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Sixth Circuit: It’s a Go on Plaintiff’s Claims Despite Arbitration Clause

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in part a district court’s grant of a stay pending arbitration, finding that as non-parties to the underlying arbitration agreement, defendants could not stay the plaintiff’s action against them by arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration agreement. AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng, Case No. 19-4067 (6th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Guy, J., dissenting).

AtriCure invested millions into developing medical devices that treat a serious degenerative heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. The company sells these products to hospitals throughout the world. In the mid-2000s, AtriCure sought to enter the Chinese market. In order to do so, it needed a Chinese agent. Dr. Jian Meng approached AtriCure about partnering with one of his companies to serve as AtriCure’s Chinese distributor. AtriCure eventually entered into a relationship with Meng’s company, ZenoMed.

In 2015, AtriCure discovered that another of Meng’s companies, Med-Zenith, was attempting to market a knockoff version of one of AtriCure’s medical devices. AtriCure opted to continue the relationship with ZenoMed, and in 2016, AtriCure and ZenoMed entered into a distribution agreement. However, in 2017, AtriCure learned that Med-Zenith was attempting to develop more counterfeit versions of AtriCure’s devices. As a result, AtriCure allowed the distribution agreement to expire and demanded that ZenoMed return its inventory.

AtriCure then sued Meng and Med-Zenith in the Southern District of Ohio, alleging improper manufacturing and selling of dangerous counterfeit productions, as well as various state law claims. AtriCure also brought an arbitration demand under the distribution agreement against ZenoMed. Meng and Med-Zenith sought to stay the federal lawsuit, arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration clause in the distribution agreement under equitable estoppel and agency theories. After the district court denied the motion, Meng appealed.

The Sixth Circuit explained that after the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2009 ruling in Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, circuit courts are obligated to look to relevant state common law to decide when nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. As a result, the blanket federal presumption favoring arbitration even against nonparties was no longer applicable. Now, courts must examine state law to determine whether nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. The Court examined Ohio contract law to determine that a nonparty cannot enforce an arbitration clause unless it is an intended third-party beneficiary. The Court rejected Meng and Med-Zenith’s equitable estoppel arguments, finding that under Ohio law, AtriCure’s state law claims did not seek to enforce the distribution agreement against Meng and Med-Zenith, or rely on any theory that they owed contractual duties to AtriCure notwithstanding their nonparty status. Finally, the Court remanded the question of whether Meng’s agency argument could prevail by determining if he was acting as an agent of ZenoMed when he engaged in the conduct AtriCure complained about in the separate arbitration.

In dissent, Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. argued that Meng “unambiguously sought a ‘stay under Section 3 of the [...]

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Can’t Camouflage Express Trademark Contract Terms

Addressing a range of trademark licensing issues, including discretionary approval, exculpatory contract clauses and third party beneficiary standing, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the US Army, finding that the Army abided by the terms of a trademark licensing agreement with a brand management company that sold clothing bearing the Army logo. Authentic Apparel Grp., LLC v. United States, Case No. 20-1412 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 4, 2021) (Lourie, J.)

In a 2010 licensing agreement, the Army granted Authentic Apparel, a brand management company that licenses merchandise, a non-exclusive license to manufacture and sell clothing bearing the Army’s trademarks in exchange for royalties. The licensing agreement gave the Army sole and absolute discretion on whether to approve any products and marketing materials bearing the Army’s trademarks. The licensing agreement also included exculpatory clauses exempting the Army from liability for exercising this discretion. From 2011 to 2014, Authentic submitted 500 requests for product approval, and the Army disapproved of only 41. After a series of late or unpaid royalty payments, Authentic sent notice that it would not pay 2014 royalties. The Army then terminated the license to Authentic. In 2015, Authentic and its chairman, Ron Reuben, sued the US government for breach of contract of the licensing agreement. The alleged breaches included denial of the right to exploit the goodwill associated with the Army’s trademarks, refusal to permit Authentic to advertise its contribution to certain Army recreation programs, delay of approval for a financing agreement for a footwear line, and denial of approval for advertising featuring the actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment to the US government and dismissed Reuben as a co-plaintiff for lack of standing. Authentic appealed.

The two main issues on appeal were whether Authentic provided sufficient evidence to show there was a genuine dispute of material fact that the Army breached the terms of its contract or any implied duty of good faith, and whether Reuben was a third party beneficiary to have standing as a plaintiff to the suit.

As to the first issue, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the government because Authentic was unable to provide sufficient evidence that the Army breached the trademark licensing agreement. The Court found that:

The contracting parties contemplated the terms of the contract and voluntarily decided to include express language of broad discretionary approval and exculpatory clauses exempting liability for disapproval, and therefore they should be held to the express terms for which they bargained.

The Army did not act unreasonably or violate its duty of good faith and fair dealing in exercising its discretion because it did approve more than 90% of Authentic’s products.

Authentic’s argument that the Army’s discretion was too broad and restricted Authentic’s use of the trademarks to solely “decorative purposes” was without merit because (1) the Court was not evaluating the validity of the trademarks here, (2) Authentic still [...]

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