Addressing the preclusive effect of judgments by tribunals with limited jurisdiction, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that trademark cancellation proceedings before the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB) do not have preclusive effect against trademark infringement lawsuits in federal district courts. Beasley v. Howard, Case No. 20-1119 (3d Cir. Sept. 17, 2021) (Chagares, J.)
In 1969, Beasley started a band named The Ebonys. In the mid-1990s, Howard joined the band, and in 1997, Beasley obtained a New Jersey state service mark for “The Ebonys.” Several years later, Beasley and Howard parted ways. In 2012, Howard registered “The Ebonys” as a federal trademark with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO).
In 2013, Beasley filed a petition with the TTAB to cancel Howard’s mark, arguing that Howard had defrauded the PTO. The TTAB rejected Beasley’s 2013 petition. In 2017, Beasley filed a second petition with the TTAB, again arguing that Howard had defrauded the PTO and for the first time arguing that Howard’s mark could be confused with Beasley’s separate “The Ebonys” mark. The TTAB rejected Beasley’s 2017 petition, this time on claim preclusion grounds, finding that Beasley should have asserted his likelihood-of-confusion claim in his 2013 petition. Beasley did not appeal either dismissal.
In 2019, Beasley initiated a lawsuit in federal district court, requesting that the court vacate Howard’s mark, award Beasley monetary damages and permit Beasley to register his own “The Ebonys” mark with the PTO. The district court dismissed Beasley’s complaint, finding that claim preclusion applied because the complaint turned on the same factual and legal arguments litigated in the 2017 petition, even though Beasley did not seek damages in the 2017 petition. Beasley appealed.
The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal, concluding that the TTAB’ s cancellation proceedings did not preclude Beasley from bringing his § 43(a) infringement claim in the district court. The Court noted that the TTAB has limited jurisdiction to determine the right to register a trademark and does not have authority to consider questions of infringement, unfair competition, injunctions or damages. It reasoned that because the TTAB does not have jurisdiction to award any remedy beyond cancellation of the mark, a broader § 43(a) cause of action for deceptive use in commerce, as alleged by Beasley, could not have been brought in a TTAB cancellation proceeding.
The Third Circuit also rejected Howard’s argument that Beasley should have brought trademark cancellation claims in the district court in the first instance, noting that even though a federal district court has authority to order a cancellation, a TTAB petition is the primary means of securing a cancellation, and that forcing Beasley to litigate in the district court in the first instance would “encourage litigants to sit on their claims and undermine the Lanham Act’s adjudicative mechanisms.”
Practice Note: In the Third Circuit, plaintiffs are encouraged to bring their trademark cancellation claims before the TTAB in the first instance, rather than waiting to bring their trademark cancellation and trademark infringement claims together before the federal district court.