Ruehl v. AM Gen. LLC

Decision Date25 March 2020
Docket NumberCAUSE NO.: 3:14-CV-317-TLS
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Indiana

This matter is before the Court on Defendant AM General's Supplemental Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [ECF No. 74]. The motion is briefed and is ripe for ruling. The case is a dispute over ownership rights to a patent related to vehicular frame rails. In his Amended Complaint [ECF No. 22], Plaintiff Ruehl1 raises claims against AM General LLC ("AM General") for patent infringement and breach of contract. AM General filed Defendant's Answer and Affirmative Defenses to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint and Counterclaim [ECF No. 25], denying Ruehl's allegations, raising affirmative defenses, raising counterclaims for breach of warranty and breach of contract, and asking for a declaratory judgment that it either owns the patent in question or has an irrevocable license to use it.


"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R.Civ. P. 56(a). "[T]he burden on the moving party may be discharged by 'showing'—that is, pointing out to the district court—that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). "If the moving party has properly supported his motion, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Spierer v. Rossman, 798 F.3d 502, 507 (7th Cir. 2015). "To survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party must establish some genuine issue for trial such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in [his] favor." Gordon v. FedEx Freight, Inc., 674 F.3d 769, 772-73 (7th Cir. 2012).

Within this context, the Court must construe all facts and reasonable inferences from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Frakes v. Peoria Sch. Dist. No. 150, 872 F.3d 545, 550 (7th Cir. 2017). However, the nonmoving party "is only entitled to the benefit of inferences supported by admissible evidence, not those 'supported by only speculation or conjecture.'" Grant v. Trs. of Ind. Univ., 870 F.3d 562, 568 (7th Cir. 2017) (citing Nichols v. Michigan City Plant Planning Dep't, 755 F.3d 594, 599 (7th Cir. 2014)). Likewise, irrelevant or unnecessary factual disputes do not preclude the entry of summary judgment. Carroll v. Lynch, 698 F.3d 561, 564 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).


When considering this motion, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to Ruehl as the nonmoving party. The following statement of facts, including footnotes, is directly quoted from the Court's March 28, 2017 Opinion and Order [ECF No. 69] denying both parties' Motions for Partial Summary Judgement [ECF Nos. 50, 54]:

1. Mother Necessity The parties agree Ralf Pionke of AM General contacted his former co-worker Philip Ruehl in late 2004 or early 2005 about consulting with AM General on a project to upgrade the frame rails for its Humvee line of trucks.

Mr. Pionke sent Mr. Ruehl drawings of the then-current side rail design on February 17, 2015 (via email), and on February 23, 2005 (via UPS). AM General claims Mr. Ruehl admitted that once he had its print drawings, which he did not receive until February 25, 2005, he looked at them and wanted to modify the spacers.2

2. February purchase order

Mr. Ruehl signed a purchase order on February 26, 2005. The front of this purchase order says: "This purchase order is issued to cover cost to provide engineering support for HMMWV frame rail feasibility study." (Feb. Purchase Order, DE 51-13 at 2.) It also caps the cost at $22,500. (Id.) It warns: "ACCEPTANCE OF THIS ORDER CONSTITUTES AN ACCEPTANCE OF THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS ON FACE AND REVERSE HEREOF." (Id.)

The back of this purchase order says:

1. This order constitutes the entire agreement between the parties hereto and the terms and conditions set forth herein cannot be modified or amended without the written consent of the Purchaser. No officer, employee or other representative of Purchaser is authorized to make any oral contract of commitment for the purchase of materials or to modify or change the terms and conditions of this order unless such modification or change is in writing approved by Vice President of the Purchaser.
. . .
5. It is understood and agreed the Seller warrants that the sale or use of the material covered by this order, either alone or in combination with other materials, will not infringe or contribute to the infringement of any patents, either in the U.S.A. or in foreign countries, and that the Seller covenants to defend everysuit which shall be brought against the Purchaser or any party selling or using any of the Purchaser's products for any alleged infringement of any patent by reason of the sales or use of said materials, either alone, or in combination with other materials, and to pay all expenses and fees of counsel which shall be incurred in and about defending, and all cost, damages and profits recoverable in every such suit.
. . .
9. Information, including but not limited to technical information, drawing and data, submitted any time by Seller to Purchaser relating to goods or services covered by this purchase order are deemed not to be submitted in confidence unless otherwise specifically agreed to in writing. Any restrictive markings affixed upon any such information furnished to Purchaser shall be of no force or effect, may be modified, removed or ignored by Purchaser without any liability to Seller and the information may be used by Purchaser in any way in the conduct of its business. Seller's sole rights with respect to use of such information by Purchaser, it's [sic] successors, subsidiaries, licenses, affiliates or parents shall be determined only by valid pre-existing patent rights of Seller as related to the manufacture, use or sale of goods or services covered by this order. Seller agrees to promptly notify Purchaser of any pre-existing patents of any other form of protection which Seller may hold or know of which relates to the goods or services to be provided under this purchase order. In connection with the development of any ideas, inventions, improvement or discoveries, including all related information and know-how, related to the goods or services to be provided under this purchase order and for which Purchaser has provided or is to provide support to Seller in the form of funding, including but not limited to payments in whole or part for prototype components or tooling, designing, testing or consulting, Purchaser shall automatically be entitled to and Seller agrees to and hereby assigns all rights, title and interest to such ideas, inventions, improvements and discoveries (unless otherwise specifically agreed to in writing and such event Purchaser shall be entitled to at least a nonexclusive paid up, irrevocable worldwide right and license including the right to fully sublicense third parties including the U.S. Government for all Governmental purposes to practice and have practiced for its purpose such invention). Seller agrees to promptly notify Purchaser in writing of any such idea, invention, improvement or discovery so developed. The provisions of this clause shall survive termination of fulfillment of this order and shall incur to the benefit of Purchaser's successors, subsidiaries, licensees, affiliates of parents.

(Feb. Purchase Order, DE 51-13 at 3.33) Mr. Ruehl acknowledges that his signature on this document commits him to its terms. 3. Original concept sketch: March 5, 2005

On March 5, 2005, Mr. Ruehl sketched the big idea at the heart of this case. But the parties disagree about the genesis of this idea.

Mr. Ruehl claims in his amended complaint he conceived the idea before signing the purchase order on February 26, 2005. But he testified on November 19, 2015: "The iterative process of inventing the concept was completed on March 5, 2005." (Ruehl Dep., DE 51-11 at 15.) And on April 14, 2016, Mr. Ruehl signed his declaration stating: "None of my invoices to AM General included charges for my work inventing my new frame rail concept, which was completed no later than March 5, 2005 (and, to my best recollection, earlier than that.)" (Ruehl Decl., DE 55-3 at 2.)

AM General argues there is no evidence Ruehl conceived the idea before signing the February purchase order other than his say-so. AM General argues the evidence demonstrates that the spacer concept was not completed until March 5, 2005, and that the idea continued to develop after that date: "[T]he undisputed evidence demonstrates that Ruehl, after reviewing AMG's frame rail drawings and signing the February PO, came up with a spacer concept and then spent three weeks further refining and developing this concept as part of the engineering support he provided to AMG." (AM General's Br. Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Partial Summ. J., DE 60 at 20.)

Not only do the parties disagree about the genesis of the idea, they also disagree about what happened to the idea after Ruehl sketched it on March 5, 2005. Ruehl claims the idea never changed or developed after that date, or perhaps even for some time before. Ruehl claims no one refined, tested, supported, or funded the idea after that date, or perhaps even for some timebefore. AM General, however, argues that the idea was subject to continued development, refinement, and testing during the following months.

The parties refer to the idea in various ways. Ruehl refers to it as an invention "comprised of a box-type frame rail assembly," and as "a much improved means of assembling frame rails." (Am. Compl., DE 22 at 4, 6.) He says the patent, entitled "Boxed Frame Member and Method for...

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