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Sonos Inc. v. D&M Holdings Inc.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

November 1, 2017

SONOS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
D&M HOLDINGS INC. d/b/a THE D GROUP, D&M HOLDINGS U.S. INC., and DENON ELECTRONICS USA, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM C. BRYSON UNITED STATES CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are three motions to preclude expert testimony at trial, one filed by plaintiff Sonos, Inc., and two filed by defendants D&M Holdings Inc. d/b/a The D Group, D&M Holdings U.S. Inc., and Denon Electronics (USA), LLC (collectively, "D&M"). Sonos seeks to exclude the testimony of D&M's invalidity expert, Dr. Jay P. Kesan. Dkt. No. 292. D&M seeks to strike all or parts of the expert opinions of (1) Sonos's damages expert, Mr. Michael E. Tate; (2) Sonos's infringement expert, Dr. Kevin C. Almeroth; and (3) Sonos's invalidity expert, Dr. Andrew Wolfe. Dkt. Nos. 299 and 300. On October 30, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the motions, at which the Court ruled on some of the issues and took some under submission. This order addresses all of the issues raised by the parties in the three motions. Sonos's motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. D&M's motions are GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Sonos, a seller of wireless audio equipment, has asserted several patents against D&M, one of its competitors. The asserted patents cover five features that are offered in both Sonos's and D&M's networked wireless speaker products. Two of the patents, U.S. Patent Nos. 9, 195, 258 ("the '258 patent") and 9, 202, 509 ("the '509 patent"), which are referred to as the synchronization patents, allow for synchronized audio playback by two or more speakers. Two other patents, U.S. Patent Nos. 7, 571, 014 ("the '014 patent") and 8, 588, 949 ("the '949 patent"), referred to as the group volume control patents, allow for the volume of two or more speakers or speaker groups to be adjusted simultaneously. Two other patents, U.S. Patent Nos. 9, 219, 959 ("the '959 patent") and 9, 212, 959 ("the '959 patent"), referred to as the pairing patents, allow for two or more separate speakers to be paired to provide multi-channel sound. Another patent, U.S. Patent No. 9, 042, 556 ("the '556 patent"), referred to as the orientation patent, provides for shaping the audio output based on the orientation of the speaker, e.g., whether the speaker is horizontal or vertical. Finally, U.S. Patent No. 8, 938, 312 ("the '312 patent"), referred to as the autoplay patent, allows a speaker to detect an audio signal from an external source, such as the speaker's line-in input connector, and to select that source for playback when the external audio source begins outputting an audio signal. The two group volume control patents and one of the synchronization patents (the '258 patent) are scheduled to be tried in a bellwether trial beginning December 11, 2017.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Evidence 702 allows a witness "who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" to provide opinion testimony. The Rule specifies, however, that before allowing a witness to testify as an expert, the court must determine that "(a) the expert's scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case." Fed.R.Evid. 702.

         Applying Rule 702, the Supreme Court has explained that when an expert's testimony is challenged, the district court has a "basic gatekeeping obligation" to ensure that the expert's testimony '"is not only relevant, but reliable.'" Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147 (1999) (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993)). When a jury is the finder of fact, the court's role is not to displace the jury, but to ensure that the expert's proffered testimony is sufficiently reliable and relevant to issues before the jury. See Fed.R.Evid. 702 Advisory Committee Notes (2000) ("[T]he trial court's role as gatekeeper is not intended to serve as a replacement for the adversary system." (quoting United States v. 14.38 Acres of Land Situated in Leflore Cty., Miss., 80 F.3d 1074, 1078 (5th Cir. 1996))); United States v. Williams. 235 Fed.Appx. 925, 927 (3d Cir. 2007) ("The overriding consideration ... is that expert testimony should be admitted if it will assist the trier of fact."). "Vigorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence." Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596; see also i4i Ltd. P'ship v. Microsoft Corp., 598 F.3d 831, 852 (Fed. Cir. 2010) ("When the methodology is sound, and the evidence relied upon sufficiently related to the case at hand, disputes about the degree of relevance or accuracy (above this minimum threshold) may go to the testimony's weight, but not its admissibility.").

         II. Sonos's Motion to Exclude Dr. Kesan's Expert Testimony on Invalidity

         Sonos moves to exclude the expert testimony of Dr. Kesan on two grounds: first, because Dr. Kesan had no technical work experience in the pertinent art during the relevant time period; and second, because Dr. Kesan's report contains improper legal conclusions. For the reasons stated below, Sonos's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         a. Dr. Kesan's Qualifications

         A witness may testify as a technical expert on issues such as noninfringement and invalidity only if "the witness is qualified as an expert in the pertinent art." Sundance, Inc. v. DeMonte Fabricating Ltd., 550 F.3d 1356, 1363 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (finding it an abuse of discretion to allow expert testimony on invalidity and noninfringement from a patent attorney who lacked a technical background in the relevant art). Such an expert must possess at least ordinary skill in the pertinent art, although there is no requirement that "a witness possess something more than ordinary skill in the art to testify as an expert." Id.

         The Third Circuit has interpreted the "qualification" requirement liberally, explaining: "Qualification requires that the witness possess specialized expertise. We have interpreted this requirement liberally, holding that a broad range of knowledge, skills, and training qualify an expert as such." Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 350 F.3d 316, 321 (3d Cir. 2003); see also Evonik Degussa GmbH v. Materia Inc., No. 09-cv-636, 2016 WL 337378, at *14 (D. Del. Jan. 26, 2016). An expert should not be excluded "simply because the trial court does not deem the proposed expert to be the best qualified or because the proposed expert does not have the specialization that the court considers most appropriate." Pineda v. Ford Motor Co., 520 F.3d 237, 244 (3d Cir. 2008) (allowing an engineer to testify about the inadequacy of a warning in a service manual for an automotive rear liftgate, even though the expert was not substantively qualified in the design of automobile rear liftgates or the drafting of service manual warnings); see also Holbrook v. Lykes Bros. S.S. Co., 80 F.3d 777, 782 (3d Cir. 1996) (accepting more general qualifications in holding that a treating physician did not have to practice a particular specialty in order to testify concerning certain matters). To the contrary, the inquiry is "flexible" and "[a]ny dispute between the parties about the strength of the evidence in this case should be resolved by the jury." Thomas & Betts Corp. v. Richards Mfg. Co., 342 Fed.Appx. 754, 761 (3d Cir. 2009) (alteration in original) (quoting Pineda, 520 F.3d at 248-49).

         Dr. Kesan's report describes a person of ordinary skill in the art as someone who "would be familiar with digital and analog circuits, wireless communication, and the client-server environment" and who "would have a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering with at least two years of relevant work experience or equivalent." Expert Report of Jay P. Kesan Regarding the Invalidity of Asserted Claims of U.S. 9, 219, 959, 7, 571, 014, 8, 588, 949, 9, 042, 556, 9, 202, 509, 8, 938, 312, 9, 213, 357, 9, 195, 258, and 8, 938, 637 ("Kesan Report"), Dkt. No. 307, Ex. A ¶ 106. The report of Sonos's expert, Dr. Almeroth, describes a person of ordinary skill in the art as "a person having the equivalent of a four-year degree from an accredited institution (usually denoted as a B.S. degree) in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, or the equivalent, and approximately 2-4 years of professional experience in the fields of networking and consumer audio systems, or an equivalent level of skill and knowledge." Opening Expert Report of Dr. Kevin C. Almeroth ("Almeroth Report"), Dkt. No. 311, Ex. E-3 ¶ 35. Dr. Almeroth explained in his deposition that the level of skill needed for a person to be considered one of ordinary skill in the art pertinent to this case is not demanding, that "in some instances a master's degree can substitute for some or all of the professional experience, " and that "by the time you get to the level of a Ph.D., you have a - a person who's beyond ordinary skill in the art." Dkt. No. 347-1, Ex. 44, at 82:8-25.

         Sonos argues that Dr. Kesan is not a person of ordinary skill in the art, because of his lack of technical work experience in the pertinent art at the time of the invention. Sonos contends that Dr. Kesan is simply an attorney and a law professor who has done no relevant technical work for more than 25 years. Most importantly, according to Sonos, Dr. Kesan has never worked in the field of "consumer networked audio technology, " and in particular he did not work in that field in the early 2000s, when consumer networked audio products were first emerging.

         The Court is satisfied that Dr. Kesan's qualifications are sufficient to make his testimony helpful to the jury in understanding the evidence in this case. Dr. Kesan holds a B.S. degree in electrical engineering and both a M.S. and a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. During his professional career, he has conducted research on the use of radio frequency technologies for use in wireless communications. Kesan Report App. B; Declaration of Dr. Jay P. Kesan ("Kesan Deck"), Dkt. No. 345 ¶6. After completing his education, Dr. Kesan was employed for four years at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center as a research staff scientist, where he worked on integrated chip technology. Kesan Report App. B; Kesan Deck ¶ 7. Dr. Kesan then went to law school. Since his graduation from law school in 1999, Dr. Kesan has focused on the intersection of law and technology. He is currently affiliated with both the College of Law and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois. Kesan Report App. B.

         Although in recent years Dr. Kesan has devoted much of his time to activities related more to law than to engineering, he has continued to work on radio frequency identification devices and has been issued a number of patents in that field of technology. Dkt. No. 371-1, Ex. I at 8:15-20, 260:6-12. He has also worked as a consulting expert in wired, wireless, and cellular communication technologies, Kesan Deck, ¶11, and he has served as a technical expert in patent lawsuits regarding various communication technologies, id. ¶ 12. In short, although his career has not been devoted exclusively to work as an electrical engineer and computer scientist, and although he has not specialized in the study of consumer networked audio technology, Dr. Kesan has a combination of education and work experience that is, at the least, equivalent to a person having a bachelor's degree and approximately two to four years of professional experience in the electrical engineering, computer science, and communication fields.

         Sonos discounts Dr. Kesan's experience by pointing out that he lacks two to four years of experience in "consumer networked audio technology." Dkt. No. 370, at 1. But that argument draws the scope of the pertinent art too narrowly. Both Dr. Kesan and Dr. Almeroth agree that the pertinent art includes electrical engineering and circuitry, computer science and engineering, and networking and wireless communications. However, Dr. Almeroth contends that the pertinent art is further limited to "networking and consumer audio systems, or an equivalent level of skill and knowledge." Almeroth Report ¶ 35. And in its reply brief, Sonos suggests that the pertinent field of art is even narrower than that, being limited to consumer networked audio technology and not including "general networking concepts." Dkt. No. 370, at 1.

         The question for the Court in assessing an expert's field of expertise is whether the expert's "scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." Fed.R.Evid. 702(a). In order for an expert to have such knowledge, it is not necessary that the expert have expertise in the precise technology that is the subject of the patent or patents in suit. See In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litis., 35 F.3d 717, 741 (3d Cir. 1994) ("Rule 702's liberal policy of admissibility extends to the substantive as well as the formal qualification of experts. We have eschewed imposing overly rigorous requirements of expertise and have been satisfied with more generalized qualifications."); Knight v. Otis Elevator Co., 596 F.2d 84, 87-88 (3d Cir. 1979) (holding that an expert could testify that unguarded elevator buttons constituted a design defect despite expert's lack of specific background in design and manufacture of elevators).

         The danger of defining the scope of the pertinent art too narrowly is that it may exclude experts with relevant technical backgrounds. Particularly in a field involving new and emerging technology, there may be few experts with the kind of highly specialized expertise that Sonos is demanding. The Court is satisfied that Dr. Kesan's technical expertise is sufficiently related to the subject matter of the patents in suit to be helpful to the jury in understanding the evidence and making appropriate findings with respect to the facts of the case. Sonos's challenges to the specificity of Dr. Kesan's expertise go more to the weight of his testimony and are therefore better left for the jury to assess. See Thomas & Berts, 342 Fed.Appx. at 761.

         The case law that Sonos cites is not to the contrary. In Sundance, Inc. v. DeMonte Fabricating Ltd., the Federal Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in allowing a patent attorney with extensive experience in patent law and procedure to testify about noninfringement and invalidity. 550 F.3d at 1361. The court did so because the attorney had "no experience whatsoever" in the pertinent art and was, therefore, not qualified to testify as an expert. Id. at 1363. Similarly, in Proveris Scientific Corp. v. Innovasystems, Inc., 536 F.3d 1256 (Fed. Cir. 2008), the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court's ruling that prohibited a mechanical engineer who specialized in satellite design from testifying about the development of drug delivery devices and laboratory equipment. Id. at 1268. And in Aloe Coal Co. v. Clark Equipment Co., 816 F.2d 110 (3d Cir. 1987), the Third Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in allowing a tractor sales representative to testify as an expert regarding the cause of a tractor fire. Id. at 114. Dr. Kesan, with nearly a decade of education in electrical engineering and subsequent work on circuitry and communication technology, is far removed from those examples. His testimony therefore will not be excluded based on a lack of sufficient qualifications. Sonos's challenge to Dr. Kesan's qualifications to testify as an expert in this case is therefore denied.

         b. Improper Legal Conclusions

         Sonos also seeks to exclude Dr. Kesan's testimony on the ground that he "improperly opines on numerous legal topics." Dkt. No. 336, at 9. Although courts typically forbid parties from calling "legal experts" to testify about the requirements of the law, technical experts are not forbidden from offering opinions on technical matters that lead them to particular conclusions that bear on ultimate issues in the case. See, e.g., Sundance, 550 F.3d at 1364. Moreover, patent law experts are frequently permitted to testify about matters such as general practices and procedures employed by the PTO in examining or reexamining patents. WL. Gore & Assocs., Inc. v. C.R. Bard, Inc., Civil Action No. 11-515, 2015 WL 12815314, at *3 (D. Del. Nov. 20, 2015); Brigham & Women's Hosp., Inc. v. Teva Pharm. USA, Inc., Civil Action No. 08-464, 2010 WL 3907490, at *1 (D. Del. Sept. 21, 2010); see also Icon-IP Pty Ltd. v. Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc., 87 F.Supp.3d 928, 946-47 (N.D. Cal. 2015); Wright Asphalt Prods. Co., LLC v. Pelican Refining Co., LLC, Civil Action No. H-09-1145, 2012 WL 1936416, at *7-10 (S.D. Tex. May 29, 2012); Szoka v. Woodle, No. 02-cv-5524, 2004 WL 5512964, at *3 (N.D. Cal. June 7, 2004); Bausch & Lomb, Inc. v. Alcon Labs., Inc., 79 F.Supp.2d 252, 255-56 (W.D.N.Y. 2000). Sonos has not pointed to any particular portions of Dr. Kesan's report that constitute opinion evidence about the requirements of the law, and the Court therefore sees no reason to address that claim.

         Sonos's contention that "Dr. Kesan's improper legal opinions are scattered throughout various sections and appendices of the Kesan Report, " Dkt. No. 336, at 9, is too general a complaint for the Court to address in any meaningful way. Does Sonos expect the Court to review all 1315 pages of Dr. Kesan's Report and Rebuttal Report in search of the "improper legal opinions" that are assertedly "scattered throughout various sections and appendices" of those reports? Without any more specificity than that, the Court is unable to address Sonos's objection and therefore deems that objection waived.

         Relatedly, Sonos makes the broad assertion that "the numerous, varied legal topics addressed in the Kesan Report make clear that Dr. Kesan, who is not a person of ordinary skill in the art in this case, is simply making attorney arguments clothed as expert testimony that go beyond the practices and procedures at the Patent Office." Dkt. No. 336, at 9. But the Court has already concluded that Dr. Kesan is sufficiently skilled in the art to testify as a technical expert. His testimony on technical factual issues leading to a conclusion of invalidity will therefore not be excluded. Moreover, as noted above, a person familiar with the practices of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Dr. Kesan is competent to testify as to issues of patent practice, and his opinions on those subjects are sufficiently reliable to submit to the jury.

         Beyond its general complaints about Dr. Kesan's purported legal opinions, Sonos raises several specific objections to Dr. Kesan's report in the "Legal Opinions" portion of its motion. Dkt. No. 336, at 9-11. In particular, Sonos objects to Dr. Kesan's analysis of secondary considerations, such as commercial success and copying. Sonos contends that Dr. Kesan has merely stated ultimate conclusions without supporting facts. Dkt. No. 336, at 10. As to certain aspects of Sonos's challenge to Dr. Kesan's testimony, the Court agrees.

         First, Dr. Kesan's report contains a single paragraph addressing commercial success as a secondary consideration bearing on the issue of obviousness. In that paragraph, the report asserts that "it appears that the primary reason for [Sonos's] commercial success is the availability of [Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) compatible] ...


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