Subject Matter Jurisdiction
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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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Oh Snap: Sufficient Reasoning Must Support Declaratory Judgment Dismissal

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded the dismissal of a declaratory judgment action because the district court failed to sufficiently support its decision. Mitek Systems, Inc. v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No. 21-1989 (Fed. Cir. May 20, 2022) (Dyk, Taranto, Cunningham, JJ.)

United Services Automobile Association (USAA) owns four patents directed to using a mobile device to capture and transmit an image of a bank check for deposit. Mitek created software for mobile check capture called MiSnap™, which it licenses in the form of a software development kit to financial institutions. In 2017, USAA sent letters to Mitek’s customers, some with claim charts and patent lists. The customers subsequently demanded indemnification by Mitek. In 2018, USAA sued Wells Fargo, a Mitek customer, in the Eastern District of Texas. As the case progressed, USAA served a subpoena on Mitek seeking documents, source code and testimony about MiSnap™. The case went to trial on two of the four patents, and Mitek and its products were frequently mentioned.

Shortly thereafter, Mitek filed a complaint in California seeking declaratory judgment of no infringement as to all four USAA patents. To support jurisdiction for its declaratory judgment claim, Mitek alleged that there was real and substantial apprehension of imminent litigation between Mitek and USAA for infringement of the patents-in-suit. In response, USAA argued that there was no case or controversy as required by Article III of the Constitution, and thus the case should be dismissed under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. USAA also argued that the California court should exercise discretion to decline to hear claims for declaratory relief. USAA requested alternatively that the action be transferred to the Eastern District of Texas.

The California court transferred the case to the Eastern District of Texas. The Texas court then dismissed the action for lack of a case or controversy and stated that the court would exercise discretion to decline to entertain the declaratory judgment action. Mitek appealed.

Addressing subject matter jurisdiction, the Federal Circuit explained that the question was “whether the facts alleged, under all the circumstances, show that there is substantial controversy, between parties having adverse legal interest, of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a declaratory judgment.” Along these lines, a plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to establish jurisdiction at the time of the complaint, and a case or controversy must remain present throughout the course of the suit. The Court found that the Texas court’s decision provided insufficient reasoning for dismissal because it failed to identify first whether to treat the Rule 12(b)(1) motion as a facial or factual challenge, as required under Fifth Circuit precedent. The Federal Circuit instructed the district court on remand to explore any post-filing events that may have impacted jurisdiction, as well as similarities between Mitek’s relationships with Wells Fargo and other customers.

The Federal Circuit found that the district court’s case or controversy analysis was similarly inadequate. The Court explained [...]

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School’s Out: Trademark Settlement Agreement Enforceable

Addressing issues relating to jurisdiction, contract enforceability and trademarks, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that two schools that used similar names had a valid and enforceable settlement agreement obligating one school to pay for the other to change its name. The Commonwealth School, Inc. v. Commonwealth Academy Holdings LLC, Case No. 20-1112 (1st Cir. Apr. 14, 2021) (Selya, J.)

It came to the attention of a Boston private school, The Commonwealth School (the School), that a more recently founded private school in Springfield, Massachusetts, was operating under a similar name, Commonwealth Academy (the Academy). In 2016, the School brought suit against the Academy under the federal Lanham Act, claiming that the School had a trademark on its “Commonwealth School” name, and that “Commonwealth Academy” infringed on that trademark. The parties entered into settlement mediation, and agreed that the School would pay the Academy $25,000 and in return the Academy would change its name to “Springfield Commonwealth Academy.”

The district court issued an order that a settlement was reached. Three years passed, and the Academy took steps to change its name in promotional materials and on its website. But the School would not pay the Academy because it claimed the Academy still had the “Commonwealth Academy” name appearing prominently on its students’ basketball jerseys. At a hearing to resolve the dispute, the district court reversed its earlier order: the parties had not actually reached a settlement agreement because there had been no “meeting of the minds” for contract formation, despite the other steps the Academy took to fulfill the agreement. The district court dismissed the case because neither party showed cause to reopen the case. The Academy appealed, arguing that the district court erred in refusing to enforce the settlement agreement.

The First Circuit addressed three main issues on appeal: (1) whether there was appellate jurisdiction to hear the appeal, (2) whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the initial settlement agreement dispute, and (3) on the merits, whether the settlement agreement was a validly formed contract.

The First Circuit concluded it had jurisdiction to review the district court’s dismissal order. Generally, under the final judgment rule, only final decisions are appealable. But here, the order at issue was merely interlocutory, meaning it was issued during the course of litigation. The Academy claimed the order was in fact reviewable because the order resulted in the case’s dismissal, and thus it should fall under the merger doctrine exception, where interlocutory orders merge into final judgments. The Court considered this in the context of the School’s failure to prosecute, and whether the order actually fell under an exception to the exception – i.e., where a dismissal is based on a failure to prosecute, it does not fall under the merger doctrine. In its analysis, the Court considered the policy considerations underlying the merger doctrine: to preserve integrity of the final judgment rule by preventing any reward for bad faith tactics. Here, the School, as the [...]

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