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School’s Out: Trademark Settlement Agreement Enforceable

Addressing issues relating to jurisdiction, contract enforceability and trademarks, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that two schools that used similar names had a valid and enforceable settlement agreement obligating one school to pay for the other to change its name. The Commonwealth School, Inc. v. Commonwealth Academy Holdings LLC, Case No. 20-1112 (1st Cir. Apr. 14, 2021) (Selya, J.)

It came to the attention of a Boston private school, The Commonwealth School (the School), that a more recently founded private school in Springfield, Massachusetts, was operating under a similar name, Commonwealth Academy (the Academy). In 2016, the School brought suit against the Academy under the federal Lanham Act, claiming that the School had a trademark on its “Commonwealth School” name, and that “Commonwealth Academy” infringed on that trademark. The parties entered into settlement mediation, and agreed that the School would pay the Academy $25,000 and in return the Academy would change its name to “Springfield Commonwealth Academy.”

The district court issued an order that a settlement was reached. Three years passed, and the Academy took steps to change its name in promotional materials and on its website. But the School would not pay the Academy because it claimed the Academy still had the “Commonwealth Academy” name appearing prominently on its students’ basketball jerseys. At a hearing to resolve the dispute, the district court reversed its earlier order: the parties had not actually reached a settlement agreement because there had been no “meeting of the minds” for contract formation, despite the other steps the Academy took to fulfill the agreement. The district court dismissed the case because neither party showed cause to reopen the case. The Academy appealed, arguing that the district court erred in refusing to enforce the settlement agreement.

The First Circuit addressed three main issues on appeal: (1) whether there was appellate jurisdiction to hear the appeal, (2) whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the initial settlement agreement dispute, and (3) on the merits, whether the settlement agreement was a validly formed contract.

The First Circuit concluded it had jurisdiction to review the district court’s dismissal order. Generally, under the final judgment rule, only final decisions are appealable. But here, the order at issue was merely interlocutory, meaning it was issued during the course of litigation. The Academy claimed the order was in fact reviewable because the order resulted in the case’s dismissal, and thus it should fall under the merger doctrine exception, where interlocutory orders merge into final judgments. The Court considered this in the context of the School’s failure to prosecute, and whether the order actually fell under an exception to the exception – i.e., where a dismissal is based on a failure to prosecute, it does not fall under the merger doctrine. In its analysis, the Court considered the policy considerations underlying the merger doctrine: to preserve integrity of the final judgment rule by preventing any reward for bad faith tactics. Here, the School, as the [...]

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No Second Bite at the Apple: Injury Must Be Imminent and Non-Speculative to Support Standing

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that a party did not have Article III appellate standing to obtain review of a final ruling of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board because the underlying district court proceedings had been dismissed with prejudice after a settlement and license agreement were reached. Apple Inc. v. Qualcomm Inc., Case Nos. 20-1561; -1642 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 7, 2021) (Moore, J.)

After Qualcomm sued Apple in district court, Apple filed petitions for inter partes review (IPR) of the asserted patent claims. The Board instituted on both petitions but found that Apple did not prove the challenged claims were obvious. Apple appealed the Board’s final written decisions finding non-obviousness.

While the IPR proceedings were pending, the parties settled their litigation worldwide. The settlement included a license to Apple and payment of royalties to Qualcomm. The parties filed a joint motion to dismiss Qualcomm’s district court action with prejudice, which the district court granted.

At the Federal Circuit, Qualcomm argued that Apple waived any argument to establish its appellate standing by failing to address or submit supporting evidence in its opening brief. However, the Federal Circuit exercised its discretion to reach the issue of standing, explaining that the issue of standing was fully briefed, there was no prejudice to Qualcomm, and the question of standing impacted these and other appeals. Qualcomm sought leave to file a sur-reply addressing Apple’s evidence and arguments on standing, and agreed that if its motions to file a sur-reply were granted, it would not suffer any prejudice, and that evaluating the evidence may resolve standing in other pending cases. The Court granted Qualcomm leave to file a sur-reply.

Apple argued that it had appellate standing based on its ongoing payment obligations that conditioned certain rights in the license agreement, the threat that Apple would be sued for infringing the two patents-at-issue after the expiration of the license agreement, and the estoppel effects of 35 USC § 315 on future challenges to the validity of the asserted patents. The Federal Circuit disagreed.

LICENSE RIGHTS

Distinguishing the 2007 Supreme Court case MedImmune v. Genentech (where standing was found based on license agreement payment obligations after analyzing evidence for injury in fact or redressability), the Federal Circuit explained that Apple did not allege that the validity of the patents-at-issue would affect its contract rights and ongoing royalty obligations. The license agreement between the parties involves tens of thousands of patents. Apple did not argue or present evidence that the validity of any single patent (including the two patents-at-issue) would affect its ongoing payment obligations, or identify any related contractual dispute that could be resolved through determining the patents-at-issue’s validity. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Apple failed to establish Art. III standing under MedImmune.

THREAT OF POST-LICENSE SUITS

Apple’s second argument was based on the possibility that Qualcomm might sue Apple for infringing the patents-at-issue after the license expired. The Federal Circuit found the mere possibility of any such suit [...]

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