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Stormy Weather Ahead: Lack of Causation Evidence Rains Out Appeal

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found that a trade secret owner lacked “non-speculative and sufficiently probative evidence of a causal nexus between Defendants’ alleged bad acts and [the trade secret owner’s] asserted damages,” and upheld a lower court’s summary judgment ruling for defendants. GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Hall, et. al, Case No. 19-4130 (10th Cir. June 29, 2022) (Holmes, Kelly, Lucero, JJ.)

GeoMetWatch (GMW) alleged misappropriation of trade secrets and multiple other complaints against several different groups of defendants, including the Hall defendants, Utah University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWSF) defendants, and Utah State University Research Foundation (USURF) defendants. The lower court granted summary judgment to all defendants based on lack of non-speculative causation relating to lost profits, to the USURF and AWSF defendants based on governmental immunity under Utah law, and to AWSF on its contractual counterclaim. GMW appealed.

Background

GMW launched a venture for a new satellite-based weather-detecting senor system developed by USURF. GMW entered into a cooperation agreement with AsiaSat, a foreign commercial satellite operator on which GMW relied to secure funding from Export-Import Bank. There were two conditions precedent before AsiaSat would seek the loan: a guarantee for the loan and a convertible note. The Hall defendants were brought in to possibly provide the guarantee, and with the understanding that Hall would maintain confidentiality of GMW’s information. After reviewing the confidential information, Hall entered into a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) with GMW. Despite the NDA, Hall launched a competing company and sent a series of inflammatory emails regarding the state of GMW to AsiaSat. These actions became the basis for GMW’s complaint of trade secret appropriation. After failing to make payments to AWSF for the construction of the senor, and despite finding a replacement manufacturer, GMW never satisfied either of the conditions precedent and AsiaSat never applied for the loan. GMW eventually ran out of money and filed the underlying suit.

GMW argued that its lost profits stemmed from its failure to secure a loan with AsiaSat and Export-Import Bank because of the defendants’ trade secrets misappropriation and other bad acts. GMW relied on evidence such as a series of inflammatory emails from Hall stating that “GMW is in Trouble,” along with an invitation to do business with a new company that the Hall defendants launched reviewing GMW’s confidential information. The lower court found that GMW had failed to provide more than speculative evidence that the defendants’ actions, with or without GMW’s confidential information, caused GMW’s lost profits.

The Tenth Circuit’s Ruling

At the Tenth Circuit, GMW argued that the lower court ignored “non-speculative” evidence from which it could be inferred that the defendants’ actions were the cause of lost profits. The Court noted that the district court found that none of GMW’s experts actually opined that any of the defendants’ actions caused the lost profits. Although one expert put forth a theory based on GMW losing its “first-mover advantage,” the Court found that no specific facts were offered to support this theory. The [...]

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No Harm, No Foul: No False Advertisement Where Trade Association Failed to Show Injury

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a home inspector association on a false advertising claim brought by a competitor, finding no evidence of injury or harm and explaining that harm could not be presumed merely from the fact that the parties compete for members. Am. Soc’y of Home Inspectors, Inc. v. Int’l Ass’n of Certified Home Inspectors, Case No. 21-1087 (10th Cir. June 14, 2022) (Tymkovich, C.J.; Carson, Rossman, JJ.)

The International Association for Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI) and the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) are competing national organizations that offer memberships with benefits such as advertising, online education and logo design to independent home inspectors. InterNACHI brought a false advertisement claim under the Lanham Act against ASHI, its sole national competitor, for featuring the slogan “American Society of Home Inspectors. Educated. Tested. Verified. Certified.” on its website. InterNACHI alleged that ASHI’s tagline was misleading because ASHI’s membership includes “novice” inspectors who are not trained or certified. These “novice” inspectors are promoted on ASHI’s online “find-an-inspector” tool, where home buyers can find a local inspector and view their contact information, qualifications and membership level (associate, inspector or certified inspector). According to InterNACHI, ASHI’s misleading slogan coupled with its public promotion of novice members as inspectors caused InterNACHI to lose potential members. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of ASHI, concluding that InterNACHI failed to show that it was injured by the tagline as required under the Lanham Act. InterNACHI appealed.

InterNACHI argued that the district court incorrectly concluded that no reasonable jury could find that InterNACHI was harmed by the slogan and improperly refused to presume harm from the parties’ relationship as direct competitors. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, explaining that a plaintiff claiming false advertising under the Lanham Act must plead “an injury to a commercial interest in sales or business reputation proximately caused by the defendant’s misrepresentations.” In support of its claim, InterNACHI offered the following:

  • A survey showing that consumers may be deceived by the slogan
  • Data showing an increase in ASHI associate membership following implementation of the slogan
  • A declaration by InterNACHI’s founder attesting to the harm caused to InterNACHI as a result of ASHI’s slogan.

The Tenth Circuit reasoned that consumer confusion does not bear on whether home inspectors are more likely to join ASHI instead of InterNACHI because of the slogan. The Court also declined to infer harm from ASHI’s increase in associate membership, which was likely attributable to other factors, such as the institution of reduced student membership fees or the closure of another national association for home inspectors around the time the slogan was introduced. The Court further noted that inspectors can join both organizations and that InterNACHI had not shown that its own membership levels decreased because of ASHI’s slogan. With respect to the declaration by InterNACHI’s founder that “use of th[e] slogan in connection [...]

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Half-Baked Case: No Misappropriation or False Advertising Given Over-Broad Allegations

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant baker on a trade dress infringement claim and reversed the district court’s denial of the defendant baker’s motions for judgment as a matter of law on trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims. Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. v. Sycamore, Case Nos. 18-4062; -4031; -4040 (10th Cir. Mar. 18, 2022) (Hartz, Phillips, Eid, JJ.)

Bimbo Bakeries (and its predecessor, EarthGrains Baking Companies) owns, bakes and sells Grandma Sycamore’s Home-Maid Bread, a popular bread in Utah. U.S. Bakery is a competitor, and Leland Sycamore is the baker who developed the Grandma Sycamore’s recipe. Sycamore parted with his interest in Grandma Sycamore’s and opened his own bakery, Wild Grains Bakery. U.S. Bakery hired Wild Grains Bakery to produce another homemade bread product, Grandma Emilie’s. The relationship soured, and U.S. Bakery moved its Grandma Emilie’s operations in-house. U.S. Bakery developed a new formula for Grandma Emilie’s and enlisted a former Wild Grain employee to help. U.S. Bakery also created packaging for the bread based on Grandma Sycamore’s packaging. U.S. Bakery used several taglines to help sell its products, including “Fresh. Local. Quality.”

Bimbo Bakeries (then EarthGrains) sued Leland Sycamore, Tyler Sycamore (Leland’s son and co-baker), Wild Grains Bakery and U.S. Bakery, alleging multiple claims related to the Grandma Emilie’s operations, including trade secret misappropriation under the Utah Uniform Trade Secrets Act and trade dress infringement, trade dress dilution, false designation of origin, false advertising and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. Bimbo Bakeries alleged that U.S. Bakery’s use of the word “local” in the tagline “Fresh. Local. Quality.” constituted false or misleading advertising because U.S. Bakery did not actually bake all its bread products within the state of sale. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of U.S. Bakery on the trade dress infringement claim. The parties went to trial on the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims. The jury ruled in Bimbo Bakeries’ favor on both and awarded more than $2 million in damages. The district court increased the damages owed by U.S. Bakery by almost $800,000 because U.S. Bakery was found to have willfully and maliciously misappropriated Bimbo Bakeries’ trade secret. The district court remitted the jury’s damages for the false advertising claim to around $83,000. The district court also permanently enjoined U.S. Bakery and Sycamore from using Bimbo Bakeries’ trade secret and denied renewed motions by U.S. Bakery and Sycamore for judgment as a matter of law for the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims.

Bimbo Bakeries, U.S. Bakery and Sycamore appealed. Bimbo Bakeries argued that the district court should not have granted U.S. Bakery summary judgment on its trade dress infringement claim and should not have remitted damages for the false advertising claim. U.S. Bakery and Sycamore argued that the district court should have granted their renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law for the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims.

On [...]

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Alleged Trademark Infringer Remains Hog-Tied after Appeal

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit dismissed an appeal of a district court order denying a stay of a federal action for lack of jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and reversed in part the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction. The Trial Lawyers College v. Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College at Thunderhead Ranch, Case No. 20-8038 (10th Cir. Jan. 27, 2022) (Bacharach, Briscoe, Murphy, JJ.).

The dispute between the parties arose out of a program called The Trial Lawyers College at Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming. The College’s board of directors split into two factions known as the “Spence Group” and the “Sloan Group.” After the split, the two groups sued each other. The Spence Group sued in state court for dissolution of the College and a declaratory judgment regarding control of the board of directors. The Sloan Group sued in federal court claiming trademark infringement under the Lanham Act.

Both groups sought relief in the federal case. The Spence Group filed a motion to stay the federal court proceedings in light of the state court proceedings, and the Sloan Group requested a preliminary injunction. The district court denied the Spence Group’s stay and granted the Sloan Group’s request for a preliminary injunction. The Spence Group appealed both rulings.

The Tenth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s stay denial. First, the state court resolved the dispute concerning board control, rendering part of the requested stay moot. Second, the Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction over the remaining motion for stay because it was not a final order. The Court explained that it needed to decide the appealability of the ruling based on the category of order rather than the particular facts of the case. The Court found that there was no unsettled issue of unique urgency or importance that warranted the Court exercising jurisdiction over the denial of the stay. Specifically, the Court explained that piecemeal litigation was unlikely because the state court already decided the issue of board control, and the Spence Group did not identify an unsettled issue of unique urgency.

The Tenth Circuit did exercise jurisdiction over the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction. The Spence Group challenged the district court’s finding of irreparable harm, the order to remove sculptures bearing the College’s name, restrictions on what the Spence Group could say and the consideration of evidence presented after the hearing ended. The Court reviewed the district court’s findings under an abuse-of-discretion standard. The Court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion by finding irreparable harm, considering evidence after the hearing and enjoining the Spence Group from using words associated with the College. The Court explained that the district court reasonably found irreparable harm based on the College’s efforts to protect its name, logo and trademarks, as well as evidence of likely confusion among customers of the College based on the Spence Group’s use of those trademarks. As for the sculptures, the Court found [...]

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