Slowly but surely, the extension of the Supreme Court’s 2014 Octane Fitness v. LLC v. Icon Health and Fitness, Inc. decision to trademark claims is gaining traction among federal appellate courts. The Octane Fitness decision addressed the standard for determining whether a case is “exceptional” under the Patent Act and therefore eligible for an award of attorney fees. Earlier this week, the Fifth Circuit jumped on the bandwagon with its decision in Baker v. DeShong, Case No. 14-11157 (May 3, 2016)(available here).
Baker operates the HIV Innocence Group, which provides medical, legal, and investigative services for individuals in criminal and civil suits who have been accused of intentionally or recklessly infecting another person with HIV. Baker owns a trademark registration for the HIV INNOCENCE GROUP mark. He also does not like to be criticized. When Jeffrey DeShong created a website criticizing the HIV Innocence Group, Baker sued him for trademark infringement.
The District Court granted DeShong’s Motion to Dismiss on the ground that the allegations failed to support a claim of likelihood of confusion (discussed in more detail here). Following that ruling, DeShong requested an award of attorney’s fees, arguing that the case was “exceptional”. However, the District Court denied the motion, citing prevailing precedent that to qualify as “exceptional,” a case must be brought in bad faith.
The Fifth Circuit reversed the decision, ruling that the Octane Fitness Court “provided clear guidance” that to be exceptional does not require a claim to be brought in “bad faith.” Instead, an exceptional case is a case that “stands out from the others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigation position” or with respect to “the unreasonable manner” of a party’s actions in litigation.
Although DeShong requested that the Fifth Circuit also find that the claims qualified as an exception for an award of attorney fees, the Fifth Circuit remanded to the District Court to decide the issue. With this ruling, the Fifth Circuit joins the Third Circuit (Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303 (3d Cir. 2014)) and the Fourth Circuit (Georgia-Pac. Consumer Prods. LP v. von Drehle Corp., 781 F.3d 710 (4th Cir. 2015). The Sixth Circuit has not squarely addressed the issued, but remanded a case to the District Court to “assess the applicability” of Octane Fitness to the request for attorney fees (Slep-Tone Entertainment Corp. v. Karaoke Kandy Store, Inc., 782 F.3d 313 (6th Cir. 2015)).
While no circuit court has reached a contrary decision, there has been disagreement among district courts. Most district courts have applied Octane Fitness to trademark infringement claims, but at least one district court has rejected the applicability of Octane Fitness to non-patent claims (Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., 2014 WL 4073204 (D. Conn. Aug. 14, 2014)). There the court concluded that Second Circuit precedent requiring “bad faith” was still good law and therefore binding upon the court.
Although it is possible other courts may choose to reject the applicability of Octane Fitness to trademark infringement claims, this seems unlikely in light of the trend among the circuits. The Fifth Circuit’s decision lends further support to this notion.
Of course, the standard adopted in Octane Fitness does not guarantee that it will be easier to obtain an award of attorney’s fees. We previously discussed a Washington district court decision refusing to grant an award of fees under the Octane Fitness standard.
At a minimum, however, these decisions caution trademark infringement plaintiffs to objectively examine the strength of their claim. They also provide victims of unreasonable or meritless claims of infringement with some potential leverage: the threat of forcing the plaintiff to write a check for the defendant’s legal fees.