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Veil Piercing Under Lanham Act Requires Specific Showing of Liability

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court decision granting summary judgment of liability under the Langham Act, finding that the plaintiffs failed to apply the correct standards for piercing the corporate veil and individual liability in a false advertising and false endorsement dispute. Edmondson et al. v. Velvet Lifestyles, LLC, Case No. 20-11315 (11th Cir. Aug. 4, 2022) (Jordan, Pryor, Marcus, JJ.)

Miami Velvet operated as a swingers’ nightclub in Miami, Florida. Miami Velvet was owned, operated and managed by Velvet Lifestyles, LLC. Joy Dorfman was the president, manager and a salaried employee of Velvet Lifestyles. My Three Yorkies, LLC, was the managing member of Velvet Lifestyles, and Dorfman was, in turn, the managing member of Yorkies. She was also the president of Yorkies and received the management fees that Velvet Lifestyles paid Yorkies. Approximately 30 individuals sued Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman for false advertising and false endorsement under the Lanham Act. The individuals alleged that Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman used the individuals’ images in advertisements without their consent, without any compensation and in such a way that implied they were affiliated with and endorsed Miami Velvet.

The district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman’s use of the plaintiffs’ images constituted false advertising and false endorsement. The plaintiffs’ motion treated all three defendants as effectively a single entity, and the district court made no finding that either My Three Yorkies or Dorfman had any direct involvement in the advertising. The district court did not apply the individual liability standard to Dorfman and instead treated all three defendants as a single entity as the plaintiffs’ motion had done. A jury awarded damages at trial. After post-trial motion practice, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman appealed.

The plaintiffs argued on appeal that My Three Yorkies and Dorfman had not properly preserved these issues for review on appeal. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument, finding that because the plaintiffs did not properly plead the standards for piercing the corporate veil and individual liability, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman were not obligated to raise or respond to those issues and, therefore, any procedural failures on their part were inconsequential.

Turning to the merits, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the finding of liability on summary judgment. The Court explained that in order for My Three Yorkies to be liable for the actions of Velvet Lifestyles, the plaintiffs had to show that My Three Yorkies was directly involved in the violation of the Lanham Act. The Court found that the plaintiffs failed to show that My Three Yorkies took any action regarding the management of the club or the advertisement in question, and that therefore the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the corporate veil should be pierced. The Court further explained that in order for Dorfman to be liable as an individual, the plaintiffs had to show that she actively participated as the [...]

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No Winners Here: A Case Can Have No Prevailing Party

In a matter of first impression, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that there may be no prevailing party for purposes of assessing costs and attorneys’ fees under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d). Royal Palm Properties, LLC v. Pink Palm Properties, LLC, Case No. 21-10872 (11th Cir. July 7, 2022) (Wilson, Rosenbaum, Covington, JJ.)

Royal Palm Properties sued Pink Palm Properties for trademark infringement. Pink Palm countersued, seeking cancellation of the trademark and a declaratory judgment of noninfringement. Following a three-day trial, the jury found that Pink Palm did not infringe the trademark and that the trademark was not invalid on the grounds asserted by Pink Palm. Pink Palm moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL), asking the court to overrule the jury’s determination that the trademark was valid. The district granted Pink Palm’s motion and invalidated the trademark. Pink Palm subsequently moved for costs, which the district court granted because Pink Palm was the prevailing party in light of the order granting JMOL. Royal Palm appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of JMOL, reinstating the jury’s verdict and the trademark’s validity. In light of this reversal, the district court, on remand, ruled that Pink Palm was no longer the prevailing party for purposes of costs and was not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act’s exception case doctrine. Pink Palm appealed.

Before addressing whether the district court erred by failing to name Pink Palm as the prevailing party, the Eleventh Circuit addressed the threshold question of whether courts are required to name a prevailing party in every case. The Court noted that while the Supreme Court of the United States has issued multiple opinions providing guidance on how to determine the prevailing party, it has not yet addressed whether there must be a prevailing party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54.

Not finding any precedent in its own circuit, the Eleventh Circuit first looked to Federal Circuit precedent, which has stated that a district court must declare a prevailing party and that “punting is not an option.” The Court next explored holdings by the Eighth, Fifth and Second Circuits. Those courts have found that where the parties each brought unsuccessful claims and outcome did not materially alter the legal relationship between the parties, there is no prevailing party.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Eighth, Fifth and Second Circuit precedent and concluded that the text of Rule 54(d) does not allow for multiple prevailing parties, and there is not always a prevailing party in every case. A district court in the Eleventh Circuit may find (at most) one prevailing party, but it is not required to do so in every case. The Court found that both Royal Palm and Pink Palm had rebuffed the other’s claim regarding the trademark, leading to no material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties, and thus there was no prevailing party.




Can’t Overturn Jury Verdicts Based on Reasonable Inferences, but Broad Injunction Is Nonstarter Even for Willfully Misappropriated Trade Secrets

In a rare appellate trade secret opinion, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of a defendant’s request for a new trial on liability and its refusal of the plaintiff’s requested injunction. It also reversed in part the district court’s denial of judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) on damages for clear error because the plaintiff failed to deduct marginal costs when calculating lost profits. Financial Information Technologies v. iControl Systems, Case No. 20-13368 (11th Cir. Dec. 22, 2021) (Jordan, Newsom, JJ., and Burke, Distr J.).

Competitors Financial Information Technologies (Fintech) and iControl Systems both sell software that processes alcohol sales invoices within 24 hours. Fintech was a lone operator for several years until iControl started servicing the alcohol industry and began selling a very similar product at a lower price point. After Fintech lost its vice president of operations (who was very involved in designing Fintech’s software), a sales representative and several customers to iControl, Fintech filed suit alleging misappropriation of trade secrets. The jury ruled in Fintech’s favor and awarded compensatory and punitive damages. iControl sought a new trial on liability, contending that Fintech’s alleged trade secrets were readily ascertainable and not “secret,” and JMOL on damages since Fintech hadn’t proved lost profits because it hadn’t deducted fixed and marginal costs from its lost revenue calculations. Fintech sought a permanent injunction prohibiting iControl from using either company’s software. The district court denied all three motions, and both parties appealed.

As to the jury verdict, the Eleventh Circuit noted that jury liability findings are generally difficult to overturn, and that the verdict was general and nonspecific regarding which of the seven alleged trade secrets iControl had misappropriated, so Fintech only needed to show evidence under the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act (FUTSA) of misappropriation as to one. iControl also did not move for JMOL on liability, and therefore, under the abuse-of-discretion standard of review, the Court could only overturn if “there is an absolute absence of evidence to support the verdict.” However, the Court found that Fintech and its witness presented sufficient evidence at trial to permit a reasonable jury to find that Fintech possessed at least one of the seven alleged trade secrets and that it was misappropriated. The evidence included emails indicating that its former vice president helped iControl discover Fintech’s internal processes to aid software developments, assisted iControl’s chief technology officer in troubleshooting issues in a manner similar to Fintech, shared screenshots of Fintech’s user portal and prompted customers to switch to iControl.

Similarly, the Eleventh Circuit found that the jury reasonably could have inferred from the evidence that iControl schemed to hire Fintech employees to misappropriate Fintech’s software features—an act that demonstrated willfulness.

After assessing the meanings of fixed and marginal costs and the properly fact-intensive revenue and profits figures of the businesses, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the jury was not required to deduct Fintech’s fixed costs from its revenues to arrive at a proper “actual [...]

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