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Federal Circuit: Contractual Arbitration Agreements Don’t Bind PTAB Institution Decisions

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued an order declining to intervene in inter partes review (IPR) institution decisions by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) and further denied a writ of mandamus to stay the PTAB’s IPR institution pending contractually required arbitration of the dispute between MaxPower and ROHM Japan. In re: MAXPOWER SEMICONDUCTOR, INC., Case No. 21-146 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 8, 2021) (Reyna, J.) (O’Malley, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

MaxPower owned patents directed to silicon transistor technology and licensed the patents to ROHM Japan. The license agreement contained an arbitration clause that applied to any disputes arising from or related to it—including patent validity. A dispute arose between the parties as to whether the patents covered certain silicon carbide transistor ROHM products. After MaxPower notified ROHM that it was initiating arbitration under the terms of their license agreement, ROHM challenged the validity of four MaxPower patents at the PTAB, which granted ROHM’s petitions to institute IPRs for the four challenged patents.

MaxPower appealed the PTAB’s institution decision to the Federal Circuit and sought a writ of mandamus to stay or terminate the IPR proceedings without prejudice to later institution if an arbitrator decided that IPR proceedings were appropriate.

The Federal Circuit held that the PTAB’s decision to institute IPR is non-appealable under 35 U.S.C. §314(d), which plainly “confirms the unavailability of jurisdiction” for the Court to hear direct appeals. The Court also found that MaxPower failed to meet the criteria necessary to invoke the collateral order doctrine, which allows appeals from interlocutory rulings if they decide an issue “separate from the merits of the case” that would not be reviewable after final judgment. The Court noted that MaxPower could still raise its arbitration-related challenges after the PTAB issued its final written decisions in these cases.

The Federal Circuit also rejected arguments that the appeals were authorized under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1) and that MaxPower failed to show that its mandamus petition was not “merely a ‘means of avoiding the statutory prohibition on appellate review of agency institution decisions,’” citing the Court’s 2018 decision in In re Power Integrations.

Since the PTAB is not bound by private contracts enforcing arbitration agreements between parties, the Federal Circuit ruled that MaxPower had failed to show that the PTAB’s institution decisions in this case “clearly and indisputably exceeded its authority,” also stating that 35 U.S.C. § 294 does not authorize the PTAB to enforce private arbitration agreements.

In a partial dissent, Judge Kathleen O’Malley argued that the majority decision casts “a shadow over all agreements to arbitrate patent validity” and goes against strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements. While concurring with the majority that the PTAB’s IPR institution decisions are not appealable, Judge O’Malley stated that the case “provides exactly the sort of extraordinary circumstances under which mandamus review is appropriate” in what she called an important issue of first impression. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that [...]

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Sixth Circuit: It’s a Go on Plaintiff’s Claims Despite Arbitration Clause

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in part a district court’s grant of a stay pending arbitration, finding that as non-parties to the underlying arbitration agreement, defendants could not stay the plaintiff’s action against them by arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration agreement. AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng, Case No. 19-4067 (6th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Guy, J., dissenting).

AtriCure invested millions into developing medical devices that treat a serious degenerative heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. The company sells these products to hospitals throughout the world. In the mid-2000s, AtriCure sought to enter the Chinese market. In order to do so, it needed a Chinese agent. Dr. Jian Meng approached AtriCure about partnering with one of his companies to serve as AtriCure’s Chinese distributor. AtriCure eventually entered into a relationship with Meng’s company, ZenoMed.

In 2015, AtriCure discovered that another of Meng’s companies, Med-Zenith, was attempting to market a knockoff version of one of AtriCure’s medical devices. AtriCure opted to continue the relationship with ZenoMed, and in 2016, AtriCure and ZenoMed entered into a distribution agreement. However, in 2017, AtriCure learned that Med-Zenith was attempting to develop more counterfeit versions of AtriCure’s devices. As a result, AtriCure allowed the distribution agreement to expire and demanded that ZenoMed return its inventory.

AtriCure then sued Meng and Med-Zenith in the Southern District of Ohio, alleging improper manufacturing and selling of dangerous counterfeit productions, as well as various state law claims. AtriCure also brought an arbitration demand under the distribution agreement against ZenoMed. Meng and Med-Zenith sought to stay the federal lawsuit, arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration clause in the distribution agreement under equitable estoppel and agency theories. After the district court denied the motion, Meng appealed.

The Sixth Circuit explained that after the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2009 ruling in Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, circuit courts are obligated to look to relevant state common law to decide when nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. As a result, the blanket federal presumption favoring arbitration even against nonparties was no longer applicable. Now, courts must examine state law to determine whether nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. The Court examined Ohio contract law to determine that a nonparty cannot enforce an arbitration clause unless it is an intended third-party beneficiary. The Court rejected Meng and Med-Zenith’s equitable estoppel arguments, finding that under Ohio law, AtriCure’s state law claims did not seek to enforce the distribution agreement against Meng and Med-Zenith, or rely on any theory that they owed contractual duties to AtriCure notwithstanding their nonparty status. Finally, the Court remanded the question of whether Meng’s agency argument could prevail by determining if he was acting as an agent of ZenoMed when he engaged in the conduct AtriCure complained about in the separate arbitration.

In dissent, Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. argued that Meng “unambiguously sought a ‘stay under Section 3 of the [...]

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Ninth Circuit Still Signals Shift in Arbitration Landscape for Non-Signatories

In a decision substantively the same as the now-withdrawn opinion entered on January 20, 2021, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit once again affirmed denial of a non-signatory’s motion to compel arbitration. Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya LLP, Case No.18-35573 (9th Cir. July 7, 2021) (Nelson, J.) (Bea, J., dissenting).

Following the June 8, 2021, withdrawal of its original decision, the Ninth Circuit again found that federal rather than Indian law should apply, this time focusing on the New York Convention and its implementing legislation’s emphasis on “the need for uniformity in the application of international arbitration agreements.” The Court further reasoned that it applies “federal substantive law” in cases involving the New York Convention when determining the arbitrability of federal claims by or against non-signatories. The Ninth Circuit then pointed back to GE Energy, the decision that prompted the initial remand, stating that although the Supreme Court of the United States “specifically concluded” that “the New York Convention does not conflict with enforcement of arbitration agreements by non-signatories under domestic-law equitable estoppel doctrines,” the Supreme Court did not determine whether GE Energy could enforce the arbitration clauses under principles of equitable estoppel, nor did it determine which body of law governed.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that while “a non-signatory could compel arbitration in a New York Convention case,” the facts presented here did not implicate the agreement that contained the arbitration clause. Clarifying its prior holding, the Ninth Circuit stated explicitly that the claims here had “no relationship with the partnership deed containing the arbitration agreement at issue in this appeal.” Repeating its earlier ruling, the Court reasoned that the subject matter of the dispute was not intertwined and thus the doctrine of equitable estoppel was not applicable.

Judge Carlos Bea again dissented on the choice of law issue. Although most of his opinion was similar to his prior analysis, Judge Bea indicated that he disagreed with the majority’s notion that federal substantive law is applied in cases involving the arbitrability of federal claims by or against non-signatories under the New York Convention. Judge Bea argued that there was no basis to make such a choice of law analysis for a motion to compel dependent on whether the plaintiff’s claims sounded in federal or state law, and that whether an arbitration agreement is otherwise governed by the New York Convention is irrelevant to the choice of law for an equitable estoppel claim.

Practice Note: The Setty decision appears to demonstrate a shift in the US arbitration landscape, and parties may begin to see an increase in the use of equitable estoppel theories by non-signatories. Practitioners should keep in mind that non-signatories may use this theory affirmatively to attempt to compel arbitration, but it may open the door to enforcement of an obligation to arbitrate against non-signatories as well.




Ninth Circuit Withdraws Opinion That Signaled Shift in Arbitration Landscape for Non-Signatories

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an order withdrawing its opinion in Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya, where the Court affirmed the denial of a non-signatory’s bid to arbitrate its claims for trademark infringement against one of the signatories to a contract under Indian law. Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya LLP, Case No. No. 18-35573 (9th Cir. June 8, 2021). The Court did not provide any reasoning for the withdrawal but indicated that a new disposition will be filed in due course.




In Setty, Ninth Circuit Signals Shift in Arbitration Landscape for Non-Signatories

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tackled the question of whether non-signatories to an agreement may use state law doctrines to compel arbitration. Holding that the claims were insufficiently “intertwined” to permit equitable estoppel and had to be analyzed under federal law (and not state or foreign law), the Court affirmed denial of a non-signatory’s bid to arbitrate its claims for trademark infringement against one of the signatories to a contract governed by Indian law. Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya LLP, Case No. 18-35573 (9th Cir. Jan. 20, 2021) (Nelson, J.) (Bea, J., dissenting).

The dispute arose from a business partnership between brothers. Balkrishna and Nagraj Setty formed in order to continue their late father’s Indian incense business. The brothers signed a partnership deed that included an arbitration provision stating:

All disputes of any type whatsoever in respect of the partnership arising between the partners either during the continuance of this partnership or after the determination thereof shall be decided by arbitration as per the provision of the Indian Arbitration Act, 1940 or any statutory modification thereof for the time being in force.

In 2014 the brothers’ relationship fell apart, with each brother starting his own company. Balkrishna Setty and his company, Shrinivas Sugandhalaya (BNG) (SS Bangalore), brought suit against Nagraj Setty’s company, Shrinivas Sugandhalaya (SS Mumbai), for several claims, including trademark infringement. Nagraj Setty was not named in the action. SS Mumbai sought to compel the plaintiffs to participate in arbitration pursuant to the deed. The district court denied SS Mumbai’s motion, finding that only one party to the lawsuit, Balkrishna Setty, was a party to the deed and that the companies, SS Bangalore and SS Mumbai, were non-signatories. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that SS Mumbai could not equitably estop SS Bangalore from avoiding arbitration. In June 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari, vacated the judgment and remanded for further consideration based upon its decision in GE Energy Conversion France SAS v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, LLC, 140 S. Ct. 1637 (2020).

On remand, the Ninth Circuit affirmed denial of the motion to compel arbitration. First addressing choice of law, the Court found that federal rather than Indian law should apply. SS Mumbai argued that pursuant to the deed, the Indian Arbitration Act—which provides non-signatories the right to compel arbitration—should apply. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that “whether SS Mumbai may enforce the Partnership Deed as a non-signatory is a ‘threshold issue’ for which we do not look to the agreement itself.” The Court acknowledged that the deed provided exclusively for disputes “arising between the partners,” not third parties. Thus, based on the federal nature of the claims and federal question jurisdiction, the Court applied federal law, opening the door to arguments concerning equitable estoppel.

Second, discussing SS Mumbai’s equitable estoppel argument, the Ninth Circuit stated that in order “[f]or equitable estoppel to apply, it is ‘essential . . . that the subject matter of the dispute [is] intertwined with the contract providing [...]

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Attorney’s Fees Properly Awarded in Unsuccessful Trade Secret Misappropriation and Civil Theft Suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a take-nothing judgment and an attorney’s fees award against plaintiffs in a trade secret misappropriation and civil theft suit under Texas law, finding that the fee award did not need to be segregated to various claims. ATOM Instrument Corp. v. Petroleum Analyzer Co., L.P., Case Nos. 19-29151, -20371 (5th Cir. Aug. 7, 2020) (Southwick, J.). The Court also remanded for an additional award of appellate attorney’s fees.

Olstowski was a consultant for Petroleum Analyzer Co., L.P. (PAC), during which time he developed a krypton-chloride-based excimer lamp to detect sulfur with ultraviolet fluorescence. Although he developed the lamp independently, he used PAC resources to test the technology.  Olstowski and PAC negotiated but failed to agree on licensing. Olstowski founded ATOM Instrument to assist him in the licensing discussions. Subsequently, PAC filed a declaratory judgment action in Texas court alleging that it owned the lamp technology. The state court ordered the claim to arbitration. The arbitration panel declared Olstowski the owner of the technology and enjoined PAC from using it. The state court confirmed the arbitral award, and a Texas appellate court upheld the confirmation order.

PAC thereafter developed a new sulfur-detecting excimer lamp called MultiTek that also used krypton-chloride with UV fluorescence. Olstowski and ATOM filed in state court for contempt of the injunction, but the state court denied the contempt motion as moot because PAC had ceased selling MultiTek.

ATOM filed for bankruptcy the following year. Olstowski and ATOM initiated a district court proceeding against PAC alleging misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition and civil theft. After holding a bench trial, the court found that MultiTek did not practice Olstowski’s technology and therefore entered a take-nothing judgment in favor of PAC. The district court also awarded attorney’s fees to PAC under a provision of the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA) that awards fees to prevailing parties. Olstowski and ATOM appealed both issues, and PAC sought an award of its appellate attorney’s fees.

As to liability, ATOM argued that the district court erred in finding that the MultiTek lamp did not practice Olstowski’s technology. ATOM characterized the error as a legal one regarding interpretation of the arbitral award, but the Fifth Circuit held that “whether one company used another’s protected technology” is a factual question for which Olstowski and ATOM had failed to carry the burden of proof at trial. ATOM further argued that the district court had ignored the alleged law of the case in deviating from the scope of technology defined in the arbitral award, but the Court again rejected ATOM’s argument because the district court had explicitly stated that the description of Olstowski’s technology in the arbitral award remained in effect.

As to the award of attorney’s fees, ATOM argued that the district court had not appropriately segregated fees related to the TTLA claim from those related to other claims. Applying Texas law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that the TTLA claim was sufficiently related to the other claims [...]

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Supreme Court: “Booking.com” Can Be Registered as Trademark

By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court rejected a per se rule by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that a generic word followed by “.com” is necessarily generic and therefore ineligible for trademark protection. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office et al. v. Booking.com BV, Case No. 19-46 (Supr. Ct. June 30, 2020) (Ginsberg, Justice) (Sotomayor, Justice, concurring) (Breyer, Justice, dissenting). In so doing, the Supreme Court found that the proper test for whether “booking.com” is eligible for trademark protection for travel booking services is whether the public perceives “booking.com” as identifying a single source.

Trademarks identify and distinguish the goods and services of a single party, and the Lanham Act establishes a system of trademark registration. Among other requirements for registration, a trademark must be distinctive, as judged along a spectrum of trademark distinctiveness. Distinctive trademarks, in order of most to least strength, include fanciful or made-up words (e.g., KODAK); arbitrary marks that are existing words that have no connection to the underlying goods or services (e.g., CAMEL cigarettes); and then suggestive marks, which require some mental thought to connect them to an attribute of the products or services (e.g., TIDE laundry detergent). Descriptive words are not inherently distinctive (e.g., BEST BUY), but can still be protectable and registerable upon proof of acquired distinctiveness (i.e., secondary meaning) arising from extensive use and advertising by the trademark owner. At the low end of the spectrum of distinctiveness are generic terms, which merely refer to a category or class of goods or services (e.g., wine or art) and are therefore never protectable or registerable as trademarks.

The PTO refused registration for “Booking.com,” citing policy developed from a 132-year-old Supreme Court case which held that the addition of “Company” to a generic word does not render the resulting name (i.e., Generic Company) distinctive.  See Goodyear’s India Rubber Glove MfgCo. v. Goodyear Rubber Co., 128 U. S. 598 (1888). After the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) affirmed the refusal of registration, Booking.com appealed to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which reversed the refusal of registration, finding that “‘Booking.com’—unlike ‘booking’—is not generic. The district court found that the consuming public primarily understands that BOOKING.COM does not refer to a genus, rather it is descriptive of services involving ‘booking’ available at that domain name.”  The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the Virginia federal court (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 3), and the PTO sought certiorari from the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 11), and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg delivered the opinion of the Court, with which six other justices joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a short concurring opinion, and Justice Breyer dissented. The question under review by the Court was “whether the addition by an online business of a generic top-level domain (.com) to an otherwise generic term can create a protectable trademark.

Both parties in Booking.com agreed that “booking” is generic for the kind of travel [...]

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Ricky Martin’s “Vida” Lives On, but Plaintiff Will Get Another Shot at It

Addressing whether a copyright infringement claim should be dismissed with prejudice where the plaintiff failed to register his copyright prior to filing the lawsuit, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that dismissal is too harsh, remanding the case for consideration of whether the claim should be dismissed without prejudice or if the plaintiff should be entitled to supplemental allegations. Cortes-Ramos v. Martin-Morales, Case No. 19-1358 (1st Cir. Apr. 13, 2020) (Dyk, J.[1]).

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