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Strong Signal: Personal Jurisdiction Over Foreign Defendant Based on Confluence of Factors

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that a district court had personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant’s website that purposefully targeted a US-based audience. DISH Network, LLC v. Bassam Elahmad, Case No. 23-20180 (5th Cir. Mar. 8, 2024) (Willett, Wilson, Ramirez, JJ.) (per curiam).

DISH Network sued Bassam Elahmad, a German resident doing business as Elahmad.com, for contributory copyright infringement, alleging that Elahmad unlawfully provided access to DISH’s copyrighted Arabic language channels. DISH alleged that Elahmad found, combined and organized illegal streams and loaded links onto Elahmad.com. DISH sent more than 60 copyright infringement notices to Elahmad, who never responded or removed the content. Although Elahmad resided in Germany, DISH argued that any court in the United States had jurisdiction over him under Fed. R of Civ. Pro. 4(k)(2) because his website reached into and targeted the US. DISH also argued that Elahmad was not subject to jurisdiction in any particular US state. The district court disagreed, concluding that it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over Elahmad because DISH’s complaint did not allege that any conduct had occurred in Texas. The district court twice denied DISH’s motions for default judgment and dismissed the complaint. DISH appealed.

The Fifth Circuit addressed the district court’s application of Rule 4(k)(2) and whether DISH had made a sufficient prima facie showing of specific personal jurisdiction to sustain its case.

Addressing Rule 4(k)(2), which provides personal jurisdiction in any US district court if a defendant is not otherwise subject to jurisdiction in a specific state, the Fifth Circuit clarified that for a finding of personal jurisdiction under this rule, the question is whether a defendant has sufficient minimum contact “with the entire United States, not a forum state.” The Fifth Circuit found that the district court’s analysis focused solely on Elahmad’s Texas contacts – not the entire US – and was therefore reversible error.

Turning to DISH’s burden to establish a prima facie case of personal jurisdiction, the Fifth Circuit noted that DISH had properly served Elahmad. DISH therefore only had to satisfy three other conditions: that its claims arose from federal law, that Elahmad was not subject to general jurisdiction in another state, and that exercising jurisdiction would be consistent with the US Constitution. The Court concluded that the first two conditions were easily met because copyright laws are federal and the burden to establish that another state has jurisdiction falls on the defendant. Elahmad had not answered the complaint or joined the appeal. Clearly, he had not met that burden.

The Fifth Circuit found that the third condition was “a closer question” that required consideration of whether Elahmad had sufficient ties to the US to satisfy constitutional due process concerns. Because DISH argued that the district court had only specific personal jurisdiction over the defendant (not general), DISH needed to show that Elahmad purposefully availed himself of “the privilege of conducting activities in the United States,” that DISH’s claim arose out of those contacts, and that it would be [...]

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Rock On: Clichéd Song Themes Don’t Infringe Copyright

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment grant to an alleged song copier, finding neither evidence of factual copying nor striking similarity between the two songs. Kirk Johnston v. Chad Kroeger et al., Case No. 23-50254 (5th Cir. Feb. 19, 2024) (Jones, Haynes, Douglas, JJ.) (per curiam) (non-precedential).

Kirk Johnston is a musician and songwriter who plays guitar for the Texas rock band Snowblind (now called Snowblind Revival). In 2001, he wrote a song called “Rock Star.” Four years later, the Canadian rock band Nickelback released a song called “Rockstar” that became one of its most popular singles. In 2020, Johnston sued Nickelback, its record label and its music publishing company for copyright infringement. Nickelback moved for summary judgment, and the district court referred the motion to a magistrate judge. The judge recommended summary judgment in favor of Nickelback, finding no genuine dispute of material fact as to factual copying and finding that the two songs did not sound alike. The district court accepted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and dismissed Johnston’s infringement claim. Johnston appealed.

The Fifth Circuit reviewed the motion of summary judgment de novo. With respect to the element of factual copying, Nickelback’s members and executives claimed that they had never even heard of Johnston’s song. The Court found Johnston’s circumstantial evidence that Nickelback had access to his song unpersuasive. Johnston said that access could be inferred from the fact that the two bands were “moving in relatively the same circles” and that executives associated with Nickelback likely attended Snowblind’s shows. The Court said that Johnston’s arguments regarding the likelihood that Nickelback had access to his song “Rock Star” required “leaps of logic” not supported by the record and were “mere speculation.”

Johnston also unsuccessfully argued that the district court erred by not applying the “more discerning ordinary observer test” and by considering all versions of the songs on the record rather than just the “stripped down” versions. The Fifth Circuit pointed out that those standards only apply under a substantial similarity analysis, which requires a plaintiff to establish factual copying. Because there was no proof of access, much less copying, Johnston had to show a “striking similarity” between his song and Nickelback’s hit.

Johnston argued that his expert demonstrated that there were clear lyrical and musical similarities between the hooks of the songs, both of which concern the desire to be a rock star. However, the Fifth Circuit noted that the expert’s analysis was unpersuasive as to both the musical and lyrical similarities; concluding that neither was sufficiently similar to preclude all explanations but copying. The other themes in the song that Johnston pointed to as strikingly similar were “making lots of money,” “connections to famous people” and “references to sports.” The Court pointed out that as a general matter, those categories “are mere clichés of being a rockstar that are not unique to the rock genre.” As the Court put it, “[s]inging about being a rockstar is not [...]

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Bling It On: Laches Prevents Profit Disgorgement in Diamond-Studded Trademark Battle

In a dispute involving allegedly counterfeit luxury watches, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s finding of trademark infringement and its finding that a laches defense prevented disgorgement of profits. Rolex Watch USA, Incorporated v. BeckerTime, L.L.C., Case No. 22-10866 (5th Cir. Jan. 26, 2024) (Douglas, King, Willett, JJ.)

Rolex is a luxury watch seller with legally protectable interests in numerous trademarks. BeckerTime modifies Rolex-branded watches by adding diamonds, aftermarket bezels, and bands not authorized by Rolex and then sells them as “Genuine Rolex” watches. Rolex filed a lawsuit against BeckerTime, alleging trademark infringement and seeking an injunction and disgorgement of profits. After a bench trial, the district court concluded that BeckerTime infringed Rolex’s trademark but refused to order disgorgement of profits based on BeckerTime’s laches defense. This appeal followed.

On the issue of infringement, BeckerTime argued that the district court erroneously applied the traditional likelihood of confusion analysis without considering the Supreme Court’s decision in Champion Spark Plug v. Sanders (1947). In Champion, the Supreme Court held that a defendant in a trademark infringement case was not obligated to remove trademarks from repaired or reconditioned products. This ruling was grounded in the distinction that these products were distinctly marketed as “repaired or reconditioned” as opposed to brand new items. The Supreme Court clarified that a misnomer exception would only be applicable if the extent or nature of the repair or reconditioning was so profound that using the original name would be misleading, even if terms such as “used” or “repaired” were added to describe the item.

In drawing a comparison to Champion, the Fifth Circuit differentiated BeckerTime’s actions from mere repairs or reconditioning. Unlike the defendant in Champion, BeckerTime went beyond restoration, actively modifying Rolex watches by incorporating diamonds, aftermarket bezels and bracelets or straps. Consequently, the watches BeckerTime sold were materially distinct from those offered by Rolex. The Court reasoned that BeckerTime’s alterations amounted to customization rather than mere restoration, as was the case in Champion. Applying the misnomer exception from Champion, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, asserting that BeckerTime’s customized watches created a likelihood of confusion among consumers and thereby infringed upon Rolex’s trademark.

On the issue of disgorgement of profits, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s application of laches to deny an award of disgorgement. Rolex argued that BeckerTime’s deliberate counterfeiting precluded laches, while BeckerTime responded that Rolex had failed to show the required unclean hands or undue prejudice to justify disgorgement. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that Rolex had failed to establish unclean hands by BeckerTime, as the evidence did not show intentional infringement. The Court also agreed that the delay in filing the lawsuit caused undue prejudice to BeckerTime by enabling it to build a successful business.

While Rolex sought a complete ban on BeckerTime’s use of non-genuine bezels and dials on its modified Rolex watches, the Fifth Circuit only partially agreed. Recognizing the potential for consumer confusion, the Court ordered [...]

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TikTok: Federal Circuit Follows Fifth Circuit, Transfers Case for Witness Convenience

In the first mandamus decision applying the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s new transfer motion guidelines under 28 U.S.C. 1404(a), the Federal Circuit followed suit and transferred a case for witness convenience. In re Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd., Case No. 2023-146 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 14, 2023) (nonprecedential) (Prost, Hughes, Stoll, JJ.) (per curiam).

DoDots Licensing sued Samsung in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas (WDTX), alleging that Samsung phones and tablets infringed three DoDots patents. Samsung moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of California (NDCA). The applicable Fifth Circuit law allows for transfer only when the movant shows that the transferee forum is “clearly more convenient” than the transferor forum, which is determined by assessing a series of private and public interest factors. Echoing three of those factors, Samsung argued the following:

  • The teams that developed the allegedly infringing functionalities resided in NDCA and Korea.
  • Important third-party witnesses could be compelled to testify in NDCA but not in WDTX.
  • There was no meaningful connection between WDTX and the events giving rise to the suit.

Judge Albright denied the motion to transfer. He found that two factors weighed in favor of transfer: the ability to compel witness testimony and NDCA’s local interest in the case. However, Judge Albright also found that two factors weighed against transfer: WDTX was more convenient for certain witnesses, and DoDots’ co-pending and related lawsuits in WDTX meant that practical problems would arise if this case was transferred. The district court further determined that any remaining factors were neutral. Weighing all factors, the district court denied Samsung’s transfer motion, finding that Samsung had not shown that NDCA would be “clearly more convenient.”

Samsung filed a petition for writ of mandamus to the Federal Circuit, seeking to have the Court direct WDTX to transfer the case to NDCA. The sole question presented was whether, under Fifth Circuit law, the district court erred in refusing to transfer the case.

The Federal Circuit determined that the district court had clearly abused its discretion and that failing to transfer the case to NDCA had led to a “patently erroneous result.” The Federal Circuit found that the two factors that the district court determined weighed against transfer instead weighed in favor of transfer.

First, the Federal Circuit explained that the district court erred in finding that the “willing witness” factor weighed against transfer. Various Samsung entities had 10 relevant employees in NDCA and 20 in Korea. DoDots, in contrast, pointed to no potential technical or key witnesses in WDTX, although there were some Samsung marketing employees in Eastern Texas. The district court found that this weighed against transfer because any added travel from California to Texas for these technical witnesses was only a “slight” inconvenience. This argument echoed the argument that the Fifth Circuit rejected in its recent ruling in In re TikTok. In that case, the Fifth Circuit found on very similar facts that it was [...]

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TikTok Makes It Out of West Texas to Sunny Northern California

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted a writ of mandamus ordering the transfer of a case, finding that the district court’s denial of the motion to transfer “was so patently erroneous” that the extreme measure was appropriate. In re TikTok, Inc., Case No. 23-50575 (5th Cir. Oct. 31, 2023) (Smith, Southwick, Wilson, JJ.)

In the underlying case, Beijing Meishe Network Technology Co. sued TikTok in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, alleging infringement, trade secret misappropriation and false advertising. All claims stemmed from the theory that a former Meishe employee disclosed copyrighted source code for video and audio editing software to TikTok, which TikTok then implemented into its app. Meishe and TikTok are Chinese companies, and both the alleged disclosure and TikTok’s alleged code implementation occurred in China, assisted by TikTok engineers in California. TikTok has no engineers in Texas but does maintain a business office there, although not within the Western District.

TikTok moved under 28 U.S.C. § 1404 to transfer the case to the Northern District of California. The district court took 11 months to rule on the motion, and in the meantime the case continued through discovery. After the district court denied the motion, TikTok petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a writ of mandamus.

The sole issue on mandamus was the propriety of the district court’s refusal to transfer venue. To succeed on a writ of mandamus, a petitioner must satisfy the reviewing court regarding the following questions:

  1. Are there other ways to obtain the desired relief?
  2. Is the reviewing court’s right to issue the writ “clear and indisputable”?
  3. Is the writ appropriate, given the circumstances?

The Fifth Circuit focused on the second question, its right to issue the writ. In the Fifth Circuit, the 2008 en banc In re Volkswagen case mandates an eight-factor test that a district court must consider in deciding a § 1404 transfer motion. No one factor is dispositive, and the Fifth Circuit has cautioned against tallying the yes/no results or denying transfer just because most factors are neutral. Unsurprisingly, in the 15 years since Volkswagen, district courts applying these factors have reached inconsistent results. Even the Fifth Circuit has reached “conflicting outcomes” when reviewing these cases. The Fifth Circuit therefore took the opportunity to address each factor.

The Fifth Circuit found that two factors weighed in favor of transfer:

  • The relative ease of access to sources of proof
  • The cost of attendance of willing witnesses

Regarding ease of access to proof, the Fifth Circuit clarified that factfinders analyze “relative ease of access, not absolute ease of access” to documents and other physical evidence. The district court had determined that this factor was neutral, given that most documentation was electronic. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, explaining that while the source code was electronically stored, it was protected by a high level of security clearance. Only certain TikTok employees based in California and China were able to access the code. Using the relative metric, [...]

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No Fifth Chances: Ignoring Court’s Warning Leads to Terminal Sanctions

In an appeal from litigation-ending sanctions, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that misconduct in the face of judicial warnings supports the use of litigation-ending sanctions and that evidence a party forgot about does not count as “new” evidence when remembered for the purpose of a motion for reconsideration. Calsep A/S v. Ashish Dabral, Case No. 22-20440 (5th Cir. Oct. 11, 2023) (Clement, Elrod, Willett, JJ.)

Insights Reservoir Consulting (IRC), a company owned by Ashish Dabral, was hired to make a computer program that assesses oil-well efficiency. To develop that software, Dabral turned to his college friend who worked at Calsep A/S, a software company that designs and sells oil-well assessment software. Dabral hired his friend away from Calsep, and IRC subsequently developed and sold its own oil-well efficiency software.

Surprised at the sudden appearance of a competitor, Calsep investigated and found that IRC had recently hired one of its former employees. Calsep conducted an internal audit and found that its former employee had absconded with trade secrets just before leaving. Calsep sued Dabral and IRC.

In discovery, Calsep requested the complete development history of IRC’s new software. Dabral resisted such disclosure as “overbroad,” but the district court ordered production of the requested materials. Shortly thereafter, the district court further entered an order specifically enjoining the parties from the “destr[uction] of any potentially relevant evidence, including electronically stored information.”

In response to the discovery request, Dabral only produced portions of the development history, and its produced history included sections that were either incomplete or manipulated. In response, Calsep filed another motion to compel. The district court ordered Dabral to “come clean” and comply “voluntarily” before the court resorted to sanctions. Dabral represented that the entire history had been produced and that it was missing only portions deleted before the lawsuit.

The district court held an evidentiary hearing, and Dabral admitted that many of the deletions actually occurred during the lawsuit. The district court levied terminal sanctions based on Dabral’s violation of four separate court orders and serial discovery misconduct. Seven months later, Dabral filed a motion for reconsideration based on new information he found in his storage unit in India. The district court denied the motion. Dabral appealed both the sanctions ruling and the denial of the motion for reconsideration.

The Fifth Circuit first analyzed the sanctions. It limited its analysis to sanctions under Rule 37, which (in the Fifth Circuit) requires four specific findings before terminal sanctions can be levied:

  1. The violation was willful or bad faith.
  2. The client was responsible.
  3. The violation caused substantial prejudice.
  4. A lesser sanction would not have the desired deterrent effect.

The Fifth Circuit held that Dabral’s pattern of conduct supported a finding of bad faith. Dabral admittedly deleted evidence, delayed discovery and ignored several court orders. And when the district court gave him a last chance to “come clean,” he instead deleted more data and made a false representation.

The Fifth Circuit also held that Dabral’s conduct [...]

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Suite! Claim Splitting Privity Focuses on Party Relationship, Not Claim Relationship

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit revived a hotel group’s federal trade secret suit against two former employees, finding that the district court did not have enough information to conclude that the hotel group improperly split claims between federal and state actions. Armadillo Hotel Group, LLC v. Harris, Case No. 22-50945 (5th Cir. Oct. 20, 2023) (Smith, Southwick, Higginson, JJ.)

Armadillo Hotel Group is a buyer and operator of modular and mobile structures throughout North America. According to Armadillo, it hired Todd Harris and Jason McDaniel to oversee Armadillo’s construction operations and its hotel, food and beverage operations. The relationship deteriorated after a few years, leading to Harris and McDaniel’s resignations.

Harris and McDaniel subsequently sued Armadillo Hotel Group Management (AHG Management) in Texas state court alleging that they entered employment agreements with AHG Management as part of the joint venture, but AHG Management breached these agreements by failing to pay the agreed upon salary, bonuses and profit-sharing interests. The precise relationship between Armadillo and AHG Management is unclear. AHG Management filed counterclaims, agreeing that it hired Harris and McDaniel but arguing that they breached their fiduciary duties by failing to devote their full attention to their responsibilities and diverted business opportunities to their own companies, which allegedly competed with AHG Management.

The parties conducted discovery in state court, after which AHG Management filed an amended counterclaim in state court, removing its claim against Harris and McDaniel for improper expropriation of proprietary and confidential documents. That same day, Armadillo filed a complaint in federal district court against Harris, McDaniel and several new parties, including Southeastern Disaster Relief Services (SDRS), a business affiliated with McDaniel; Battlement Mesa Consulting, LLC (BMC), a business affiliated with Harris; and Grand Majestic Lodge (GML), a competitor of Armadillo. Armadillo’s complaint alleged that Harris and McDaniel misappropriated trade secrets that they shared with SDRS, BMC and GML during and after their employment with Armadillo. The complaint also included claims under the federal Defend Trade Secret Act (DTSA), alleging that the five defendants conspired to misappropriate the trade secrets.

Harris, McDaniel, SDRS and BMC moved to dismiss the federal complaint for impermissible splitting of claims relating to Harris and McDaniel’s employment between the state court proceedings and this new federal lawsuit. The district court granted the motion with prejudice. While acknowledging the “apparent difference between Defendant AHG Management LLC in the state-law action and Plaintiff Armadillo in [the district court] case,” the district court found that the prohibition against claim splitting applied because the same claims were first removed from AHG Management’s counterclaim in the state court proceedings and then asserted by Armadillo in the federal action. The district court also found that the claims arose out of the same nucleus of operative facts—Harris and McDaniel’s employment—and shared a common factual predicate. Armadillo appealed.

The rule against claim splitting prohibits a party or parties in privity from simultaneously prosecuting multiple suits involving the same subject matter against the same defendants. In situations where a [...]

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Missed Shot: Lawsuit Against Related Company Doesn’t Toll Prescriptive Period

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss claims under the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act (LUTPA), finding that a dispute against a related company did not toll the statute of limitations. Carbon Six Barrels, LLC v. Proof Research, Inc., Case No. 22-30772 (5th Cir. Sept. 29, 2023) (Clement, Elrod, Willett, JJ.)

Proof Research and Carbon Six Barrels both manufacture gun barrels made of carbon fiber. Proof was the first of the parties to enter the market and in 2013 trademarked the unique mottled appearance of its barrels. In 2016, Proof discovered that Carbon Six intended to manufacture and sell similar-looking carbon-fiber barrels and sent a cease-and-desist letter. Carbon Six began production in 2017, sourcing barrel blanks from its sister company McGowen Precision Barrels. Proof filed a trademark infringement suit against McGowen, instead of Carbon Six, in the District of Montana. McGowen initiated a separate proceeding in the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board to cancel Proof’s trademark and was successful in doing so.

After the Board cancelled Proof’s trademark, Carbon Six sued Proof in the Middle District of Louisiana alleging that Proof fraudulently registered its trademark, violated LUTPA, and defamed Carbon Six during the initial litigation and Board proceeding. McGowen brought a similar suit in the District of Montana. Proof asserted several defenses in the lawsuit filed by Carbon Six, including a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that Carbon Six’s claims were both untimely and legally insufficient. The district court denied Proof’s other defenses but granted the Rule 12(b)(6) motion, finding that Carbon Six’s claims were time-barred by Louisiana’s one-year prescriptive period and that Carbon Six’s LUTPA claim was also legally insufficient. Carbon Six appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed, explaining that LUTPA has a one-year prescriptive period and that there was no doubt that the violations alleged by Carbon Six occurred more than a year before Carbon Six filed suit in early 2022. The Court reviewed all actions that could potentially give rise to liability under LUTPA and stated that even if any of these acts could give rise to liability, all actions occurred more than a year before Carbon Six’s suit.

Carbon Six attempted to rely on the continuing tort doctrine, alleging that the acts continuously violated LUTPA up until the Board cancelled Proof’s trademark in May 2021. Reviewing Louisiana law, the Fifth Circuit determined that the general principle of a continuing tort is a conduct-based question “asking whether the tortfeasor perpetuates the injury through overt, persistent, and ongoing acts.” The Court agreed with the district court that LUTPA’s prescriptive period is not suspended if a perpetuator of fraud fails to correct false statements, as that proposition would transform almost every business dispute into a continuing tort. The Fifth Circuit also determined that the district court’s conclusion that Carbon Six could not recover for Proof’s lawsuit against McGowan was correct, because the law supported the position that a sister corporation cannot sue on behalf [...]

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Whisk-y Business: Notice Alone Is Sufficient for Preliminary Injunction

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that only notice of a preliminary injunction (PI) motion, and not perfected formal service, is needed to assert jurisdiction to issue an injunction. Whirlpool Corp. v. Shenzhen Sanlida Elec. Tech. Co., Ltd., Case No. 22-40376 (5th Cir. Aug. 25, 2023) (Barksdale, Southwick, Higginson, JJ.)

Shenzhen Sanlida sells stand mixers within the United States, primarily through online sales. Whirlpool filed a complaint for trademark infringement and dilution against Sanlida, arguing that Sanlida’s mixers were too close in appearance to Whirlpool’s iconic KitchenAid stand mixer. Shortly after filing its complaint, Whirlpool requested a PI hearing. In its request, Whirlpool provided evidence that Sanlida had actual notice of the pending hearing. The district court granted the request and scheduled a hearing.

Counsel for Whirlpool and Sanlida attended the hearing. At the hearing, Sanlida argued it had never been properly served under the Hague Convention and that without service, the district court could not assert personal jurisdiction over it. The district court disagreed and granted the PI. Sanlida filed an emergency motion to stay the order, but the district court rejected Sanlida’s request. Sanlida appealed.

Sanlida argued that the district court did not have the power to issue a PI and that it abused its discretion in awarding the injunction. The Fifth Circuit found no error or abuse and affirmed.

The Fifth Circuit explained that service is not a prerequisite to issuing a PI. Citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 65, the Court explained that the only requirement for issuing a PI is notice to the adverse party. Since it was undisputed that Sanlida had notice of the PI hearing, the Court found that the district court had the power to issue the PI. In doing so, the Court distinguished this case—where there was no dispute that the district court would have personal jurisdiction over Sanlida after the process was perfected—from cases where personal jurisdiction was a live question at the PI hearing.

Turning to the merits of the PI, the Fifth Circuit addressed the four factors the district court had to consider before issuing the injunction: likelihood of success on the merits, threat of irreparable injury, balance of harms and public interest.

On the first factor—likelihood of success—the Fifth Circuit found that the district court made no clear error. The two components of the likelihood of success analysis are validity and likelihood of confusion. On both points, the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s finding. While Sanlida argued that Whirlpool’s trademark was invalid because it covered “functional” elements, the Court found insufficient factual support for that argument. Nothing in the record showed that Whirlpool’s mixer head shape had any effect on the “cost or quality” of the mixer. Nor did Sanlida point to any evidence showing that the housing shape would put competitors at a “significant non-reputation-related disadvantage.” Without a showing on either element, Sanlida failed to rebut the presumption of validity. Sanlida also failed to show [...]

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Don’t Ruin Today’s CNS with Yesterday’s Problems

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s trademark invalidity finding based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction because a covenant not to sue (CNS) issued by the trademark owner precluded any reasonably expected future injury that the alleged infringer might incur. Nursery Decals & More, Inc. v. Neat Print, Inc., Case No. 22-10065 (5th Cir. Aug. 1, 2023) (Haynes, Engelhardt, JJ.; deGravelles, Dist. J., sitting by designation) (per curiam).

Neat Print and Nursery Decals sold novelty t-shirts on online marketplaces. In 2018, Neat Print notified one of the online marketplaces that Nursery Decals’ products allegedly infringed Neat Print’s trademarks. In response, the online marketplace sent Nursery Decals a final warning threatening a site ban for any future violations. Nursery Decals complied with the warning and also preemptively pulled its products from other online marketplaces.

Nursery Decals sued Neat Print in the Northern District of Texas. Most of Nursery Decals’ claims were directed to invalidating Neat Print’s trademarks or obtaining a noninfringement judgment. Nursery Decal also included three claims seeking damages. One was a federal claim for fraud on the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO). The other two claims were Texas law claims based on tortious interference with an existing business relationship and a prospective business relationship. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment on all of the trademark-related claims, ordering the PTO to cancel all of the disputed trademarks.

Prior to the district court’s summary judgment grant, Neat Print tried to avoid summary judgment by filing a CNS along with a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that the CNS did not moot the case. The district court explained that Neat Print’s CNS did not address Nursery Decals’ past and potential future injuries (i.e., Nursery Decals’ damages claims). The district court also found that Neat Print’s CNS did not meet the high standard set forth in the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Already, reasoning that Neat Print’s CNS left the door open for future take-down notices based on the disputed trademarks.

Neat Print amended its CNS to address take-down notices. It then filed a motion to reconsider its motion to dismiss in light of the modified CNS. The district court orally denied the motion at the pretrial conference and ordered that the case proceed to trial. The jury ultimately found no liability on both claims. After the trial, the district court issued a written opinion explaining that it rejected Neat Print’s motion for reconsideration because Nursery Decals had a legally cognizable injury that supported subject matter jurisdiction. While Neat Print had defeated all of Nursery Decals’ damages claims, Neat Print appealed the district court’s judgment with respect to the trademark claims, arguing that the district court failed to properly evaluate subject matter jurisdiction on a claim-by-claim basis in view of Neat Print’s CNS.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with Neat Print, finding that the district court committed two errors. First, the district [...]

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