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Precision Is Paramount: Court Enforces Terms of Email Agreement in Settlement

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court order enforcing one party’s version of a settlement agreement, finding that version unsupported by the record. The Court found that the other party’s version accurately reflected the parties’ understanding. PlasmaCam, Inc. v. CNCElectronics, LLC, Case No. 21-1689 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 3, 2022) (Dyk, Reyna, JJ.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

PlasmaCam and CNCElectronics (CNC) both operate in the precision cutting industry. PlasmaCam is the exclusive licensee of a patent related to precision cutting equipment, and it sued CNC for allegedly infringing the patent. In December 2019, the parties notified the district court that they had settled the case but disputes arose in the process of drafting a formal agreement, particularly with respect to the scope of “covered products” under the settlement license and the scope of a “mutual release.” Although the parties eventually advised the district court that they had reached a complete agreement, disputes remained as to the scope of covered products. On PlasmaCam’s motion, the district court ordered CNC to execute PlasmaCam’s version of the agreement, execute a promissory note contemplated by the agreement and pay any unpaid settlement funds. CNC appealed.

The Federal Circuit first evaluated whether it had jurisdiction. The Court found that it had jurisdiction because the district court’s order was an injunction (since it ordered CNC to specifically perform an action, i.e., execute an agreement and promissory note, and not merely to pay money) and a final judgment (because it resolved all substantial issues between the parties).

The Federal Circuit next considered the negotiations between the parties with regards to the settlement agreement. As to the scope of covered products, the Court found that the parties had reached agreement regarding a definition of “covered products” in an email, even though the scope of the mutual release was still being negotiated. However, the Court found that the agreed definition of “covered products” was different from the one PlasmaCam provided to the Court and the one which the Court had subsequently ordered CNC to adopt. The Court also recognized the parties’ subsequent agreement regarding the mutual release, which both parties had confirmed to the district court. Because the district court had clearly erred by adopting a definition of “covered products” different from the one that was agreed by the parties, the Court reversed the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the parties’ actual agreement.

Judge Newman dissented. In her view, no agreement had been reached at all, as the parties had apparently continued to disagree as to the scope of key terms.

Practice Note: In this case, the parties’ statements to the district court that they had reached an agreement played a large role in establishing that an agreement had been formed even though there was no single signed document that reflected the agreement and, in some views, there continued to be disputes about important terms. Litigants should be careful not to represent to a court that an agreement has been [...]

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Appeal Shuttered for Lack of Finality

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that it lacked jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and therefore dismissed an appeal of a district court decision staying a federal action pending state court litigation between the parties. Window World Int.’l, LLC et al. v. O’Toole et al., Case No. 21-1108 (8th Cir. Jan. 7, 2022) (Loken, Colloton, Benton, JJ.).

Window World International owns registered trademarks for the marketing of exterior remodeling products, such as custom-made vinyl windows. Window World distributes products through 200 independently owned and operated franchisees, including Window World of St. Louis, Inc. and Window World of Springfield-Peoria, Inc., companies co-owned by James T. Lomax III (collectively, the Lomax parties). Window World sublicenses its franchisees to use its trademarks.

In January 2015, the Lomax parties and other Window World franchisees sued Window World in the North Carolina Business Court. The Lomax parties alleged that Window World failed to make franchise disclosures required by federal and state law. They also asserted claims of fraud and breach of contract. In April 2019, the Lomax parties sent letters to Window World customers making several misrepresentations about Window World’s product warranty. Window World commenced action in federal court, asserting causes of action under the Lanham Act for false advertising, trademark infringement, unfair competition and dilution of a famous mark.

The Lomax parties moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim or stay the federal action pursuant to the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. US, which held that the interests of effective judicial administration may lead a federal court to reject taking jurisdiction in a case involving a concurrent state proceeding. Window World opposed the dismissal and stay requests. The district court dismissed several of Window World’s claims but ruled that it had a plausible trademark infringement and unfair competition claim and denied dismissal as to those claims. The district court also stayed the federal action pending determination of the scope of the claims regarding the protected marks in the North Carolina litigation. Window World appealed.

The Eighth Circuit found that the issued stay order was neither a final order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 nor a collateral interlocutory order that may be appealed. As a result, the Court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. In doing so, the Court explained that an order staying civil proceedings is interlocutory and not ordinarily a final decision for purposes of § 1291. However, if the stay effectively ends the litigation, then the order is final and jurisdiction under § 1291 is proper. Here, the Court concluded that the lower court’s stay was not a final order because the order contemplated further litigation in federal court. Additionally, the stay was not a final order merely because it had the practical effect of allowing a state court to be the first to rule on common issues. Therefore, the Court concluded that the stay order was not appealable as a final order and dismissed the appeal.




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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Federal Circuit Has Jurisdiction over Constitutional Questions in AIA Appeals

Addressing for the first time whether a district court has jurisdiction to hear constitutional challenges to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s (Board) final written decisions in an inter partes review (IPR) proceeding, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the Federal Circuit has jurisdiction over AIA appeals, including constitutional questions. Security People, Inc. v. Iancu, Case No. 2019-2118 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 20, 2020) (Hughes, J.).

Security People’s patent was challenged in an IPR, and the Board issued a final written decision invalidating all challenged claims. Security People appealed the Board’s decision to the Federal Circuit, which affirmed. The Supreme Court then denied Security People’s petition for certiorari. After the Supreme Court denied certiorari, Security People filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California, challenging the Board’s final written decision as unconstitutional. The district court dismissed Security People’s claim because it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, citing the America Invents Act’s (AIA) provision giving the Federal Circuit jurisdiction over appeals from Board decisions in IPRs. Security People appealed.

Security People argued that because the Board lacks authority to consider constitutional claims, only a district court can hear factual issues underlying a constitutional challenge. Security People also argued that its constitutional challenge was not ripe until the Federal Circuit finally resolved the Board’s decision, and that it had to exhaust its claims on the merits before raising its constitutional claims.

The Federal Circuit disagreed. The Court found that in the rare instances where fact finding would be necessary for resolving a constitutional challenge, the Federal Circuit had authority to decide those factual issues through judicial notice. The Court explained that “finality” of the agency’s decision did not require the merits appeals to fully conclude before addressing constitutional issues, because the Board’s decision-making is complete when it issues a final written decision. In short, Security People was required to bring its constitutional challenge at the same time it challenged merits of the Board’s decision. The Court found its reasoning supported by the text, structure and history of the AIA, which gave the Federal Circuit wide authority to review Board decisions without any exception for constitutional challenges. The Court also reasoned that the Administrative Procedures Act’s (APA) general authorization to review agency action in the district courts does not override the specific framework in the AIA providing judicial review to the Federal Circuit. Indeed, there is no need to look to the APA’s general authorization in this regard, because the Federal Circuit is an adequate forum to resolve any issues challenged with respect to the Board’s final written decisions.




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