The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of trademark declaratory judgment claims, finding that pre-enforcement commercialization activities can be used to establish personal jurisdiction. Impossible Foods Inc. v. Impossible X LLC, Case No. 21-16977 (9th Cir. Sept. 12, 2023) (Lucero, Bress, JJ.) (VanDyke, J., dissenting).
Impossible Foods is a Delaware corporation manufacturing plant-based meat substitutes, including the “Impossible Burger.” Impossible X, a Texas LLC, is Joel Runyon’s one-person company selling apparel and nutritional supplements using a website and social media. San Diego, California, was Impossible X’s “base point” for two years, serving as Runyon’s apartment and workspace. A LinkedIn profile listed San Diego as the headquarters, and social media frequently tagged San Diego as Impossible X’s location. When vacating his lease, Runyon signed the document as “Joel Runyon, Impossible X LLC.” Even after leaving, Runyon took at least eight trips to California between 2017 and 2019 for the purpose of performing Impossible X work and promoting the Impossible brand.
In 2020, Impossible X filed a notice of opposition at the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board for Impossible Food’s trademark application. Impossible Foods responded with a declaratory judgment action in 2021 in California, seeking a finding of noninfringement and that its rights to the IMPOSSIBLE mark were superior. Impossible X sought dismissal, arguing that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction.
The criteria to establish specific personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant are as follows:
- The defendant must purposefully direct its activities toward the forum or purposefully avail itself of the privileges of conducting activities in the forum.
- The claim must arise out of or relate to the defendant’s forum-related activities.
- Exercise of jurisdiction must be reasonable.
The district court acknowledged that the personal jurisdiction question here was a “close one” and concluded that while Impossible Foods satisfied the purposeful direction or availment requirement, the declaratory judgment action did not arise out of or relate to Impossible X’s contact with California. Impossible Foods did not begin use of its mark in commerce until June 2016, at which point Runyon had already left California. The district court found that the parties did not have a live dispute until June 2016, and Impossible X’s contacts with California prior to that time were irrelevant to personal jurisdiction. Impossible Foods appealed.
The Ninth Circuit analyzed each prong of the jurisdiction test and reversed the dismissal. First, the Court agreed with the district court that Impossible X purposefully directed activities toward California and availed itself of privileges of conducting activities by building its brand and establishing trademark rights there. A court typically treats trademark infringement as tort-like for personal jurisdiction purposes and applies the purposeful direction framework. The Ninth Circuit explained that there is no need to adhere to an “iron-clad doctrinal dichotomy” between purposeful availment and direction, however. The Court leaned on “purposefulness” vis-à-vis the forum state and “easily” concluded that Impossible X purposefully directed its activities toward California and/or availed itself of the benefits and privileges [...]