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Lawyers Scolded but Not Sanctioned for Violating Federal Circuit’s COVID-19 Rules

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decided not to impose sanctions for violation of its COVID-19 restrictions on the number of counsel permitted to attend oral argument, citing the involved lawyers’ “earnest remorse.” In re Violation of the Revised Protocols for In-Person Arguments and Related Order, Case No. 22-9000 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 25, 2022) (per curiam).

When the Federal Circuit reopened for in-person oral arguments in September 2021, it continued to restrict public access to the National Courts Building and set out strict protocols governing appearances at oral argument. Under those protocols, only arguing counsel and up to one additional attendee whose presence was necessary to assist or supervise the arguing counsel could attend. All persons entering the building had to sign a form certifying that they were either arguing counsel or assisting or supervising arguing counsel. Arguing counsel had to sign an additional form taking personal responsibility for ensuring that all individuals attending argument with the arguing counsel had read and would comply with the COVID-19 protocols.

Several senior lawyers from one law firm wanted to attend a junior colleague’s oral argument. The junior lawyer moved for permission for two lawyers and two other individuals to attend the oral argument in addition to arguing counsel and the one permitted assistant/supervisor. The Federal Circuit denied the motion. Nonetheless, on the day of argument, four lawyers (each carrying the required form) went to the courthouse and entered the assigned courtroom. The two non-arguing, non-assisting/supervising lawyers sat in the back corner of the courtroom until they were summoned to the front by a deputy clerk and told to leave the courtroom. The lawyers returned to the lobby area and were subsequently escorted out of the building.

The matter was referred to the Federal Circuit’s standing panel on attorney discipline, which ordered all four lawyers to show cause why they should not be sanctioned. The lawyers stated that they had gone to the courthouse notwithstanding the denial of their motion for leave to attend the hearing merely to seek clarification on any potential changed circumstances that might permit their attendance. They also argued that the Court’s COVID-19 restrictions were ambiguous. Finally, they expressed remorse for having violated the rules.

The Federal Circuit criticized the lawyers for trying to attend the oral argument even though their motion for leave to attend was denied. The Court noted that the lawyers might have sought clarification or reconsideration of the denial in writing but stated that it was inappropriate for the lawyers to have sought such clarification or reconsideration in person at the time of the hearing. The Court also called the lawyers’ argument that the protocols were ambiguous “wholly without merit.” Nonetheless, on a finding that the lawyers’ remorse was earnest, the Court decided not to impose sanctions.

Practice Note: Anyone might make an occasional error in judgment. While remorse does not undo such an error, it can at least help prevent sanctions from being imposed. Then again, the Federal Circuit has now [...]

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PTO Outlines New Process to Impose Sanctions for Improper Trademark Practices

As part of its initiative to “protect the integrity of the U.S. trademark register,” the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued a Federal Register notice outlining a new administrative process to address fraudulent or improper trademark submissions.

Under this new process, the commissioner for trademarks can investigate and sanction actions that appear to violate the Trademark Rules of Practice or the PTO website terms of use. The commissioner may initiate an investigation based on information received from examining attorneys or data analytics personnel or via external sources such as letters of protest, the tmscams@uspto.gov mailbox, law enforcement and media reports.

Applications will be removed from examination pending an investigation, and a suspension letter will be issued. All documents associated with this process will be posted in the electronic record, which is available to the public via the Trademark Status and Document Retrieval (TSDR) database.

If the investigation does not result in an administrative order, the application will be removed from suspension and assigned (or reassigned) to the examining attorney for consideration. If, however, the PTO identifies conduct that suggests a potential violation of the PTO rules or the PTO website terms of use, it will issue an order to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed on the relevant parties (e.g., applicants, registrants or any involved third parties). The order will set a response deadline and identify the violation, the relevant application(s) and/or registration(s) and the proposed sanction. Appropriate sanctions may include, for example, terminating the relevant application(s), striking a submission, prohibiting a party from appearing before the PTO in trademark matters or deactivating certain USPTO.gov accounts.

If the PTO issues a sanction order terminating a pending application, the TSDR records will reflect that order in the application prosecution history. Where the order includes the sanction of termination involving a registration that issued before the administrative process was initiated, the PTO will not terminate the registration, but the online TSDR records will be updated to note that the registration was subject to sanctions and such entries may affect the validity of that registration.

The notice also states that “additional actions” may be taken if a sanctioned actor repeatedly violates the PTO rules or the PTO website terms of use.

Comments on the notice are due by January 20, 2022.

Practice Note: This is just one of the many ways the PTO is trying to address fraudulent filings. The PTO recently issued sanctions where it found evidence of fraudulent applications and violations of the PTO Rules of Professional Conduct.




US Lawyers Aiding Scam Trademark Applications May Face Sanctions

As reported by the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) this past summer, since mid-2020 trademark applications from US and foreign applicants have “surged to unprecedented levels.” In December 2020 alone, the PTO received 92,608 trademark applications, an increase of 172% over December 2019. Not only has this extraordinary volume of applications created a backlog and delay in the procedural review of new US trademark application filings, but the PTO is experiencing a notable increase in what it calls “suspicious submissions ranging from inaccurate to fraudulent.”

These illegitimate trademark filings harm the quality and integrity of the trademark register and have significant legal and financial impact on legitimate brand owners whose applications may be blocked by fraudulent filings for marks that are identical or similar to their real brands. Faced with a legal obligation to defend and enforce their trademarks, legitimate brand owners are forced to dispute such illegitimate filings with letters of protest, by filing oppositions or cancellation actions in the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board, and even by taking action in the federal courts. Such enforcement and defensive actions can clog up these forums and force brand owners to take on costs that would not otherwise be necessary, and which may distract from, or reduce the budget for, real trademark disputes.

The PTO outlined various strategies and tools to review, assess, challenge and combat suspicious and fraudulent filings, including aspects of the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020. In 2019, the PTO also implemented a rule requiring any overseas trademark applicant to file with a US lawyer. The requirement for a US lawyer appears to have resulted in many foreign applicants (primarily from China) making up fake names, addresses and bar credentials for the US lawyers named in their applications. Not all named US lawyers are fake, however, as the PTO’s investigations into certain lawyers lodging a high volume of trademark filings for Chinese-based applicants have revealed that some US-based lawyers may be taking on clients from China without conducting proper diligence as to the veracity of the client’s trademark application information. For example, the PTO’s investigation of some potentially illegitimate filings from applicants in China reveal doctored or disingenuous specimens of use, including e-commerce listings for products that may not actually exist or are no longer “in stock” (and likely never were “in stock”).

In September 2021, the PTO’s investigations into US lawyers with a high volume of filings for Chinese applicants resulted in two sanctions orders. The first was issued against a lawyer found to have filed thousands of applications for overseas parties deemed fraudulent by operating as a US-based agent for a centralized “filing gateway” platform located in India. The sanction order includes a 12-month probationary period and required ethics and trademarks classes. The second sanction against a US-based lawyer specifically noted that the lawyer did not do enough to properly review the applications that they signed on behalf of an applicant based in China. It has [...]

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