by Dennis Crouch
In B&B Hardware v. Hargis Indus. (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court involved a trademark opposition running in parallel with a trademark infringement lawsuit over the mark SEALTITE/SEALTIGHT. The general holding is that a final decision by the US Patent & Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) can serve as issue preclusion to collaterally estop a court from re-judging already-decided issues. The particular issue being precluded here is the likelihood-of-confusion between the two marks, and the Supreme Court held that the TTAB’s final decision on likelihood-of-confusion could preclude that issue from being later litigated in the collateral action between the parties.
A court should give preclusive effect to TTAB decisions if the ordinary elements of issue preclusion are met.
Here, the “ordinary elements” of issue preclusion are that “[w]hen an issue of fact or law is actually litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment, and the determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive in a subsequent action between the parties, whether on the same or a different claim.” Restatement (Second) of Judgments §27.
In its decision, the Supreme Court recognized (1) that the TTAB is an administrative agency and not an Article III court; (2) that a right to a jury trial would exist in the infringement action absent preclusion; (3) that the details and procedures associated with the TTAB judging likelihood-of-confusion were somewhat different (but not fundamentally different) than that applied in the 8th Circuit; and (4) that – had the TTAB decision been challenged – it was not appealed.
And it is undisputed that a civil action in district court would entail de novo review of the TTAB’s decision. Ante, at 5.
Going forward, the court is clear that many TTAB decisions will not have preclusive effective — but that is because they fail the ordinary elements of preclusion and not simply because the TTAB is an administrative agency or because the TTAB usually decides cases in a certain way.
The 7-2 decision was penned by Justice Alito with a concurring opinion by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Thomas wrote in dissent and was joined by Justice Scalia. The dissent argued that the court should not simply presume that Congress intended agency decision to have preclusive effect.
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For patent attorneys, the case will have an obvious impact on the interplay between the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and parallel district court litigation. The same reasoning that led the Supreme Court to its decision in B&B will apply equally with determinations made during inter partes and post grant review proceedings. Importantly, issue preclusion applies to individual decisions of fact or law and thus may be important for sub-issues such as claim construction, scope and content of the prior art, level of skill in the art, etc.
Although B&B focused on traditional mutual issue preclusion, there is should also apply to defensive non-mutual issue preclusion that might arise when the defendant in an infringement action was not one of the parties in the IPR/PGR.
An important caveat: The Supreme Court recognized that issue preclusion won’t apply to agency decision when Congress so indicates. Here, there is an argument that the estoppel provisions in the IPR/PGR statutes suggest that Congress has opted out of the issue preclusion arena for these decisions.
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One of the most interesting lines from the opinion: “federal law does not create trademarks.” For that line, the court cited Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U. S. 82, 92 (1879) (“This exclusive right was not created by the act of Congress, and does not now depend upon it for its enforcement. The whole system of trade-mark property and the civil remedies for its protection existed long anterior to that act, and have remained in full force since its passage.”).