, however, even if it is harmful to veterans, then the court may not broadly
construe the statute.464
If the court is unable to determine congressional intent using the methods outlined above,
it may move to step two of the Chevron analysis. Only where the statute is silent or ambiguous
may the Federal Circuit defer to an agency’s interpretation of the specific issue.465 An important
exception to note is that the Federal Circuit will not defer to an agency’s interpretation simply
because that interpretation has been long-standing.466 For example, in Gardner v. Brown,467 the
court reasoned that because applicable regulations were not subject to judicial review until 1988,
many nicely aged interpretations had gone unscrutinized, and the length of a regulation’s
existence should not be a presumed basis for validity.468
The phrase de novo review is often used by the Federal Circuit and the CAVC; it is also
misunderstood in some instances.469 Although de novo refers to judicial review without
deference to lower court decisions, the term fails to accurately describe the appellate process
when it is applied to a review of issues for which the court affords deference to the lower court’s
decision.470
As the CAVC put it, “Because we are a court of review, it is not appropriate for us to
make a de novo finding, based on the evidence, of [a factual matter].”471 Thus, the Federal
Circuit must ensure that the CAVC correctly restricts itself when reviewing the Board of
Veterans Appeals decisions.
7. Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce
The Federal Circuit has subject matter jurisdiction over appeals from decisions of the
Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce in matters specified by 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(7)-(8)
1991) (explaining that since Congress chose the very term for the new statute, it was unlikely that its failure to revise
the interpretation was mere oversight).
461 Gardner v. Brown, 5 F.3d 1456, 1460 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
462 Smith, 35 F.3d at 1525 (“The World War Veterans Act was remedial legislation and as such should be
construed broadly to the benefit of the veteran.”); 38 C.F.R. § 3.102 (2000) (“It is the defined and consistently
applied policy of the Department of Veterans Affairs to administer the law under a broad interpretation . . . .”).
463 Smith, 35 F.3d at 1525.
464 Id. at 1526 (A veteran may not “rely upon the generous spirit that suffuses the law generally to override the
clear meaning of a particular provision.”).
465 Skinner v. Brown, 27 F.3d 1571, 1572 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
466 Gardner, 5 F.3d at 1463.
467 5 F.3d 1456, 1460 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
468 1d at 1463-64.
469 Henley v. West, 212 F.3d 1255, 1263 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
470 Id. For instance, it is incorrect to describe appellate review of “well-groundedness” as de novo since, with
well-groundedness, “the ultimate conclusion is a question of law, but that conclusion rests on factual matters the
determination of which by the agency fact finders is entitled on review to substantial deference.” Id. In Hensley, the
CAVC took it upon itself to review de novo the BVA’s determination of well-groundedness, effectively dissecting
the factual record in detail.
471 Id. (citing Webster v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 155, 159 (1991)).
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(1994). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(7), the only questions of law the Federal Circuit has
exclusive jurisdiction to review are “findings of the Secretary of Commerce under U.S. note 6,
subchapter X, chapter 98 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) of the United States (relating
to importation of instruments or apparatus).”
Appeals of any decision by the Secretary of Agriculture under the Plant Variety
Protection Act of 1970 (PVPA)472 may be brought directly to the Federal Circuit473 or to the U.S.
District Court for the District of Columbia.474 A district court decision is appealable to the
Federal Circuit.475 Under 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(8) and 7 U.S.C. § 2461, the Federal Circuit has
jurisdiction over any appeal” [f]rom the decisions made under sections 2404, 2443, 2501, 2502,
and 2568 of title 7.476
PVPA infringement actions are very similar to patent infringement claims.477 When
reviewing district court decisions in patent cases, the Federal Circuit “must determine all
substantive law issues for [itself], even though on issues of procedural law in such cases, [it]
must defer to the regional circuit, with certain exceptions.”478 “Thus, in reviewing evidentiary
rulings, the Federal Circuit applies the law of the regional circuit where appeals from the district
would normally lie.”479
Conclusion
Like other appellate courts, the Federal Circuit avoids both the temptation and the effort
of appellate retrial by applying certain carefully defined standards of review. There are several
standards of review, most notably the de novo, clearly erroneous, substantial evidence, and abuse
of discretion standards of review, as well as varying levels of review within each of these
standards. As discussed in this article, the amount of deference accorded by the Federal Circuit
to a decision on appeal depends on such factors as the type of issue under review (e.g., law
versus fact versus equity); the burden of proof and any presumptions dictated by the substantive
law applicable at the trial level to the issue under appellate review; the nature of the tribunal
whose judgment is under review; and the route by which the issue reaches the Federal Circuit
(i.e., the stage of the proceeding). A thoughtful consideration and practical application by the
appellate advocate of the available standards of review will increase the advocate’s chances of
obtaining a favorable judgment on appeal.
472 Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, 7 U.S.C. § 2321 to 2582 (1994) (protecting “sexually” reproduced
plants).
473 7 U.S.C. § 2461 (1994).
474 Id. at § 2462.
475 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(1) (1994).
476 Id at § 1295(a)(8) and 7 U.S.C. § 2461.
477 19 JAMES WM. MOORE ET AL., MOORE’s FEDERAL PRACTICE § 208.10[1] (3d ed. 2000).
478 Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Sinkers Corp., 177 F.3d 1343, 1350, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1749, 1753-54 (Fed. Cir.
1999) (citing Nat’l Presto Indus., Inc. v. West Bend Co., 76 F.3d 1185, 1188 n.2, 37 U.S.P.Q2d 1685, 1686 n.2 (Fed.
Cir. 1996)).
479 MOORE ET AL., supra note 477, § 208.10[1] (citing Odetics, Inc. v. Storage Tech. Corp., 185 F.3d 1259,
1276, 51 U.S.P.Q.2d 1225, 1236 (Fed. Cir. 2000)).
Doc. #869018v.1
Appendix A: Characterization of
Specific Topics As Issues of Law or
Questions of Fact for Purposes of
Appellate Review
Patent Law Issues
I. Patent Validity: The ultimate question of patent validity is one of law, reviewed de
novo.
A. Statutory Subject Matter: Whether a claim is directed to statutory subject
matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 is a question of law reviewed de novo. AT&T Corp. v.
Excel Communications, Inc., 172 F.3d 1352, 1355, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1447, 1449 (Fed. Cir.
1999) (“The issue on appeal, whether the asserted claims of the ’184 patent are invalid
for failure to claim statutory subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101, is a question of law
which we review without deference.”); Arrhythmia Research Tech. v. Corazonix Corp.,
958 F.2d 1053, 1055, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1033, 1035 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
B. Utility Requirement: Whether an invention meets the utility requirement of 35
U.S.C. § 101 is a question of fact reviewed for clear error or substantial evidence. In re
Cortright, 165 F.3d 1353,1356, 49 U.S.P.Q.2d 1464,1465 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“Utility is a
factual issue, which we review for clear error [in the context of a bench trial].”) (quoting
Cross v. Iizuka, 753 F.2d 1040, 1044 n.7, 224 U.S.P.Q. 739, 742 n.7 (Fed. Cit. 1985));
Brooktree Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., 977 F.2d 1555, 1571, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d
1401, 1413 (Fed. Cir. 1992); Newman v. Quigg, 877 F.2d 1575, 1581, 11 U.S.P.Q.2d
1340, 1345 (Fed. Cir. 1989); Moleculon Research Corp. v. CBS, Inc., 793 F.2d 1261,
1268, 229 U.S.P.Q. 805, 810 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
C. Anticipation:
1. Whether an invention meets the novelty requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 102 is
a question of fact reviewed for clear error or substantial evidence. Glaverbel
Societe Anonyme & Fosbel, Inc. v. Northlake Mktg. & Supply, Inc., 45 F.3d
1550, 1554, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1496, 1498 (Fed. Cit. 1995) (“Anticipation is a
question of fact.”) (citing Shatterproof Glass Corp. v. Libbey-Owens Ford Co.,
758 F.2d 613, 619, 225 U.S.P.Q. 634, 637 (Fed. Cir. 1985)); In re Paulsen, 30
F.3d 1475, 1478, 31 U.S.P.Q 2d 1671, 1673 (Fed. Cir. 1994); Westvaco Corp. v.
Int’l Paper Co., 991 F.2d 735, 746, 26 U.S.P.Q 2d 1353, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
2. The loss of right provisions in 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) based upon “public use”
or placing the invention “on sale” present questions of law with subsidiary issues
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of fact. Eiselstein v. Frank, 52 F.3d 1035, 1038, 34 U.S.P.Q 2d 1467, 1469 (Fed.
Cir. 1995) (“Whether patentability is barred by § 102(b) is a question of law to be
determined based upon underlying factual determinations.”); Electro Med. Sys.,
S.A. v. Cooper Life Sci., Inc., 34 F.3d 1048, 1053, 32 U.S.P.Q2d 1017, 1020
(Fed. Cir. 1994) (citing Panduit Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 810 F.2d 1561,
1568-69, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1593, 159798 (Fed. Cir. 1987)); Petrolite Corp. v. Baker
Hughes Inc., 96 F.3d 1423, 1425, 40 U.S.P.Q2d 1201 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Whether
a public use has occurred is a question of law.”); Lough v. Brunswick Corp., 86
F.3d 1113, 1120, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1100, 1104 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Whether an
invention was in public use prior to the critical date within the meaning of
§ 102(b) is a question of law. . . . To determine whether a use is `experimental,’ a
question of law, the totality of the circumstances must be considered . . . .”);
Allied Colloids Inc. v. Am. Cyanamid Co., 64 F.3d 1570,35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1840
(Fed. Cir. 1995); In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559, 1564, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1820
(Fed. Cir. 1994) (“Whether something is `in public use or on sale’ within the
meaning of section 102(b), and thus properly considered prior art, is a question of
law with subsidiary issues of fact.”) (quoting Manville Sales Corp. v. Paramount
Sys., Inc., 917 F.2d 544, 549,16 U.S.P.Q.2d 1587,1591 (Fed. Cir. 1990)); Tone
Bros. v. Sysco Corp., 28 F.3d 1192, 1197, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1324 (Fed. Cir.
1994); Baxter Int’l, Inc. v. Cobe Labs., Inc., 88 F.3d 1054, 1060, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d
1437, 1441 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“An analysis of experimental use, which is also a
question of law, requires consideration of the totality of circumstances and the
policies underlying the public use bar.”); Keystone Retaining Wall Sys. v.
Westrock, Inc., 997 F.2d 1444, 1451, 27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1297, 1303 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
3. Whether a reference is in the prior art (i.e., what constitutes prior art under
§ 102) is a legal question. Panduit Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 810 F.2d 1561,
1568, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1593, 1597 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
4. “The enablement issue in the context of whether a prior art reference is
enabling the features for which it has been cited is a mixed question of law and
fact.” In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559, 1568, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1823 (Fed. Cir.
1994).
5. Whether information is inherent in the teaching of the prior art is a
question of fact. In re Zurko, 111 F.3d 887, 889, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1476, 1479 (Fed.
Cir. 1997) (citing In re Napier, 55 F.3d 610, 613, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1782, 1784 (Fed.
Cir. 1995), for the principle that the inherent teaching of a prior art reference is a
question of fact); In re Grasselli, 713 F.2d 731, 739, 218 U.S.P.Q. 769, 775 (Fed.
Cir. 1983).
D. Abandonment, Suppression, and Concealment: Whether an invention has
been abandoned, suppressed, or concealed within the context of 35 U.S.C. §§ 102(c)and
102(g) is a question of law. Fujikawa v. Wattanasin, 93 F.3d 1559, 1567, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d
1895, 1901 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Suppression or concealment is a question of law which we
review de novo.”); Myers v. Feigelman, 455 F.2d 596, 604, 172 U.S.P.Q. 580, 587
(C.C.P.A. 1972); Brokaw v. Vogel, 429 F.2d 476, 480, 166 U.S.P.Q. 428, 431 (C.C.P.A.
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1970); Checkpoint Sys., Inc. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 54 F.3d 756, 761, 35
U.S.P.Q.2d 1042, 1046 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“As the parties asserting invalidity, respondents
at the ITC bore the burden of establishing, by clear and convincing evidence, facts which
support the ultimate legal conclusion of invalidity under § 102(g).”).
E. Obviousness: A determination of obviousness under 35 U.S.C. § 103 is a legal
conclusion based upon factual inquiries. Kolmes v. World Fibers Corp., 107 F.3d
1534,1541, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1829,1833 (Fed. Cir. 1997); In re Huang, 100 F.3d 135, 138,
40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1685, 1688 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review the ultimate legal determination
of obviousness without deference to the Board, while we review the underlying factual
inquiries for clear error.”); In re Donaldson Co., 16 F.3d 1189, 1192, 29 U.S.P.Q.2d
1845, 1848 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (“Obviousness under section 103 is a question of law that
this court reviews de novo. “); In re Van Geuns, 988 F.2d 1181,1184, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d
1057,1059 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Miles Labs, Inc. v. Shandon, Inc., 997 F.2d 870, 877, 27
U.S.P.Q 2d 1123, 1128 (Fed. Cit. 1993); Davis v. Loesch, 998 F.2d 963, 969, 27
U.S.P.Q.2d 1440,1446 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
1. The scope and content of the prior art is one of the four underlying fact
questions. Graham v. John Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1, 17,148 U.S.P.Q 459,467
(1966); Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co. v. Johnson &Johnson Orthopaedics, Inc.,
976 F.2d 1559, 1572-73, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1332-33 (Fed. Cir. 1992); Sibia
Neurosciences, Inc. v. Cadus Pharms. Corp., 225 F.3d 1349, 1356, 55 U.S.P.Q.2d
1927, 1931 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“Determining whether there is a suggestion or
motivation to modify a prior art reference is one aspect of determining the scope
and content of the prior art, a fact question subsidiary to the ultimate conclusion
of obviousness.”); Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG v. Hantscho Commercial
Prods., 21 F.3d 1068, 1071, 30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1377, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (whether
a prior art reference is analogous); In re Clay, 966 F.2d 656, 658, 23 U.S.P.Q.2d
1058, 1060 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (whether a prior art reference is analogous); Panduit
Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 810 F.2d 1561, 1568, 1 U.S.P.Q.2d 1593, 1597 (Fed.
Cir. 1987) (whether a prior art reference is analogous).
2. The differences between the subject matter claimed and the prior art is
another one of the four underlying fact questions. Graham v. John Deere Co., 383
U.S. 1, 17,148 U.S.P.Q. 459,467 (1966); Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co. v.
Johnson &Johnson Orthopaedics, Inc., 976 F.2d 1559, 1572-73, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d
1321, 1332-33 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
3. The level of ordinary skill in the art is the third of the four underlying fact
questions. Graham v. John Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1, 17,148 U.S.P.Q. 459,467
(1966); In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559, 1564 n.4,31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817,1820 n.4 (Fed.
Cir. 1994) (“The level of skill in the art is one of the underlying factual findings
in support of an-obviousness rejection.”).
4. Consideration of objective indicia of nonobviousness (such as commercial
success, long felt but unresolved need, and acquiescence of others in the industry
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to the patent’s validity) is the fourth underlying fact question. Graham v. John
Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1, 17, 148 U.S.P.Q. 459, 467 (1966).
5. What a reference teaches and whether it teaches toward or away from the
claimed invention are questions of fact. Winner Int’l Royalty Corp. v. Wang, 202
F.3d 1340, 1349, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1580, 1587 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“What a reference
teaches and whether it teaches toward or away from the claimed invention are
questions of fact.”) (quoting In re Bell, 991 F.2d 781, 784, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1529,
1531 (Fed. Cit. 1993)); Roton Barrier, Inc. v. Stanley Works, 79 F.3d 1112, 1127,
37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1816, 1828 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“What a reference teaches is a
question of fact reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard.”); Para-Ordnance
Mfg., Inc. v. SGS Imps. Int’l, Inc., 73 F.3d 1085, 1090, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1237, 1241
(Fed. Cir. 1995).
6. Whether an invention achieves unexpected results is a question of fact. In
re Mayne, 104 F.3d 1339,1343, 41 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1451, 1455 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“An
examination for unexpected results is a factual, evidentiary inquiry, which this
court reviews for clear error.”).
7. Whether a suggestion or motivation exists to combine references is a
question of fact. Winner Int’l Royalty Corp. v. Wang, 202 F.3d 1340, 1348, 53
U.S.P.Q.2d 1580, 1586 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“Whether motivation to combine the
references was shown we hold a question of fact.”); In re Dembiczak, 175 F.3d
994, 1000, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1614, 1617 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“particular factual
findings regarding the suggestion, teaching, or motivation to combine”).
F. Section 102(b) On-Sale Bar: “The determination of whether an invention was
on sale within the meaning of § 102 is a question of law that we review without
deference.” Robotic Vision Sys., Inc. v. View Eng’g, Inc., 249 F.3d 1307, 1310, 58
U.S.P.Q.2d 1723, 1725 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
G. Originality: Whether a named inventor is truly an inventor is a legal conclusion
based upon factual inquiries. Sewell v. Walters, 21 F.3d 411, 415, 30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1356,
1358 (Fed. Cit. 1994) (inventorship is a question of law, reviewed de novo on appeal,
with “any facts found . . . [I]n reaching an inventorship holding . . . reviewed for clear
error” in an appeal from an interference or for substantial evidence in an appeal from a
jury verdict); Ethicon, Inc. v. United States Surgical Corp., 135F.3d 1456,1460, 45
U.S.P.Q.2d 1545, 1547 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
H. Misjoinder or Nonjoinder of Inventors: Whether an inventor is improperly
named or improperly omitted is a question of fact. Hess v. Advanced Cardiovascular
Sys., Inc., 106 F.3d 976, 980,41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1782, 1785 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“The burden of
showing misjoinder or nonjoinder of inventors is a heavy one and must be proved by
clear and convincing evidence.”) (quoting Garrett Corp. v. United States, 422 F.2d 874,
880, 164 U.S.P.Q. 521, 526 (Ct. Cl. 1970)).
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I. Priority of Invention: An evaluation of priority is a legal conclusion based upon
factual inquiries. Eaton v. Evans, 204 F.3d 1094, 1097, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1696, 1698 (Fed.
Cir. 2000) (“Priority and its constituent issues of conception and reduction to practice are
questions of law predicated on subsidiary factual findings. . . . Accordingly, we review de
novo the PTO Board’s legal conclusions regarding priority, conception, and reduction to
practice.”); Kridl v. McCormick, 105 F.3d 1446, 1449, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1686, 1688 (Fed.
Cir. 1997) (“Priority is a question of law that we review de novo.”); Innovative Scuba
Concepts, Inc. v. Fed. Indus., 26 F.3d 1112, 1115, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1132, 1134 (Fed. Cir.
1994); Price v. Symsek, 988 F.2d 1187, 1190, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1031, 1033 (Fed. Cir.
1993).
1. Conception is an issue of law based upon underlying factual inquiries.
Cooper v. Goldfarb, 154 F.3d 1321, 1327,47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1896, 1901 (Fed. Cir.
1998) (“Priority, conception, and reduction to practice are questions of law which
are based on subsidiary factual findings.”); Kridl v. McCormick, 105 F.3d 1446,
1449, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1686, 1688 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“we review de novo the
board’s ultimate determination of conception”); Bosies v. Benedict, 27 F.3d
539,541-42,30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1862, 1864 (Fed. Cit. 1994); Fiers v. Sugaro, 984 F.2d
1164, 1168, 25 U.S.P.Q.2d 1601, 1604 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
2. Reduction to practice is also an issue of law based upon underlying factual
inquiries. Fujikawav. Wattanasin, 93 F.3d 1559,1564, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1895, 1899
(Fed. Cir. 1996) (“The ultimate determination of reduction to practice is a
question of law which we review de novo.”); Schendel v. Curtis, 83 F.3d
1399,1402, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1743,1746 (Fed. Cit. 1996) (“We review de novo the
board’s legal conclusion concerning an alleged reduction to practice.”); In re
Asahi/Am. Inc., 68 F.3d 442, 445, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1204, 1206 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
(“The issue of reduction to practice is a question of law.”); Scott v. Finney, 34
F.3d 1058, 1061, 32 U.S.P.Q.2d 1115, 1117 (Fed. Cir. 1994); Hybritech Inc. v.
Monoclonal Antibodies, Inc., 802 F.2d 1367, 1376, 231 U.S.P.Q. 81, 87 (Fed. Cir.
1986).
3. Due diligence for priority of invention under 35 U.S.C. § 102(g) is a
question of fact. Texas Inst., Inc. v. United States Int’l Trade Comm’n, 871 F.2d
1054, 1068, 10 U.S.P.Q.2d 1257, 1261 (Fed. Cir. 1989).
J. Derivation: Derivation under 35 U.S.C. § 102(f) is a question of fact. Gambro
Lundia AB v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 110 F.3d 1573, 1576, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1378, 1381
(Fed. Cir. 1997) (“This court reviews a finding of derivation as a question of fact.”); Hess
v. Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 106 F.3d 976, 980, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1782, 1786
(Fed. Cir. 1997) (“[O]ne claiming that the inventor listed in the patent derived the
invention from the claimant’s work must show derivation by clear and convincing
evidence.”).
K. Claiming the Benefit of Priority: “Entitlement to priority under § 120 is a
matter of law, and receives plenary review on appeal.” In re Daniels, 144 F.3d 1452,
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1455-56, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1788, 1790 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (citing Racing Strollers, Inc. v. TRI
Indus., Inc., 878 F.2d 1418, 1419, 11 U.S.P.Q.2d 1300, 1301 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (en banc)).
L. Double Patenting: Double patenting is an issue of law that is reviewed de novo.
In re Berg, 140 F.3d 1428, 1432, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1226, 1229 (Fed. Cir. 1998)
(“Obviousness-type double patenting is a question of law reviewed de novo by this
court. . . . The question of whether the `one-way’ test or the `two-way’ test applies . . . is
one of law and therefore reviewed by this court without deference.”); Georgia-Pacific
Corp. v. United States Gypsum Co., 195 F.3d 1322, 1326, 52 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1590,1593
(Fed. Cir. 1999) (“Double patenting is a question of law, which we review de novo.”); In
re Goodman, 11 F.3d 1046, 1052, 29 U.S.P.Q.2d 2010, 2015 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Texas
Instruments Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 988 F.2d 1165, 1179, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1018, 1029
(Fed. Cir. 1993).
M. Functionality of a Design Patent Claim: “We review for clear error the district
court’s determination that the design claimed in the [subject] patent is functional.” Best
Lock Corp. v. Ilco Unican Corp., 94 F.3d 1563, 1566, 40 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1048, 1050 (Fed.
Cir. 1996).
N. Ownership: Although the ownership of a patent is a matter of law reviewed de novo,
the determination of ownership may involve underlying factual inquiries. Kahn v. Gen.
Motors Corp., 77 F.3d 457, 459, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1063, 1064 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
II. Issues Under 35 U.S.C. § 112:
A. Enablement Under § 112, First Paragraph: Enablement is a question of law
reviewed de novo, but may involve subsidiary questions of fact. Union Pac. Res. Co. v.
Chesapeake Energy Corp., 236 F.3d 684, 690, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1293,1296 (Fed. Cir. 2001)
(“Enablement is a question of law reviewed by this court independently and without
deference.”); PPG Indus., Inc. v. Guardian Indus. Corp., 75 F.3d 1558, 1564, 37
U.S.P.Q.2d 1618, 1623 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Enablement . . . is a question of law which we
independently review, although based upon underlying factual findings which we review
for clear error.”) (quoting In re Vaeck, 947 F.2d 488, 495, 20 U.S.P.Q.2d 1438, 1444
(Fed. Cir. 1991)); In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559, 1568, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1823 (Fed. Cit.
1994); In re Goodman, 11 F.3d 1046, 1049-50, 29 U.S.P.Q.2d 2010, 2013 (Fed. Cir.
1993).
B. Written Description Under § 112, First Paragraph: Compliance with the
“written description” requirement is a question of fact. Fujikawa v. Wattanasin, 93 F.3d
1559,1569-70,39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1895,1904 (Fed. Cit. 1996) (“Whether a disclosure contains
a sufficient written description to support a proposed count [in an interference], is a
question of fact which we review for clear error.”); Eiselstein v. Frank, 52 F.3d 1035,
1038, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1467, 1469 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“Compliance with the `written
description’ requirement is a question of fact, to be reviewed under the clearly erroneous
standard.”); Credle v. Bond, 25 F.3d 1566, 1573, 30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1911, 1917 (Fed. Cir.
1994).
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C. Sufficient Disclosure in Priority Document: Whether a parent application
contains a sufficient written description to support a continuing application is a question
of fact. Augustine Med., Inc. v. Gaymar Indus., Inc., 181 F.3d 1291, 1302-03, 50
U.S.P.Q.2d 1900, 1908 (Fed. Cit. 1999); Vas-Cath Inc. v. Mahurkar, 935 F.2d 1555,
1563, 19 U.S.P.Q.2d 1111, 1116 (Fed. Cit. 1991).
D. Best Mode Under § 112, First Paragraph: Compliance with the best mode
requirement is a question of fact. N. Telecom Ltd. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., 215 F.3d
1281, 1286, 55 U.S.P.Q.2d 1065, 1068 (Fed. Cir. 2000); Zygo Corp. v. Wyko Corp., 79
F.3d 1563, 1566-67, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1281, 1283 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Compliance with the
best mode requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 1121 1 is a question of fact.”); Transco Prods., Inc.
v. Performance Contracting, Inc., 38 F.3d 551, 559, 32 U.S.P.Q.2d 1077, 1084 (Fed. Cir.
1994); In re Hayes Microcomputer Prods., 982 F.2d 1527, 1536, 25 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1241,
1248 (Fed. Cir. 1992); Scripps Clinic & Research Found. v. Genentech, Inc., 927 F.2d
1565, 1578, 18 U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1012 (Fed. Cir. 1991); Chemcast Corp. v. Arco Indus.
Corp., 913 F.2d 923, 928, 16 U.S.P.Q.2d 1033, 1037 (Fed. Cir. 1990).
E. Indefiniteness Under § 112, Second Paragraph: Compliance with the
definiteness standard of § 112 1 2 is a question of law. Union Pac. Res. Co. v.
Chesapeake Energy Corp., 236 F.3d 684, 692, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1293,1297 (Fed. Cir. 2001)
(“Whether a claim is invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 112, 1 2, for indefiniteness is a question
of law reviewed de novo.”); Solomon v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 216 F.3d 1372, 1378, 55
U.S.P.Q.2d 1279, 1281 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“The determination whether a claim recites `the
subject matter which the applicant regards as his invention,’ like a determination whether
a claim is sufficiently definite, is a legal conclusion . . . that we review de novo.” (citation
omitted)); Personalized Media Communications v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 161 F.3d 696,
702, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d 1880, 1886 (Fed. Cir. 1998); Credle v. Bond, 25 F.3d 1566, 1576, 30
U.S.P.Q.2d 1911, 1919 (Fed. Cir. 1994); Carl Zeiss Stiftung v. Renishaw, 945 F.2d 1173,
1181, 20 U.S.P.Q.2d 1094, 1101 (Fed. Cir. 1991).
F. Means-Plus-Function Claims Under § 112, Sixth Paragraph:
1. Whether the language of a claim is to be interpreted according to 35
U.S.C. § 112, ¶6 is a question of law reviewed de novo. Kemco Sales, Inc. v.
Control Papers Co., 208 F.3d 1352, 1360, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1308, 1312 (Fed. Cir.
2000); Personalized Media Communications v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 161 F.3d
696, 702, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d 1880, 1886 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“Whether the language of a
claim is to be interpreted according to 35 U.S.C. Section 112, Para. 6, i.e.,
whether a claim limitation is in means-plus-function format, is a matter of claim
construction and is thus a question of law, reviewed de novo.”).
2. Interpreting the “function” recited in a means-plus-function-claim is a
legal issue. Desper Prods., Inc. v. Qsound Labs, Inc., 157 F.3d 1325, 1336, 48
U.S.P.Q. 2d 1088, 1096 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“Interpreting the function of an element
written in means-plus-function language is a question of law subject to complete
and independent review on appeal.”); Chiuminatta Concrete Concepts, Inc. v.
Cardinal Indus., Inc., 145 F.3d 1303, 1308, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1752, 1755 (Fed. Cit.
Doc. #869018v.1
1998) (“A determination of the claimed function, being a matter of construction
of specific terms in the claim, is a question of law, reviewed de novo.”).
3. Deciding what constitute “equivalents” to a structure recited in a meansplus-
function claim is question of law. Although the Federal Circuit previously
expressly reserved the question of whether equivalents under § 112 16 is a
question of law or fact, Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 977
n.8, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1327 n.8 (Fed. Cir. 1995), this issue now appears to be
legal in nature. WMS Gaming Inc. v. Int’l Game Tech., 184 F.3d 1339, 1347, 51
U.S.P.Q.2d 1385, 1390 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“Determining the claimed function and
the corresponding structure for a claim limitation written in means-plus-function
format are both matters of claim construction. They therefore present issues of
law that we review de novo.”); Smiths Indus. Med. Sys., Inc. v. Vital Signs, Inc.,
183 F.3d 1347, 1358, 51 U.S.P.Q.2d 1415, 1422 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“The
determination of the contours of the corresponding structure in a means-plusfunction
claim, as contrasted with the question of whether an accused structure is
equivalent to such a corresponding structure, is a matter of law for courts to
decide because it is a question of claim construction.”); Chiuminatta Concrete
Concepts, Inc. v. Cardinal Indus., Inc., 145 F.3d 1303,1308, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d
1752,1755-56 (Fed. Cir. 1998); B. Braun Med., Inc. v. Abbott Lab., 124 F.3d
1419, 1424-25, 43 U.S.P.Q.2d 1896, 1899-1900 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
III. Rejection Grounds: “Preponderance of the evidence is the standard that must be met by
the PTO in making rejections.” In re Epstein, 32 F.3d 1559, 1565, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1820
(Fed. Cir. 1994); In re Caveney, 761 F.2d 671, 674, 226 U.S.P.Q. 1, 3 (Fed. Cir. 1985). The
Federal Circuit reviews Board fact-findings under the clearly erroneous standard. In re Caveney,
761 F.2d 671, 674, 226 U.S.P.Q. 1, 3 (Fed. Cit. 1985). Under this standard of review, findings of
the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences are overturned only if the court is left with the
definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. SSIH Equip. SA v. Int’l Trade
Comm’n, 718 F.2d 365, 381, 218 U.S.P.Q. 678,692 (Fed. Cir. 1983) (Nies, J., additional views).
IV. Patent Interferences:
A. Disclosure: The question of what is disclosed in an application involved in an
interference is a question of fact reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard. Credle v.
Bond, 25 F.3d 1566, 1573, 30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1911, 1916 (Fed. Cir. 1994); Davis v. Loesch,
998 F.2d 963, 968-69,27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1440,1445 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
B. Support: Whether an application supports the subject matter of an interference
count is a question of fact. Vas-Cath Inc. v. Mahurkar, 935 F.2d 1555,1560, 1563, 19
U.S.P.Q.2d 1111, 1116 (Fed. Cir. 1991) (stating that whether specification supports
claims corresponding to count, and thereby satisfies written description requirement of 35
U.S.C. § 112 **1, is question of fact).
C. Count Interpretation: The proper construction of a count, determined by the
language as a whole, the grammatical structure and syntax, is an issue of law. Genentech,
Inc. v. Chiron Corp., 112 F. 3d 495, 500, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1608, 1612 (Fed. Cir. 1997);
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Credle v. Bond, 25 F.3d 1566, 1571, 30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1911, 1915 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (stating
that to construe the count the court looks to the language as a whole and considers the
grammatical structure and syntax); Davis v. Loesch, 998 F.2d 963, 967, 27 U.S.P.Q.2d
1440, 1444 (Fed. Cir. 1993); DeGeorge v. Bernier, 768 F.2d 1318, 1321, 226 U.S.P.Q.
758, 760 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
D. Judicial Review: If decision pursuant to permissive statute concerns only Patent
and Trademark Office (PTO) practice, the Federal Circuit reviews the decision for abuse
of discretion. Gerritsen v. Shirai, 979 F.2d 1524, 1527-28, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d 1912, 1915-16
(Fed. Cir. 1992) (vacating default judgment in interference for abuse of discretion).
V. Patent Claim Interpretation: The issue of claim construction is a question of law
reviewed de novo on appeal. Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d 1448, 1456, 46
U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1174 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc) (“[W]e review claim construction de novo on
appeal including any allegedly fact-based questions relating to claim construction.”); Digital
Biometrics, Inc. v. Identix, Inc., 149 F.3d 1335, 1344, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1418, 1424 (Fed. Cir.
1998) (“We review a district court’s claim construction anew and without deference.”);
Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1329 (Fed. Cir.
1995) (en banc) (rejecting proposition that claim construction issue involves subsidiary or
underlying questions of fact).
VI. Inequitable Conduct: The ultimate question of whether inequitable conduct occurred is
equitable in nature and is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Nordberg, Inc. v.
Telsmith, Inc., 82 F.3d 394, 396, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1593, 1595 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review the
district court’s conclusion concerning inequitable conduct for abuse of discretion.”); Molins PLC
v. Textron, Inc., 48 F.3d 1172,1178, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1823, 1827 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“An abuse of
discretion may be established by showing that the court based its ruling on clearly erroneous
factual findings, an error of law, or a clear error of judgment.”); Kingsdown Med. Consultants,
Ltd. v. Hollister, Inc., 863 F.2d 867, 876, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1384, 1392 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (en banc).
Inequitable conduct findings of the International Trade Commission (ITC) may be overturned
only if they are unsupported by substantial evidence. Tandon Corp. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 831
F.2d 10 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1283, 1284-85 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
VII. Reissue/Reexamination:
A. Statutory Reissue Requirements: “Whether the statutory requirements of 35
U.S.C. [§] 251 have been met is a question of law.” Hester Indus., Inc. v. Stein, Inc., 142
F.3d 1472, 1479, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1641, 1647 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (stating that this legal
conclusion can involve underlying factual questions); In re Clement, 131 F.3d 1464,
1468, 45 U.S.P.Q.2d 1161, 1163 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
B. Scope of Reissued Claims: “A determination of whether the scope of a reissue
claim is identical with the scope of the original claim is a question of law, which we
review de novo.” Westvaco Corp. v. Int’l Paper Co., 991 F.2d 735, 741, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d
1353, 1358 (Fed. Cit. 1993) (emphasis added); Tillotson, Ltd. v. Walbro Corp., 831 F.2d
1033, 1037, 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1450, 1452 (Fed. Cit. 1987).
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C. Scope of Reexamined Claims: Whether the scope of a reexamined claim is
substantially identical with the scope of the original claim is an issue of law reviewed de
novo. Hockerson-Halberstadt, Inc. v. Converse Inc., 183 F.3d 1369, 1373, 51 U.S.P.Q.2d
1518, 1521 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“Whether amendments made during reexamination enlarge
the scope of a claim is a matter of claim construction. Claim construction is a matter of
law that this court reviews without deference to the trial court.” (citation omitted));
Laitram Corp. v. NEC Corp., 163 F.3d 1342, 1346, 49 U.S.P.Q.2d 1199, 1202 (Fed. Cit.
1998) (stating that this standard flows from the general principle that the interpretation
and construction of patent claims, which define the scope of the patentee’s rights under
the patent, are matters of law). “This court reviews without deference the district court’s
conclusion that the reexamined claims remained identical in scope.” Minco, Inc. v.
Combustion Eng’g, Inc., 95 F.3d 1109, 1115, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1005 (Fed. Cit. 1996).
D. Intervening Rights: Whether a third party is entitled to assert intervening rights
is an issue reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. Westvaco Corp. v. Int’l Paper
Co., 991 F.2d 735, 743, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1353, 1360 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
VIII. Patent Infringement: The determination of whether claims, once properly interpreted,
are infringed is a question of fact reviewed under the clearly erroneous or substantial evidence
standards. Roton Barrier, Inc. v. Stanley Works, 79 F.3d 1112, 1125, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1816, 1827
(Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Infringement, both literal and under the doctrine of equivalents, is an issue of
fact, reviewable under the clearly erroneous standard.”); Southwall Techs,. Inc. v. Cardinal IG
Co., 54 F.3d 1570, 1575, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1673, 1676 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
A. Determination of Literal Infringement: Literal infringement is a factual
determination. In re Hayes Microcomputer Prods., 982 F.2d 1527, 1541, 25 U.S.P.Q.2d
1241, 1251 (Fed. Cir. 1992); Moleculon Research Corp. v. CBS, Inc., 793 F.2d 1261,
1269-70, 229 U.S.P.Q. 805, 811 (Fed. Cir. 1986).
B. Reverse Doctrine of Equivalents: The application of the reverse doctrine of
equivalents, as a limitation on a finding of literal infringement, is reviewed as a question
of fact. Hartness Int’l, Inc. v. Simplimatic Eng’g Co., 819 F.2d 1100, 1110, 2 U.S.P.Q.2d
1826, 1833 (Fed. Cir. 1987); SRI Int’l v. Matsushita Elec. Corp., 775 F.2d 1107, 1125,
227 U.S.P.Q. 577, 588 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
C. Infringement Under the Doctrine of Equivalents: Infringement under the
doctrine of equivalents is also a factual determination. Bai v. L & L Wings, Inc., 160 F.3d
1350, 1353, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d 1674, 1676 (Fed. Cir. 1998); WarnerJenkinson Co. v. Hilton
Davis Chem. Co., 520 U.S. 17, 39, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1865, 1875 (1997). “When
infringement under the doctrine is tried by a jury, an appellate court reviews the jury
verdict for lack of substantial evidence.” Genentech, Inc. v. Wellcome Found. Ltd., 29
F.3d 1555,1565, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1161,116869 (Fed. Cir. 1994): “[The Federal Circuit]
must overturn the jury’s finding on a factual issue if it is not supported by substantial
evidence or if it is based on an erroneous legal determination.” Kearns v. Chrysler Corp.,
32 F.3d 1541, 154748, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1746, 1751 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
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D. Limitations on the Doctrine of Equivalents:
1. “Determining whether the scope of equivalents accorded to a particular
claim would encompass the prior art is an issue of law which [is reviewed] de
novo.” Streamfeeder v. Sure-Feed Sys., Inc., 175 F.3d 974, 981, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d
1515, 1519 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“Determining whether the scope of equivalents
accorded to a particular claim would encompass the prior art is an issue of law
which we review de novo.” (emphasis added)); Texas Instruments Inc. v. Int’l
Trade Comm’n, 988 F.2d 1165, 1173, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1018, 1025 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
2. “Prosecution history estoppel is a legal question that is subject to de novo
review by this court.” Festo Corp. v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Kogyo Kabushiki Co.,
234 F.3d 558, 585, 56 U.S.P.Q.2d 1865, 1885 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (en banc), cert.
granted, 121 S. Ct. 2519 (Jun. 18, 2001); Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138
F.3d 1448, 1459-60 & n.5, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1177-78 & n.5 (Fed. Cir. 1998)
(en banc) (“Prosecution history estoppel is a legal question subject to de novo
review on appeal.” (emphasis added)); Mark I Mktg. Corp. v. R.R. Donnelley &
Sons Co., 66 F.3d 285, 291, 36 U.S.P.Q.2d 1095, 1100 (Fed. Cir. 1995); Hoganas
AB v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 9 F.3d 948, 952, 28 U.S.P.Q.2d 1936, 1939 (Fed. Cir.
1993).
3. The application of case law limitations on the doctrine of equivalents is
also reviewed as an issue of law. K-2 Corp. v. Salomon S.A., 191 F.3d 1356,
1367, 52 U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1008 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (noting that the doctrine cannot
encompass subject matter existing in the prior art; nor may it allow coverage of
obvious or trivial variations of the prior art; or vitiate an element from the claim
in its entirety; or recover subject matter surrendered during the prosecution
history; all of these limitations on the doctrine of equivalents-are questions of
law).
E. Willfulness of Infringement: Whether infringement is willful is a question of
fact, and willful infringement must be established by clear and convincing evidence.
Comark Communications, Inc. v. Harris Corp., 156 F.3d 1182, 1186, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d
1001, 1004 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“This court therefore reviews a jury’s finding of willful
infringement to determine if there is substantial evidence to support that finding.”);
Stryker Corp. v. Intermedics Orthopedics, Inc., 96 F.3d 1409, 1413, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1065,
1068 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“The court’s finding of willful infringement is one of fact, subject
to the clearly erroneous standard of review.”); Bic Leisure Prods. v. Windsurfing Int’l,
Inc., 1 F.3d 1214, 1222,27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1671,1678 (Fed. Cir. 1993); L.A. Gear, Inc. v.
Tom McAn Shoe Co., 988 F.2d 1117, 1126, 25 U.S.P.Q.2d 1913, 1919 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
F. Design Patent Infringement: The determination of whether a design patent
claim, once properly interpreted, is infringed is a question of fact reviewed under the
clearly erroneous or substantial evidence standards. Oddzon Prods., Inc. v. Just Toys,
Inc., 122 F.3d 1396, 1405, 43 U.S.P.Q.2d 1641, 1647 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“Design patent
infringement is a question of fact, which a patentee must prove by a preponderance of the
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evidence.”); L.A. Gear, Inc. v. Tom McAn Shoe Co., 988 F.2d 1117, 1124, 25
U.S.P.Q.2d 1913, 1918 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
G. Repair and Reconstruction: Whether actions constitute a permissible repair or
an infringing reconstruction is a question of law reviewed de novo. Sandvik Aktiebolag v.
E.J. Co., 121 F.3d 669, 672, 43 U.S.P.Q.2d 1620, 1622 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“Whether
defendant’s actions constitute a permissible repair or an infringing reconstruction is a
question of law which we also review de novo.” (emphasis added)); Sage Prods., Inc. v.
Devon Indus., Inc., 45 F.3d 1575, 1577, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1765, 1766-67 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
(“the question of whether the defendant’s conduct constituted permissible repair is
answerable as a question of law”); FMC Corp. v. Up-Right, Inc., 21 F.3d 1073, 1078, 30
U.S.P.Q.2d 1361, 1364 (Fed. Cit. 1994) (the distinction between repair and
reconstruction is a legal standard).
IX. Remedies:
A. Amount of Damages: “The amount of damages determined by a district court is
a question of fact that is reviewed for clear error on appeal, while the method used by a
district court in reaching that determination is reviewed for an abuse of discretion.”
Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs., Inc., 138 F.3d 1448, 1461, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1179 (Fed.
Cir. 1998) (en banc); Stryker Corp. v. Intermedics Orthopedics, Inc., 96 F.3d 1409, 1413,
40 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1065, 1068 (Fed. Cit. 1996); Unisplay, S.A. v. Am. Elec. Sign Co., 69
F.3d 512, 517, 36 U.S.P.Q.2d 1540, 1544 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“The determination of the
amount of damages based on a reasonable royalty is an issue of fact.”).
B. Methodology: Certain subsidiary decisions underlying a damage award,
including the choice of an accounting method for determining profits and the
methodology used to calculate a reasonable royalty, are discretionary and are reviewed
for abuse of discretion. SmithKline Diagnostics Inc. v. Helena Labs., 926 F.2d 1161,
1165 & n.2,17 U.S.P.Q.2d 1922, 1925 & n.2 (Fed. Cir. 1991) (“However, certain
subsidiary decisions underlying a damage theory are discretionary with the court, such as,
the choice of an accounting method for determining profit margin . . . or the methodology
for arriving at a reasonable royalty.”); Rite-Hire Corp. v. Kelley Co., 56 F.3d 1538,1543-
44,35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1065, 1067-68 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (en banc) (“In order to prevail on
appeal on an issue of damages, an appellant must convince us that the determination was
based on an erroneous conclusion of law, clearly erroneous factual findings, or a clear
error of judgment amounting to an abuse of discretion.”); Maxwell v. J. Baker, Inc., 86
F.3d 1098, 1108, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1007 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review the court’s
methodology used in calculating damages for an abuse of discretion. . . . We review the
jury’s determination of the amount of damages, an issue of fact, for substantial
evidence.”); Hughes Aircraft Co. v. United States, 86 F.3d 1566, 1572, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d
1065, 1069 (Fed. Cit. 1996) (“In determining what constitutes a reasonable royalty, the
court has discretion to make certain subsidiary decisions, such as what methodology to
use to arrive at a reasonable royalty, and those decisions are reviewed for an abuse of
discretion.”).
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C. Non-Infringing Substitutes: “The court’s finding that the [device] was not an
acceptable noninfringing alternative is reviewed for clear error,” which is a question of
fact. Zygo Corp. v. Wyko Corp., 79 F.3d 1563,1571, 38 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1281, 1287 (Fed.
Cir. 1996).
D. Enhanced Damages, Costs, and Attorney Fees: The determination of whether
a case is exceptional and, thus, eligible for an award of attorney fees under § 285 is a
two-step process. Reactive Metals & Alloys Corp. v. ESM, Inc., 769 F.2d 1578, 1582,
226 U.S.P.Q. 821, 824 (Fed. Cir. 1985). First, the district court must determine whether a
case is exceptional, a factual determination reviewed for clear error. Baldwin Hardware
Corp. v. Franksu Enter. Corp., 78 F.3d 550, 563, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1829, 1838 (Fed. Cir.
1996). After determining that a case is exceptional, the district court must determine
whether attorney fees are appropriate, a determination reviewed for an abuse of
discretion. Molins PLC v. Textron, Inc., 48 F.3d 1172, 1186, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1823, 1833
(Fed. Cir. 1995). A district court abuses its discretion when its decision is based on
clearly erroneous findings of fact, is based on erroneous interpretations of the law, or is
clearly unreasonable, arbitrary or fanciful. Fraige v. Am. Nat’l Watermattress Corp., 996
F.2d 295, 297, 27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1149, 1151 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
E. “Exceptional” Cases: Whether a case is “exceptional,” supporting an award of
increased damages and attorney fees, is a question of fact. Cybor Corp. v. FAS Techs.,
Inc., 138 F.3d 1423, 1426, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1179 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc)
(“[W]hether the case is exceptional [is] a factual determination reviewed for clear
error.”); Bic Leisure Prods. v. Windsurfing Int’l, Inc., 1 F.3d 1214, 1222, 27 U.S.P.Q.2d
1671, 1678 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
F. Sanctions: The decision to -impose sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 11 or 37 is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Cooter & Gell v.
Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384,405 (1990) (holding that although a Rule 11 determination
involves both factual and legal issues, all aspects of the Rule 11 determination are
reviewed for an abuse of discretion); View Eng’g, Inc. v. Robotic Vision Sys., Inc., 208
F.3d 981, 984, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1179, 1181 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“Rule 11 sanctions are
reviewed for the error underlying them under the abuse of discretion standard. The abuse
of discretion standard applies to both the decision to sanction, and the amount of the
sanction.”); DH Tech. Inc. v. Synergystex Int’l Inc., 154 F.3d 1333, 1343, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d
1865, 1873 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“we review Rule 37 sanctions under an abuse of discretion
standard”); New Idea Farm Equip. Corp. v. Sperry Corp., 916 F.2d 1561, 1568, 16
U.S.P.Q. 2d 1424, 1430 (Fed. Cir. 1990).
G. Interest: The choices of whether to award interest and, if so, of what interest
type and at what rate are discretionary and are reviewed for abuse of discretion. Oiness v.
Walgreen Co., 88 F.3d 1025, 1033, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1304, 1310 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“This
court reviews grant or denial of prejudgment interest for an abuse of discretion.”);
Hughes Aircraft Co. v. United States, 86 F.3d 1566, 1575, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1065, 1071
(Fed. Cir. 1996) (“It is well settled that the determination whether to award simple or
compound interest is a matter largely within the discretion of the trial court.”); Laitram
Corp. v. NEC Corp., 115 F.3d 947, 955, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1897, 1904 (Fed. Cir. 1997)
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(“[T]he question of the rate at which such [a prejudgment interest] award should be made
is a matter left to the sound discretion of the trier of fact.”).
H. Prevailing Party: The question of whether a party is a “prevailing party” for
purposes of awarding costs under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54 or 42 U.S.C. § 1988
is a matter of law, but the subsequent decision to award costs (and the amount of costs
awarded, if any) to a prevailing party is a matter of discretion. Manildra Milling Corp. v.
Ogilvie Mills, Inc., 76 F.3d 1178, 1183-85, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1707, 1712-13 (Fed. Cir.
1996) (noting that the regional circuit courts are split on this issue).
I. Marking. Compliance with 35 U.S.C. § 287(a) is a question of fact. Maxwell v. J.
Baker, Inc., 86 F.3d 1098, 1111, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1010 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
J. Remittitur: The decision denying a grant of remittitur because of an excessive
damage award is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Oiness v. Walgreen Co., 88 F.3d
1025, 1029, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1304, 1307 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“This court reviews for an abuse
of discretion the decision denying a grant of remittitur or a new trial because of an
excessive damage award.”).
K. Section 1498 Damages: The amount of damages awarded in an action under 28
U.S.C. § 1498 against the government is a question of fact. “Valuation determinations for
purposes of eminent domain are reviewed for clear error as are determinations of what
constitutes a reasonable royalty.” Hughes Aircraft Co. v. United States, 86 F.3d 1566,
1572; 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1065, 1069 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (additionally, the “court has discretion
in determining the delay compensation rate”).
Trademarks
I. Validity:
A. Functionality: The question of whether a mark is functional is one of fact.
Brunswick Corp. v. British Seagull Ltd., 32 U.S.P.Q.2d 1120, 1122 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
B. Distinctiveness: The question of whether a mark is distinctive is one of fact. In
re Nett Designs, Inc., 236 F.3d 1339, 1340, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1564, 1565 (Fed. Cir. 2001)
(“Placement of a term on the fanciful-suggestive-descriptive-generic continuum is a
question of fact.”); Yamaha Int’l Corp. v. Hoshino Gakki Co. Ltd., 840 F.2d 1572, 1581,
6 U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1008 (Fed. Cir. 1988); In re Loew’s Theatres Inc., 769 F.2d 764, 769,
226 U.S.P.Q. 865,869 (Fed. Cir. 1985); The Hoover Co. v. Royal Appliance Mfg. Co.,
238 F.3d 1357, 1359, 57 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1720, 1722 (Fed. Cit. 2001) (“The issue of inherent
distinctiveness is a factual determination.”); In re Bed & Breakfast Registry, 791 F.2d
157, 160, 229 U.S.P.Q. 818, 819 (Fed. Cir. 1986); In re Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner &
Smith, Inc., 828 F.2d 1567, 1570, 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1141, 1143 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (whether a
mark is ineligible for registration as merely descriptive under 15 U.S.C. § 1052(e) is a
question of fact which we review for clear error).
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C. Acquired Distinctiveness: Whether a mark has acquired distinctiveness is a
question of fact. The Hoover Co. v. Royal Appliance Mfg. Co., 238 F.3d 1357, 1359, 57
U.S.P.Q.2d 1720, 1722 (Fed. Cit. 2001) (“Whether a mark has acquired distinctiveness is
a question of fact.”); Petersen Mfg. Co. v. Central Purchasing Inc., 740 F.2d 1541, 1550,
222 U.S.P.Q. 562,569 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
D. Generic Terms: The question of whether a mark is generic is one of fact. In re
Merrill Lynch, 828 F.2d 1567, 1571, 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1141, 1143 (Fed. Cir. 1987); In re
Northland Aluminum Prods., Inc., 777 F.2d 1556, 1559, 227 U.S.P.Q. 961, 963 (Fed. Cir.
1985).
E. Misdescriptive Terms: The question of whether a mark is misdescriptive under
15 U.S.C. § 1052(e) is one of fact. The Hoover Co. v. Royal Appliance Mfg. Co., 238
F.3d 1357, 1361, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1720, 1723 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (“Whether a mark is
misdescriptive is a question of fact.”).
F. Scandalous Matter: The issue of whether a mark comprises scandalous matter
under 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) is one of law. In re Mavety Media Group Ltd., 33 F.3d 1367,
1371, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1923, 1925 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
G. Abandonment: Abandonment is a question of fact. Rivard v. Linville, 133 F.3d
1446, 1449, 45 U.S.P.Q.2d 1374, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“Abandonment is a question of
fact. We sustain the Board’s fact findings unless they are clearly erroneous.”); On-Line
Careline, Inc. v. Am. Online, Inc., 229 F.3d 1080, 1088, 56 U.S.P.Q.2d 1471, 1476 (Fed.
Cir. 2000).
II. Conflicting Rights: The question of trademark infringement is one of fact. Charles
Greiner & Co. v. Mari-Med Mfg., 962 F.2d 1031,1034-35, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1526, 1528 (Fed. Cir.
1992).
A. Prior Use: The question of prior use is one of fact. West Florida Seafood, Inc. v.
Jet Rests., Inc., 31 F.3d 1122, 1125, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1660, 1662 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
B. Comparison of Marks: The question of whether a mark is a “substantially exact
representation” of another mark is a factual finding. In re Hacot-Colombier, 105 F.3d
616, 618, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1523, 1525 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
C. Likelihood of Confusion: The issue of likelihood of confusion is a legal
conclusion predicated on underlying factual findings. In re Shell Oil Co., 992 F.2d 1204,
1206, 26 U.S.P.Q.2d 1687, 1688 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Century 21 Real Estate Corp. v.
Century Life of Am., 970 F.2d 874, 876, 23 U.S.P.Q.2d 1698, 1700 (Fed. Cir. 1992)
(stating that the court reviews the PTO Board’s legal conclusions, including likelihood of
confusion, de novo); In re Hearst Corp., 982 F.2d493, 494, 25 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1238, 1239
(Fed. Cir. 1992). Acknowledging that some circuit courts of appeals support the view
that likelihood of confusion is a question of fact, “we hold that the issue of likelihood of
confusion is the ultimate conclusion of law to be decided by the court, and that the clearly
erroneous rule is not applicable.” Giant Food, Inc. v. Nation’s Foodservice, Inc., 710
F.2d 1565, 1569, 218 U.S.P.Q. 390, 394 (Fed. Cir. 1983).
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PTO-Specific Issues and Questions
I. Maintenance Fee Payments: Ray v. Lehman, 55 F.3d 606, 608-09, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d
1786, 1787 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (denial of petition to reinstate patent for failure to pay maintenance
fee properly reviewed by district court under APA’s abuse of discretion standard).
II. Revival of Abandoned Patent Application: Morganroth v. Quigg, 885 F.2d 843, 845-
46, 12 U.S.P.Q.2d 1125, 1126-27 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (refusal to revive application properly
reviewed by district court under APR’s arbitrary, capricious, abuse of discretion standard).
III. Patent Award: Heinemann v. United States, 796 F.2d 451, 454-55, 230 U.S.P.Q. 430,
433-34 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (award of patent to United States instead of employee properly reviewed
by Claims Court under APA’s arbitrary, capricious, abuse of discretion standard).
IV. Disciplinary Action: Klein v. Peterson, 866 F.2d 412, 414, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1558, 1559
(Fed. Cit. 1989) (stating that PTO bears the burden of proving charges of misconduct against a
practitioner by clear and convincing evidence; the PTO’s decision to impose disciplinary
sanctions is reviewed under the substantial evidence standard); Jaskiewicz v. Mossinghoff, 822
F.2d 1053, 1056, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1294, 1299 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
Case Management Issues and Questions
I. Jurisdiction:
A. Personal Jurisdiction: A trial tribunal’s determination regarding personal
jurisdiction is an issue of law reviewed de novo. Viam Corp. v. Iowa Exp.-Imp. Trading
Co., 84 F.3d 424, 427, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d 1833, 1834 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review the
district court’s determination that it lacks personal jurisdiction over Spal, an issue of law,
without deference to the view of the district court.”) (citing Akro Corp. v. Luker, 45 F.3d
1541, 1543, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1505, 1506 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). 3D Sys., Inc. v. Aarotech Labs.,
Inc., 160 F.3d 1373, 1376, 48 U.S.P.Q.2d 1773, 1775 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“Whether or not a
court has personal jurisdiction over a party is a question of law that we review de
novo.”); N. Am. Philips Corp. v. Am. Vending Sales, 35 F.3d 1576, 1578, 32 U.S.P.Q.2d
1203, 1204 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (“A district court’s ultimate conclusion as to whether it has
jurisdiction, and any subsidiary conclusions regarding the legal effect of particular
jurisdictional facts” is reviewed de novo.).
B. Subject Matter Jurisdiction: Whether or not a court has subject matter
jurisdiction over a party is a question of law reviewed de novo; thus, a decision on a
motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction is an issue of law reviewed de novo. Hunter Douglas, Inc. v.
Harmonic Design, Inc., 153 F.3d 1318, 1325, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1769,1772 (Fed. Cir. 1998)
(“Our review of jurisdiction determinations is plenary.”); GAF Bldg. Materials Corp. v.
ElkCorp., 90 F.3d 479, 481, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1463,1465 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review de
novo the district court’s decision concerning jurisdiction.”); Nat’l Presto Indus., Inc. v.
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Dazey Corp., 107 F.3d 1576, 1580, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1070, 1073 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“This
court reviews an appeal for subject matter jurisdiction as a question of law.”); Mars, Inc.
v. Kabushiki-Kaisha Nippon Conlux, 24 F.3d 1368, 1371, 30 U.S.P.Q.2d 1621, 1622
(Fed. Cir. 1994).
C. Declaratory Judgment jurisdiction:
1. Whether an actual controversy exists for purposes of Article III is a
question of law subject to de novo review. Cygnus Therapeutic Sys. v. Alza
Corp., 92 F.3d 1153, 1159, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1666, 1670 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Whether
an actual controversy exists is a question of law that we review de novo.”); Super
Sack Mfg. Corp. v. Chase Packaging Corp., 57 F.3d 1054, 1058, 35 U.S.P.Q. 2d
1139, 1141 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“Whether, upon a particular set of facts, an actual
controversy exists for purposes of Article III is a question of law subject to
plenary review.”); BP Chems. Ltd. v. Union Carbide Corp., 4 F.3d 975, 978, 28
U.S.P.Q.2d 1124-1127 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Shell Oil Co. v. Amoco Corp., 970 F.2d
885, 888, 23 U.S.P.Q.2d 1627, 1630 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
2. A court’s discretionary decision to refuse to accept jurisdiction over a
declaratory judgment complaint even when an actual controversy exists is
reviewed under the “abuse of discretion” standard. Glaxo, Inc. v. Novopharm,
Ltd., 110 F.3d 1562, 1570,42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1257, 1264 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“the
exercise of jurisdiction over [a declaratory judgment] action is within the
discretion of the district court”); EMC Corp. v. Norand Corp., 89 F.3d 807, 813,
39 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1451, 1455-56 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (noting that Wilton v. Seven Falls
Co., 115 S. Ct. 2137, 2143 (1995), stated the standard and “explicitly rejected the
more probing review previously practiced by this court”); Serco Servs. Co. v.
Kelley Co., 51 F.3d 1037, 1039, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1217, 1219 (Fed. Cir. 1995)
(affirming district court’s decision to dismiss first-filed declaratory judgment
action in favor of later-filed infringement action).
D. Standing: Whether a party has standing to sue is an issue of law reviewed de
novo. Prima Tek II v. A-Roo Co., 222 F.3d 1372, 1376, 55 U.S.P.Q.2d 1742, 1745 (Fed.
Cir. 2000) (“Whether a party has standing to sue is a question that this court reviews de
novo.”); Rite-Hite Corp. v. Kelley Co., 56 F.3d 1538, 1551, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1065, 1074
(Fed. Cir. 1995) (“The question of standing to sue is a jurisdictional one . . . which we
review de novo”).
II. Issue and Claim Preclusion: The question of “whether preclusion [claim preclusion or
res judicata; issue preclusion or collateral estoppel] applies to a particular action is an issue of
law.” Jet, Inc. v. Sewage Aeration Sys., 223 F.3d 1360, 1362, 55 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1854, 1856 (Fed.
Cir. 2000); Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. v. Mylan Pharms., Inc., 170 F.3d 1373, 1376, 50
U.S.P.Q.2d 1033, 1036 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“We likewise review a district court’s application of
collateral estoppel de novo.”). But see Zeneca Ltd. v. Novopharm Ltd., 45 U.S.P.Q.2d 1055,
1057 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (unpublished) (“District court decisions not to employ collateral estoppel,
an equitable doctrine, are reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion.”) (quoting Albemarle
Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 424 (1975)).
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III. Summary Judgment: A grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo; in contrast, a
denial of a motion for summary judgment is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Elekta Instrument
Int’l, Inc., 214 F.3d 1302, 1306, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1910, 1912 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“In reviewing a
denial of a motion for summary judgment, we give considerable deference to the trial court, and
will not disturb the trial court’s denial of summary judgment unless we find that the court has
indeed abused its discretion.’” (citation omitted)); Petrolite Corp. v. Baker Hughes Inc., 96 F.3d
1423, 1425, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1201, 1203 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“We review a district court’s grant of
summary judgment de novo.”); Glaverbel Societe Anonyme & Fosbel, Inc. v. Northlake Mktg.
& Supply, Inc., 45 F.3d 1550, 1559, 33 U.S.P.Q.2d 1496, 1502 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“We give
plenary review to whether the issue was appropriately disposed of by summary judgment”);
Tone Bros. v. Sysco Corp., 28 F.3d 1192, 1196, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1323 (Fed. Cir. 1994);
Conroy v. Reebok Int’l, Ltd., 14 F.3d 1570, 1575, 29 U.S.P.Q.2d 1373, 1377 (Fed. Cir. 1994);
Paragon Podiatry Lab. v. KLM Labs., 984 F.2d 1182, 1185, 25 U.S.P.Q.2d 1561, 1563 (Fed. Cir.
1993).
IV. Jury Trials:
A. Denial of a Motion for Judgment As a Matter of Law: A denial of a motion
for judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) is subject to de nova review.
NobelpharmaAB v. Implant Innovations, Inc., 141 F.3d 1059, 1164, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1097,
1101 (Fed. Cir. 1998). Affirming the district court’s denial of JMOL and motion for new
trial following a jury verdict imposing antitrust liability on the patentee, the Federal
Circuit stated: “We review a district court’s grant of a motion for JMOL under Fed. R.
Civ. P. 50(a) (1) de novo by reapplying the standard applicable at the district court.” Id.
In addition, the Federal Circuit stated: “We review a district court’s denial of a post-trial
motion for JMOL under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) de novo by reapplying the standard
applicable at the district court.” Id.; Dawn Equip. Co. v. Kentucky Farms Inc., 140 F.3d
1009, 1014, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1109, 1111 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“In reviewing the trial judge’s
denial of [a party’s] motion for JMOL, we keep in mind our standard of review, which is
the same standard that was applicable at the trial court level.”); Braun Inc. v. Dynamics
Corp. of Am., 975 F.2d 815, 819, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d 1121, 1124 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
B. Grant of a Motion for Judgment As a Matter of Law: A grant of judgment as
a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) is subject to de novo review. Eastman Kodak
Co. v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 114 F.3d 1547, 1559, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1737, 1746
(Fed. Cir. 1997) (“A grant of judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) is
subject to de novo review.”); Read Corp. v. Portec, Inc., 970 F.2d 816, 821, 23
U.S.P.Q.2d 1426, 1431 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (“The district court’s grant of judgment as a
matter of law under Rule 50(a) is subject to de novo review.”); Motorola, Inc. v.
Interdigital Tech. Corp., 121 F.3d 1461, 1471, 43 U.S.P.Q.2d 1481, 1484 (Fed. Cir. 1997)
(“[T]his court reviews the district court’s grant of JMOL by reapplying the JMOL
standard. That standard requires the court first to determine whether substantial record
evidence supports the jury’s express or implied factual findings and then to determine
whether the legal conclusions implied in the verdict are correct as a matter of law.”
(citations omitted)).
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C. Jury Instructions: Jury instructions are reviewed de novo as an issue of law.
Advanced Display Sys., Inc. v. Kent State Univ., 212 F.3d 1272, 1282, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d
1673, 1679 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“Whether a jury instruction is legally erroneous is a
question of law.”); Brooktree Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., 977 F.2d 1555,
1570, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d 1401, 1411 (Fed. Cir. 1992); Jamesbury Corp. v. Litton Indus.
Prods., Inc., 756 F.2d 1556, 1558, 225 U.S.P.Q. 253, 255 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (“The standard
of review of instructions is prejudicial legal error:”); Eastman Kodak Co. v. Goodyear
Tire &-Rubber Co., 114 F.3d 1547, 1561, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1737, 1747 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“A
jury instruction is subject to review for prejudicial legal error.”).
D. Form of Verdict: The trial tribunal’s choice of verdict form (e.g., general
verdict, special verdicts) is reviewed for abuse of discretion. The district court has
discretion in how to conduct jury trials, including, but not limited to, the form of the jury
verdict. Hoechst Celanese Corp. v. BP Chems. Ltd., 78 F.3d 1575, 1581, 38 U.S.P.Q.2d
1126, 1131 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (citing Allen Organ Co. v. Kimball Int’l, Inc., 839 F.2d
1556, 1561, 5 U.S.P.Q.2d 1769, 1773 (Fed. Cir. 1988)); Structural Rubber Prods. Co. v.
Park Rubber Co., 749 F.2d 707, 720, 223 U.S.P.Q. 1264, 1274 (Fed. Cir. 1984) (“[I]t
must be left to the sound discretion of the trial court what form of verdict to request of a
jury.”).
V. New Trial: The decision to grantor deny a motion for a new trial is reviewed under the
abuse of discretion standard. Advanced Display Sys., Inc. v. Kent State Univ., 212 F.3d 1272,
1284, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1673, 1681 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“This court reviews a denial of a motion for a
new trial under the abuse of discretion standard.”); NobelpharmaAB v. Implant Innovations, Inc.,
141 F.3d 1059,1067, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1097, 1105 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“We review a district court’s
denial of a motion for a new trial for an abuse of discretion.”); Litton Sys., Inc. v. Honeywell,
Inc., 87 F.3d 1559, 1576, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1333 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“The decision to grant or
deny a new trial rests with the sound discretion of the trial court.”); Munoz v. Strahm Farms,
Inc., 69 F.3d 501, 503,36 U.S.P.Q.2d 1499, 1501 (Fed. Cir. 1995); Kearns v. Chrysler Corp., 32
F.3d 1541, 1547, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1746, 1750 (Fed. Cit. 1994).
VI. Injunctions: A trial tribunal’s decision granting, denying, or modifying an injunction
and the scope of the injunction are reviewed for abuse of discretion. Int’l Communication
Material, Inc. v. Ricoh Co., 108 F.3d 316, 318, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1957, 1558 (Fed. Cit. 1997) (“We
have held that the standard of review of a district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction order
is narrow.”); Sofa or Dane Group, Inc. v. Depuy-Motech, Inc., 74 F.3d 1216, 1219,37
U.S.P.Q.2d 1529, 1531 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“To overturn the denial of a preliminary injunction, an
appellant must show both that the trial court relied on clearly erroneous factors and abused its
discretion.”); Carborundum Co. v. Molten Metal Equip. Innovations, Inc., 72 F.3d 872, 881, 37
U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1172 (Fed. Cir. 1995); Joy Techs., Inc. v. Flakt, Inc., 6 F.3d 770, 772, 28
U.S.P.Q.2d 1378, 1380 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Mentor Graphics Corp. v. Quickturn Design Sys., Inc.,
150 F.3d 1374,1377, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1683, 1685 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“This court reviews the grant
of a preliminary injunction for abuse of discretion.”); Texas Instruments Inc. v. Tessera, Inc., 231
F.3d 1325, 1328, 56 U.S.P.Q.2d 1674, 1677 (Fed. Cit. 2000) (“Under Federal Circuit law, this
court sustains a grant or denial of a preliminary injunction unless the district court abused its
discretion, or based its decision on an erroneous legal standard or clearly erroneous findings of
fact.”).
Doc. #869018v.1
VII. Motion to Transfer: A district court’s decision on a motion to transfer under 28 U.S.C.
§ 1404 is governed by the law of the regional circuit in which it sits. Winner Int’l Royalty Corp.
v. Wang, 202 F.3d 1340, 1352, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1580, 1589 (Fed. Cir. 2000). Affirming the
district court’s decision to deny a motion to transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1404 the court stated,
“Our review of the district court’s denial of Wang’s motion to transfer, as a procedural matter, is
governed by the law of the regional circuit in which it sits.” Id.
VIII. Motion to Dismiss: A decision on a motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for
failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is an issue of law reviewed de novo.
Boyle v. United States, 200 F.3d 1369, 1371, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1433, 1434 (Fed. Cir. 2000); Young
v. AGB Corp., 152 F.3d 1377, 1379, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1752, 1754 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“We review
the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s dismissal of a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) de novo.”);
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Royce Labs., Inc., 69 F.3d 1130, 1134, 36 U.S.P.Q.2d 1641, 1645
(Fed. Cir. 1995) (“Whether the district court properly granted [the defendant’s] motion to
dismiss is a question of law that we review de novo.”); Wyatt v. United States, 2 F.3d 398, 400
(Fed. Cir. 1993) (dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can
be granted is a question of law); Dehne v. U.S., 970 F.2d 890, 892 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
IX. Relief from Judgment: A district court’s ruling on a motion for relief from judgment
under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Engel Indus., Inc. v. The
Lockformer Co., 166 F.3d 1379, 1384, 49 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1618, 1622 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“We review
a district court’s [Federal] Rule [of Civil Procedure] 60(b) determination for abuse of
discretion.”) (citing Browder v. Dir., Dep’t of Corrs. of Ill., 434 U.S. 257, 263 n.7 (1978)).
X. Contempt: Additive Controls & Measurement Sys., Inc. v. Flowdata, Inc., 154 F.3d
1345, 1349, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1906, 1908 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“We review the district court’s decision
to proceed via a contempt hearing [rather than through a separate infringement action] for abuse
of discretion.”); Carborundum Co. v. Molten Metal Equip. Innovations, Inc., 72 F.3d 872, 883,
37 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1169, 1176 (Fed. Cit. 1995) (“We review a district court’s finding of contempt
for an abuse of discretion.”).
XI. Extraordinary Writs: The standard of review of the denial of an extraordinary writ is
abuse of discretion. In re Precision Screen Machs., Inc., 729 F.2d 1428, 1429, 221 U.S.P.Q.
1034, 1035 (Fed. Cit. 1984) (writ denied because no abuse of discretion and the writ was not “in
aid of’ jurisdiction).
XII. Procedural Rulings: Generally, procedural matters are committed to the sound
discretion of the trial tribunal. Hendler v. United States, 952 F.2d 1364, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 1991)
(“As a general rule, trial courts are given wide discretion to manage the course of a trial, and to
direct the conduct of counsel.”); Newell Co. v. Kinney Mfg. Co., 864 F.2d 757, 765, 9
U.S.P.Q.2d 1417, 1424 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (“Procedural errors that do not unfairly affect the
outcome are to be ignored. Trials must be fair, not perfect.”).
A. Amendment of Pleadings: Decisions concerning the amendment of pleadings
are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. E. W. Bliss Co. v. United States, 77
F.3d 445, 450 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
Doc. #869018v.1
B. Recusal: The law of the regional circuit applies to decisions on recusal under 28
U.S.C. § 455. For example, under Ninth Circuit law, the standard is abuse of discretion.
Baldwin Hardware Corp. v. Franksu Enter. Corp., 78 F.3d 550, 556, 39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1090,
1093 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
C. Whether An Issue Was Raised: “The question of whether a party properly
raised an issue [e.g., before the PTO Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences] is a
question of law based on subsidiary fact findings.” Cooper v. Goldfarb, 154 F.3d 1321,
1331, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1896, 1904 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
D. Finality: “We review de novo a district court’s determination whether a
judgment is final with respect to one or more claims, while the determination that there
was no just reason for delay [under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b)] is reviewed under an abuse of
discretion standard.” Spraytex, Inc. v. DJS&T & Homax Corp., 96 F.3d 1371, 1379, 40
U.S.P.Q.2d 1145, 1146 (Fed. Cir. 1996).
XIII. Evidentiary Rulings: Generally, evidentiary matters are committed to the sound
discretion of the trial tribunal. Rotec Indus., Inc. v. Mitsubishi Corp., 215 F.3d 1246, 1256, 55
U.S.P.Q.2d 1001, 1008 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (“We review evidentiary rulings under an abuse of
discretion standard.”); Munoz v. Strahm Farms, Inc., 369 F.3d 501, 503, 36 U.S.P.Q.2d 1499,
1501 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“We review evidentiary rulings under an abuse of discretion standard.”);
Roton Barrier, Inc. v. Stanley Works, 79 F.3d 1112, 1122, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1816, 1824 (Fed. Cir.
1996); Winner Int’l Royalty Corp. v. Wang, 202 F.3d 1340, 1351, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1580, 1582
(Fed. Cir. 2000) (“A district court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence at trial is reviewed for
abuse of discretion.”); Kearns v. Chrysler Corp., 32 F.3d 1541, 1547, 31 U.S.P.Q.2d 1746, 1750
(Fed. Cir. 1994) (“The decision to admit or exclude evidence is within the sound discretion of the
trial court and will be reversed on appeal only for a clear abuse of that discretion.”).
XIV. Discovery Rulings: Generally, discovery matters are committed to the sound discretion
of the trial tribunal. Eastman Kodak Co. v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 114 F.3d 1547, 1561,
42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1737, 1746 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“This court reviews discovery and evidentiary
rulings under an abuse of discretion standard.”); Keebler Co. v. Murray Bakery Prods., 866 F.2d
1386, 1388, 9 U.S.P.Q.2d 1736, 1738 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (stating that the Board’s imposition of
sanctions for discovery violations must be upheld unless the Board has abused its discretion).
XV. Privilege: “Application of the attorney-client privilege is a question of fact.” Am.
Standard, Inc. v. Pfizer, Inc., 828 F.2d 734, 744, 3 U.S.P.Q.2d 1817, 1824 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
Intervening Courts
I. Bankruptcy: “We review a district court’s review of a bankruptcy court decision
involving patent issues independently, applying the clearly erroneous standard to the factual
determinations of the bankruptcy court and de novo review to its conclusions of law. We thus
give the determinations of the district court no special deference.” In re Cambridge Biotech
Corp., 186 F.3d 1356, 1368, 51 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1329 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (citations omitted).
Doc. #869018v.1
II. District of Columbia: In the context of an appeal under 35 U.S.C. § 145 to the district
court for the District of Columbia from a PTO decision, the district court can reach a conclusion
different from that reached by the PTO even on the same evidence. Winner Int’l Royalty Corp. v.
Wang, 202 F.3d 1340,1347, 53 U.S.P.Q.2d 1580,1584-85 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (citing Burlington
Indus., Inc. v. Quigg, 822 F.2d 1581, 1584, 3 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1436, 1439 (Fed. Cir. 1987)).
III. Arbitration Awards: “When reviewing district court decisions upholding arbitration
awards, we accept findings of fact that are not clearly erroneous and decide questions of law de
novo.” Flex-Foot, Inc. v. CRP, Inc., 238 F.3d 1362, 1362, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1635, 1637 (Fed. Cir.
2001).
Miscellaneous Substantive Issues
I. Defenses of Estoppel and Laches: “As equitable defenses, laches and equitable
estoppel are matters committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge and the trial judge’s
decision is reviewed by this court under the abuse of discretion standard.” A.C. Auckerman Co.
v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960 F.2d 1020, 1028, 22 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321, 1325 (Fed. Cir. 1992)
(en banc).
II. Contracts & Licenses:
A. Interpretation of an Agreement/Contract Term: Interpretation of a contract is
an issue of law reviewed de novo. Studiengesellschaft Kohle, M.B.H. v. Hercules, Inc.,
105 F.3d 629, 632, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1518, 1521 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (Construction of a patent
license agreement “is a question o contract interpretation under [state] law, which we
review de novo.”); Cyrix Corp. v. Intel Corp., 77 F.3d 1381, 1384, 37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1884,
1887 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Interpretation of a contract is a question of law that we also
review de novo.”); Intel Corp. v. ULSI Sys. Tech., Inc., 995 F.2d 1566, 1569, 27
U.S.P.Q.2d 1136, 1138 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (contract interpretation presents an issue of law);
C. Sanchez & Son, Inc. v. United States, 6 F.3d 1539, 1544 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
B. Legal Impossibility in Contract Performance: The issue of legal impossibility
in contract performance is a mixed issue of fact and law. Blount Bros. Corp. v. United
States, 872 F.2d 1003, 1007 (Fed. Cir. 1989); Consolidated Molding Prods. Corp. v.
United States, 600 F.2d 793, 797 (Ct. Cl. 1979).
C. Incorporation by Reference: “[W]hether and to what extent material has been
incorporated by reference into a host document is a question of law.” Advanced Display
Sys., Inc. v. Kent State Univ., 212 F.3d 1272, 1283, 54 U.S.P.Q.2d 1673, 1680 (Fed. Cir.
2000) (stating that instructing the jury to determine whether and what material was
incorporated by reference constituted legal error because court must make that
determination).
D. Existence of Implied License: Glass Equip. Dev., Inc. v. Besten, Inc., 174 F.3d
1337, 1341, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1300, 1302 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“The existence of an implied
license is a question of law which we review de novo.”); Carborundum Co. v. Molten
Metal Equip. Innovations, Inc., 72 F.3d 872, 877,37 U.S.P.Q.2d 1169, 1172 (Fed. Cir.
Doc. #869018v.1
1995); Met-Coil Sys. v. Korners Unlimited, 803 F.2d 684, 687, 231 U.S.P.Q. 474, 476
(Fed. Cir. 1986).
E. Existence of Contract: Whether the parties have entered into a contract is
governed by the law of the regional circuit in which the district court sits. See S &T Mfg.
Co. v. County of Hillsborough, Fla., 815 F.2d 676, 678, 2 U.S.P.Q.2d 1280, 1281 (Fed.
Cir. 1987) (applying Eleventh Circuit law and reviewing the question as one of fact).
F. Assignor Estoppel: The determination of whether assignor estoppel applies is
committed to the discretion of the trial tribunal and is reviewed under an abuse of
discretion standard. Carroll Touch, Inc. v. Electro Mech. Sys., Inc., 15 F.3d 1573, 1579,
27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1836, 1841 (Fed. Cir. 1993).
III. Interpretations of Law:
A. Issues of statutory construction are matters of law reviewed under a de novo
standard of review. Imazio Nursery, Inc. v. Dania Greenhouses, 69 F.3d 1560, 1562, 36
U.S.P.Q.2d 1673, 1674 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“We review issues of statutory construction
under a de novo standard of review. We need not defer to the trial court.”); In re
Kathawala, 9 F.3d 942, 945, 28 U.S.P.Q.2d 1785, 1786 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Kimberly-Clark
Corp. v. P&G Distrib. Co., 973 F.2d 911, 915, 23 U.S.P.Q.2d 1921, 1925 (Fed. Cir.
1992) (stating that interpretation of statute, specifically 35 U.S.C. § 116, is a matter of
law); In re Carlson, 983 F.2d 1032, 1035, 25 U.S.P.Q.2d 1207, 1209 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
B. Interpretation of Regulations: Issues in interpreting regulations are matters of
law reviewed under a de novo standard of review. United States v. Lockheed, 817 F.2d
1565, 1567 (Fed. Cir. 1987).
C. Statutory/Regulatory Interpretation By An Agency: Enercon GmbH v. Int’l
Trade Comm’n, 151 F.3d 1376, 1381, 47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1725, 1728 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (“As
the agency charged with the administration of section 337, the ITC is entitled to
appropriate deference to its interpretation of the statute.” (citations omitted)); In re
Hacot-Colombier, 105 F.3d 616, 618, 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1523, 1525 (Fed. Cir. 1997)
(Federal Circuit “defers” to TTAB’s interpretation of trademark statute).
D. Interpretation of Precedent: “The meaning or interpretation of precedent is a
question of law.” YBM Magnex, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 145 F.3d 1317, 1320, 46
U.S.P.Q.2d 1843,1845 (Fed. Cir.1998) (citing South Park Indep. Sch. Dist. v. United
States, 453 U.S. 1301, 1304-05 (1981)).
E. Interpretation of Mandate: The Federal Circuit reviews the interpretation of its
own mandate under a de novo standard. Engel Indus., Inc. v. Lockformer Co., 166 F.3d
1379, 1382, 49 U.S.P.Q.2d 1618, 1621 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“We review the interpretation of
our own mandate de novo.”); Laitram Corp. v. NEC Corp., 115 F.3d 947, 950, 42
U.S.P.Q.2d 1897, 1899 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“[T]he interpretation by an appellate court of its
own mandate is properly considered a question of law, reviewed de novo.”).
Doc. #869018v.1
F. Tolling a Statute of Limitations: Whether tolling of a statute of limitations has
occurred raises an issue of law involving statutory interpretation; therefore, the issue is one of
law reviewed de novo. Weddel v. Sec’y, Health & Human Servs., 100 F.3d 929, 931 (Fed. Cir.
1996).

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