Monday, January 25, 2021

Landmark FCA Decision on Summary Judgment

Canmar Foods Ltd v TA Foods Ltd 2021 FCA 7 de Montigny JA: Pelletier JA, Rivoalen JJA affg 2019 FC 1233 Manson J

            2,582,376 / method for roasting oil seed

This landmark decision from the FCA, affirming Manson J’s use of summary judgment, is a very welcome development that will improve the operation of the patent system by permitting expeditious disposition of patent cases in appropriate circumstances. The decision is also notable for its considered discussion of the interpretation of s 53.1, which permits the use of summary judgment in certain circumstances. I’ll discuss that issue in my next post.

At trial, Manson J granted summary judgment on the basis of non-infringement in a decision which turned on claim construction, and particularly whether two claim elements were essential. This was the first decision in many years to grant summary judgment on substantive grounds in a patent matter. As discussed here, Manson J was critical of the FCA decision in MacNeil Estate 2004 FCA 50, which, in his view, resulted in an approach in which “summary judgment as a just, efficient and expeditious means to resolve disputes on a proportionate basis was lost” [45]. He described the SCC decision in Hryniak v Mauldin 2014 SCC 7 as resulting in “a culture shift” that “opened the door for a more reasoned approach to the use of summary judgment motions” [46]. After Manson J’s decision, three more FC decisions granted summary judgement: see here, here and here.

In his decision for the FCA, affirming Manson J, de Montigny JA did not comment on whether there has been a “culture shift”—indeed, he did not mention MacNeil Estate at all, which may be significant in itself. Nonetheless, the fact that the FCA approved the use of summary judgment on the facts of this case sends an important message to the FC judges, who will evidently be receptive to it judging from the spate of recent decisions.

On the facts, two issues were raised in respect of summary judgment. The first is whether Manson J erred in granting summary judgment on the basis of non-infringement before any discovery had taken place [19]. Justice de Montigny noted that this was clearly permitted by Rule 213: “Whether or not discovery had taken place at this stage is not a factor contemplated by Rule 213, and ought not to be regarded as such” [26, my emphasis]. Moreover, notwithstanding the absence of discovery, the patentee in this case had sufficient information as to the defendant’s method to allow it to marshal the relevant evidence [28].

The second question was whether Manson J erred in making a determination that the two contentious elements were not essential in the absence of any expert evidence on the issue. In effect, the patentee argued that expert evidence is required for claim construction, and that it is necessarily an error of law for the Court to construe a patent in its absence [31], [33]. Justice de Montigny rejected this proposition, both because of a lack of authority to that effect [34], and as a matter of principle: “If the construction of a claim is a matter of law and the judge is entitled to adopt a construction different from that put forward by the parties and their experts, surely the judge can also construe a claim without relying on such evidence in appropriate circumstances” [36].

While de Montigny JA also held that this was an appropriate case to do so, there was an important caveat:

[37] Claims must always be construed in an informed and purposive way, and it is only in the clearest of cases that judges should feel confident enough to construe the claims of a patent as they would be understood by a skilled person, without the help of any expert evidence.

In this case, the invention is a simple mechanical system and the key terms—”stream of air” and “insulated”—and the claim construction exercise was quite straightforward [38]–[47]. This might be taken to suggest that claim construction in the absence of expert evidence is only appropriate in cases in which the claim terms are themselves easy to interpret.

But that suggestion was certainly not explicit and I don’t think it is what was intended. Justice de Montigny continued by saying, in the same paragraph:

[37] In the case at bar, the appellant had the obligation to put its best foot forward. However, it made the strategic decision not to present expert evidence on the summary judgment motion, thereby foregoing the possibility to impress upon the Judge the need to rely on such expertise to construe the patent. Be that as it may, what matters at the end of the day is not so much how and on what basis the judge came to his or her interpretation of a claim, but whether such interpretation is correct or flawed.

This indicates that it is the nature of the evidence, not the nature of the invention, that is important in determining whether a judge should feel confident enough to construe the claims. That seems right to me; even ordinary English words can take on a technical meaning when used in a patent, so it must be the evidence that is key.

I’m sure Canmar will not be the last word on summary judgment, focusing as it did on the facts of the case, but it is the first words in a promising new chapter.

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