An International Guide to
Patent Case Management for Judges

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10.6.11 Technology tutorials

As noted earlier, courts have inherent discretionary authority as well as authority under FRCP 53 and FRE 706 to use technical advisors, special masters, and court-appointed experts to aid the court in understanding complex technology at the claim construction stage. When it comes to trial, the judge has the option of appointing an expert pursuant to FRE 706. After completing an analysis, the expert provides findings to the parties and the court, much like any expert’s report. Any party may then depose the expert. Finally, the expert provides the court and, if present, the jury with the results in the form of expert testimony, subject to the same cross-examination as for party experts.

The Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s use of a court-appointed expert pursuant to FRE 706 in Monolithic Power Sys., Inc. v. O2 Micro Int’l Ltd.209 The Federal Circuit noted, however, that the “predicament inherent in court appointment of an independent expert and revelations to the jury about the expert’s neutral status trouble [the] court to some extent,” and admonished that the use of court-appointed experts should be limited to rare and exceptional cases. For similar reasons, parties usually will not favor allowing a court-appointed expert to testify to a jury and, if the expert does testify, will not favor identifying the expert as “court-appointed” or “neutral.”

A technical advisor advises the judge on technical matters in a manner often analogized to a law clerk, although case law views the analogy as imperfect. The advisor is appointed pursuant to the court’s inherent power. This is a power to be used “sparingly,” but appointment is proper in any highly technical case where the science or technology is well beyond the experience of the judge. Importantly, if the advisor provides no evidence to the court, FRE 706 does not apply, and, as a result, the parties have no right to a deposition or other disclosure of the advisor’s opinions or communications with the court. Alternatively, a person can be appointed as both a court expert and an advisor, in which case FRE 706 applies.

Best practices for the use of technical advisors are set out in several appellate court cases: FTC v. Enforma Natural Products, Inc.;210 TechSearch LLC v. Intel Corp.;211 Association of Mexican-American Educators v. California;212 and Reilly v. United States.213 These cases focus on several procedural aspects of the technical advisor process aimed at ensuring that the technical advisor does not improperly introduce new evidence unknown to the parties or influence the court’s resolution of factual disputes. First, the court should assure a fair and open procedure for appointing a neutral advisor. Second, the advisor should explicitly be given a clearly defined, proper role that ensures there is no impingement on the court’s role as fact finder. Third, the court should provide some assurance that the advisor remains within that proper role. The use of these procedures also facilitates appellate review of the propriety of the technical advisor’s role.

To ensure fairness in the appointment, the court should identify the proposed advisor to the parties in advance of the appointment. This process can involve inviting the parties to propose advisors, either separately or together, after consultation. If the parties are asked to provide potential advisors, the court should establish, in advance, limits on the contact the parties may have with prospective advisors. Alternatively, the court can identify a proposed advisor to the parties – potentially, an advisor the judge worked with previously – without prior consultation. In either case, the parties should be allowed to challenge the advisor’s bias, partiality, or lack of qualification. If any challenge is raised, the court should address it on the record.

The proper role of the advisor is to be a sounding board or tutor who aids the judge’s understanding of the technology. This includes an explanation of the jargon used in the field, the underlying theory or science of the invention, or other technical aspects of the evidence presented by the parties. The advisor can also assist the judge’s analysis by helping think through critical technical problems. In this latter function, case law admonishes that the court must be careful to assure that the decision-making is not delegated to the advisor. Although in form, and much like the interaction between a judge and law clerk, the situation is different in that, because of a judge’s knowledge of law, a clerk cannot usurp the judicial role; in contrast, a technical advisor in an area of science unfamiliar to the judge potentially could.

Within these parameters, the advisor can properly aid the judge’s understanding and analysis throughout a patent case. This can include helping the judge understand the patent specification and claims, expert affidavits and testimony provided by the parties, and scientific articles that may be offered as prior art. Proper subjects for consultation with the advisor include whether technical facts are in dispute in a summary judgment motion, claim interpretation, validity and infringement questions, the proper articulation of technical issues for jury instructions, and the admissibility of proffered scientific evidence under Daubert. The advisor, however, may not provide evidence, either documentary or testimony, without compliance with FRE 706. The advisor’s advice, therefore, cannot be based on extra-record information (except the use of technology-specific knowledge and background used to educate the judge), and the advisor cannot conduct any independent investigation. Particularly in situations in which the advisor assists the judge’s efforts to resolve factual conflicts, the judge and advisor should be vigilant to avoid the advisor unduly influencing the judge’s decision-making. In no circumstance, of course, should the advisor become an advocate for any party or position.

The court or advisor should confirm that the advisor’s work is done within the proper parameters for the benefit of both the parties and appellate review. There is no fixed requirement for how this should be accomplished. Proper parameters can include supplying a transcript of the advisor’s communications with the judge, providing a report by the advisor of the work performed and any communications had with the judge, or obtaining an affidavit from the advisor at the outset of the work committing to perform within a description of a proper scope of work and procedures (as outlined above) and obtaining a second affidavit at the conclusion attesting to compliance with the job description in the initial affidavit.