By David Hricik, Mercer Law School
A lawyer registered a mark for Annie Sloan Interiors Ltd. (ASI) to register a mark for it, but later represented Jolie Design & Decor LCC (JDD) and Jolie Home, LLC (Jolie Home) to challenge the mark (“CHALK PAINT”) asserting genericness (apparently at the USPTO and in litigation). ASI, a former client by then, sued for breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice.
Defendant moved to dismiss. The court held the complaint adequately pled breach of a fiduciary duty. Specifically, the court reasoned ASI alleged the lawyer had “breached a duty of loyalty by using knowledge gained during his representation of ASI to assist a different client in a challenge to its mark, and that its damages consist of the money expended in defending the mark and any resulting diminution in the value of the mark.”
The court found that an agreement “waiving” (i.e., consenting) to this was insufficient because, among other things, in it ASI acknowledged the firm would be representing JDD, and made no mention of Jolie Home.
As for legal malpractice, the defendant argued the claim was time-barred, and here is a key lesson for practitioners. The lawyer had, it seemed, “terminated” the representation in 2015, at a time when the malpractice claim would have become barred. However, the complaint alleged that the lawyer “remained ASI’s designated attorney in the CHALK PAINT® stylized design trademark proceedings—and held the power to act on ASI’s behalf—throughout the time period from June 2012 through mid-2018, until his power of attorney was revoked and he was replaced as attorney of record on June 1, 2018.” The court reasoned that because it was “ASI’s position that Kappel’s representation did not actually terminate until he was removed as its attorney before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), on June 1, 2018, and that up until that date, he remained enrolled before the USPTO as ASI’s attorney of record, holding the full power of attorney for CHALK PAINT® design mark before the USPTO. ASI also argues that in failing to withdraw as attorney of record at the USPTO, Kappel failed to perfect or complete his termination based on the 2015 termination letter.” The court denied the motion to dismiss based on the defense of limitations given those allegations.
It’s rare to see a lawyer allegedly challenging a patent, or mark, it obtained for a former client, and this is one more example of why it seems risky to do so.