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A Lesson in Laches: You Waited Too Long to Start Your Kar

After the district court, on remand, held that laches did not bar relief, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit again determined that the district court abused its discretion by not properly applying the presumption in favor of laches and issued an order to vacate and remand with instructions to dismiss a charity’s trademark infringement claims with prejudice. Kars 4 Kids Inc. v. America Can!, Case Nos. 23-1273; -1281 (3rd Cir. Apr. 17, 2024) (Bibas, Porter, Fisher, JJ.)

Kars 4 Kids and America Can! Cars for Kids are charities that sell donated vehicles to fund children’s education programs and have been engaged in a trademark dispute since 2003. Both parties have alleged federal and state trademark infringement, unfair competition and trademark dilution over their respective KARS 4 KIDS and CARS FOR KIDS trademarks. The parties were last before the Third Circuit in 2021, when the Court held that America Can was first to use its CARS FOR KIDS trademark in Texas, and Kars 4 Kids waived any challenge to the validity of America Can’s marks. In that 2021 decision, the Third Circuit also vacated the district court judgment in part and remanded the case for the district court to reexamine its laches and disgorgement conclusions, which had been decided in favor of America Can.

The Lanham Act does not contain a statute of limitations. Instead, it subjects all claims to the principles of equity. To determine whether laches bars a claim, a court considers two elements: whether the plaintiff inexcusably delayed in bringing suit, and whether the defendant was prejudiced as a result of the delay. With respect to the burden of proof for the laches claim at issue, America Can and Kars 4 Kids agreed that their Lanham Act claims were properly analogous to New Jersey’s six-year fraud statute. Therefore, because America Can first discovered the Kars 4 Kids trademark in Texas in 2003 and did not bring counterclaims until 2015, America Can was subject to a presumption that its claims were barred by laches unless it was able to prove both that its delay in filing suit was excusable and that it did not prejudice Kars 4 Kids.

On the issue of delay, the Third Circuit found that the district court erred because it did not find that America Can met its burden of establishing that its delay in bringing suit was excusable and that a reasonable person in its shoes would have waited to file suit. Instead, the district court improperly placed the burden on Kars 4 Kids to establish whether its advertisements in Texas were viewed by a sufficient number of Texans so as to put America Can on notice. As the Third Circuit explained, this was error. The district court should have held America Can to the burden of persuasion to show that it was not sufficiently aware of Kars 4 Kids’s use of its mark in Texas and to show what it did to identify and stop any potentially [...]

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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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Delay in Enforcing Trademark Measured from When Infringement Became Actionable

Addressing laches and progressive encroachment, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s grant of summary judgment based on laches because the district court failed to “conduct a meaningful analysis” as to when the trademark infringement first became actionable. A.I.G. Agency, Inc. v American International Group, Inc., Case No. 21-1948 (8th Cir. May 13, 2022) (Loken, Gruender, Grasz, JJ.)

A.I.G. Agency (Agency) is a family-owned insurance broker in Missouri and American International Group, Inc. (International) is a large insurance company. Each company has used its version of an AIG trademark for decades. Agency first adopted the mark in 1958 while International began using AIG sometime between 1968 and 1970. In 1995, International sent a demand letter to Agency notifying it of International’s trademark registration and requesting that Agency cease use of the AIG mark. Agency responded that it had the right to use AIG in Missouri and Illinois because it had been using the trademark in those states long before International obtained its registration. In 2008, International again reached out to Agency demanding that it stop using AIG as a mark. Agency again asserted that it had the right to use the mark in Missouri and Illinois. International responded that it did not object to Agency’s use of AIG in St. Charles and St. Louis Counties in Missouri, but it would contest Agency’s use beyond that limited geographic scope.

Nearly a decade later, in 2017, Agency sued International for common law trademark infringement and unfair competition. International asserted that Agency’s claims were barred by laches and counterclaimed for trademark infringement, trademark dilution and unfair competition. Both parties moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted summary judgment for International, finding that Agency’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches. Agency appealed.

The Eighth Circuit explained the difference between the equitable affirmative defense of laches (which is meant to bar claimants from bringing unreasonably delayed claims) and the doctrine of progressive encroachment (under which the period of delay in a trademark infringement case is measured not from when a claimant first learned of the allegedly infringing mark, but from when that infringement first became actionable). The Court explained that “[t]he doctrine [of progressive encroachment] saves trademark holders from being hoisted upon the horns of an inequitable dilemma—sue immediately and lose because the alleged infringer is insufficiently competitive to create a likelihood of confusion, or wait and be dismissed for unreasonable delay.” Here, Agency argued that it did not have an actionable and provable claim for infringement until 2012 when International changed its marketing strategy.

The Eighth Circuit found that the district court failed to “conduct a meaningful analysis” to determine when the infringement became actionable, noting that the district court found that laches barred the claims because “both parties have been using ‘AIG’ in the same markets for decades, each with full knowledge of the other’s activities.” The Court further criticized the district court for not employing a specific test to determine [...]

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The Halo Effect Won’t Cure Lack of Final Judgment

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit dismissed the appeal of a disappointed movant seeking prejudgment interest and a new damages trial after concluding that the district court did not enter an appealable final order despite closing the case nearly three years before the appeal was filed. Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Bel Fuse Inc., Case No. 2021-1861 (Fed. Cir. May 6, 2022) (per curiam) (nonprecedential).

The Halo v. Bel Fuse litigation has been percolating in the federal courts for over a decade, with multiple significant decisions that continue to reshape patent litigation practice (the most well-known of which restructured the legal framework for willful patent infringement and the recovery of enhanced damages).

Halo first sued Pulse for patent infringement in 2007. The jury found that Pulse willfully infringed Halo’s patents, however, the district court denied Halo’s motion for enhanced damages. On Halo’s appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States articulated a new test for enhanced damages.

While that appeal was pending in 2015, Halo moved the district court for award of prejudgment interest. The district court held that Halo was entitled to prejudgment interest at the state’s statutory rate and directed the parties to either agree to the amount owed or submit briefing that outlined proposed calculations. The parties submitted briefing but before the district court determined what calculation to use, Pulse filed a notice of appeal challenging the district court’s order stating prejudgment interest would be awarded and directing the briefing. The Federal Circuit held that the district court’s prejudgment interest order was not final “because the district court had not determined, or specified the means for determining, the amount of prejudgment interest.”

While Pulse’s appeal was pending in 2017, Halo renewed its motion in the district court for enhanced damages. The district court denied that motion and directed the clerk to enter judgment and close the case, but neither the court’s order nor the ensuing “judgment” addressed prejudgment interest. At the time, Halo did not move for relief from the September 2017 order and judgment.

Then, after nearly three years of inactivity, Halo filed a “Motion for Pre-Judgment Interest Award and Damages Trial” in the district court in July 2020. The district court denied Halo’s motion as untimely under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) and 60(b), reasoning that “if Halo believed an issue remained unresolved, it should have brought that to the court’s attention then, not three years later,” adding, “the parties are entitled to rely on court judgments and move on with their affairs” and reopening the case “would be unfair to Pulse and contrary to the goal of finality of judgments.”

On appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the district court’s September 2017 judgment was not a final, appealable one because, “with respect to a final judgment for money damages, finality does not exist if the district court does not determine, or specify the means for determining, the amount of the judgment.” Because the district court never resolved the [...]

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Third Circuit Orders Second Look at Delays and Disgorgement of Profits

In a long-running trademark dispute between two charitable organizations, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the appellee did not preserve its challenge to the district court’s denial of summary judgment on its trademark cancelation claims, the appellant waived any challenge to the validity of the defendant’s mark and the district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to award enhanced monetary relief or prejudgment interest. Kars 4 Kids Inc. v America Can!, Case Nos. 20-2813; -2900 (3rd Cir., August 10, 2021) (Shwartz, J.) The Court also vacated-in-part and remanded for the district court to reexamine its laches and disgorgement conclusions under applicable law.

As charitable organizations that sell donated vehicles to fund children’s programs, both America Can (as CARS FOR KIDS) and Kars 4 Kids have used similar trademarks since their respective starts in the early- to mid-1990s. In 2003 and 2013, America Can sent cease and desist letters to Kars 4 Kids after seeing its advertisements in the state of Texas. In 2014, Kars 4 Kids sued America Can for federal and state trademark infringement, unfair competition and trademark dilution claims. Less than one year later, America Can filed its own suit—alleging the same claims—plus a petition to cancel a Kars 4 Kids trademark registration and seeking a nationwide injunction and financial compensation.

Both parties appeal from a denial of their respective summary judgment motions as well as (1) the jury finding that Kars 4 Kids willfully infringed America Can’s trademark rights in Texas, (2) the rejection of America Can’s petition for cancellation of a KARS FOR KIDS trademark registration finding that the registration was not knowingly procured by fraudulent means, (3) the conclusion that laches did not apply against America Can’s claims, (4) disgorgement of Kars 4 Kids profits in Texas totaling about $10.6 million, (5) rejection of enhanced monetary relief and (6) an injunction against Kars 4 Kids with respect to use of its trademark in Texas and from using the carsforkids.com domain name. On appeal, Kars 4 Kids also renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, including an argument that America Can’s trademark is invalid.

The Third Circuit rejected Kars 4 Kids’ effort to overturn the jury’s liability verdict, concluding that Kars 4 Kids failed to preserve its challenge to the validity of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark when it left that issue out of its Rule 50(a) motion. Instead, evidence of America Can’s continuous use of the CARS FOR KIDS mark well prior to 2003 predated Kars 4 Kids’ first use of its trademark in Texas in 2003 and established America Can’s ownership of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark in Texas.

However, after examining the laches claim, the Third Circuit explained that it considered (1) the plaintiff’s inexcusable delay in bringing suit and (2) prejudice to the defendant as a result of the delay. With no statute of limitations under the Lanham Act, the parties agreed that their claims are properly analogized to New Jersey’s six-year [...]

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Injunctive Relief Available Even Where Laches Bars Trademark Infringement, Unfair Competition Damage Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s conclusion that laches barred an advertising and marketing company’s claims for monetary damages for trademark infringement and unfair competition, but remanded the case for assessment of injunctive relief to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between two similarly named companies operating in the advertising sector. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, Inc. v. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, LLC, Case No. 19-15167 (11th Cir. Aug. 2, 2021) (Branch, J.)

Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Illinois) is an Illinois-based company and owner of two registered trademarks including the name “Pinnacle.” Pinnacle Illinois learned of a Florida-based company operating under almost the same name that was also in the advertising and marketing space—Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Florida) —through potential clients and a magazine’s accidental conflation of the two unrelated companies. Several years later, Pinnacle Illinois sued Pinnacle Florida for trademark infringement, unfair competition and cybersquatting. Pinnacle Florida filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark registrations and also alleged that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches.

Following a jury trial, the district court granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on Pinnacle Illinois’s cybersquatting claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Pinnacle Illinois on its claims for trademark infringement and unfair competition, awarding Pinnacle Illinois $550,000 in damages. The district court then granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on its laches defense, concluding that Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark infringement and unfair competition claims were barred by laches because it waited more than four years to bring suit after it should have known that it had a potential infringement claim against Pinnacle Florida. The district court also cancelled Pinnacle Illinois’s registrations because it concluded that Pinnacle Illinois’s marks were merely descriptive and lacked secondary meaning. Pinnacle Illinois appealed.

Pinnacle Illinois argued that the district court abused its discretion in finding that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by laches, and that even if laches did bar Pinnacle Illinois’s claims for money damages, the district court should have considered whether injunctive relief was proper to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between the two companies. Pinnacle Illinois also argued that the district court erred when it cancelled its registrations without regard to the jury’s findings of distinctiveness and protectability or the presumption of distinctiveness afforded to its registered marks.

The 11th Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that laches barred Pinnacle Illinois from bringing its trademark infringement and unfair competition claims for monetary damages. Pinnacle Illinois sued after the Florida four-year statute of limitations had passed, and the Court found that the company was not excused for its delay because it did not communicate with Pinnacle Florida about the infringement until it filed suit. Pinnacle Florida also suffered economic prejudice because it invested significant time and money, including around $2 million, in developing its business under [...]

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