Editor’s Note: Avery Welker is a 1L at Mizzou and likely a future patent attorney. He is starting a new series linking law school canonical cases with intellectual property counterparts. You can email ideas for future posts to firstname.lastname@example.org. – Dennis Crouch
By Avery Welker
Grilling weather is coming up soon! You may be in the market for a new grill to set up in your backyard. Well, now you have to make a choice: will you go with the “Backyard Grill” or the “Backyard BBQ?” That’s not a choice that Variety Stores, Inc. (Variety | Plaintiff) wants you to need to make. Variety Stores, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d 651 (4th Cir. 2018).
Variety sued Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (Wal-Mart | Defendant) over Wal-Mart’s use of “Backyard Grill” (logo shown above1) to promote their line of grills and grilling supplies. Id. at 656. Variety brought a plethora of federal claims, including trademark infringement and unfair competition. Id. at 658. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment and each adduced evidence in support of their own motion. Id. Variety showed evidence of more than $56 million of sales with their mark, which they have been using since 1993. Id. Wal-Mart, while submitting plenty of evidence in their own support, also brought forth evidence that their marks were not confused with Variety’s, whereas Variety did not bring any evidence of confusion at all. Id. The district court then granted partial summary judgment for Variety holding that Variety’s mark was protectable, Wal-Mart’s mark could create confusion, and that Wal-Mart’s choice to not follow their counsel’s advice showed intent to confuse consumers. Id. In part, Wal-Mart appealed the award of partial summary judgement for Variety. Id. at 659.
The “extraordinary” remedy of summary judgment has some deceptively ordinary rules: (1) there must be no genuine issue of material fact and (2) the movant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (2021). Courts, as the gatekeepers of summary judgment, must ensure fairness in the motion by crediting all evidentiary inferences in favor of the nonmovant when investigating any issues of material fact. Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 656-57 (2014).
Tolan arose from a claim of excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 651. Officer Edwards believed that Tolan (Plaintiff) and his cousin had stolen a car, which the two exited at Tolan’s home. Id. at 651-52. Tolan’s parents came out of the house when they noticed the brewing situation. Id. Officer Cotton (Defendant) arrived, responding to a request for backup from Edwards. Id. at 652. From here, the parties had differing stories. Id. at 653. The two parties disputed how Cotton handled Tolan’s mother during the incident, and as to how Tolan responded to Cotton’s interactions with Tolan’s mother. Id. The stories converge around an unfortunate ending, however: Cotton fired three shots towards Tolan, striking him in the lung. Id.
Cotton moved for summary judgment with the district court, who granted it for Cotton, later affirmed by the Fifth Circuit. Id. at 654. In upholding summary judgment, the Fifth Circuit relied on Cotton’s version of Tolan’s response to Cotton’s interactions with Tolan’s mother (that Tolan rose to his feet) and to the lighting conditions of the porch where the shooting occurred (that it was dimly lit). Id. at 655. The Supreme Court noted that this was in error: the lower courts had failed to credit Tolan’s versions of the facts, vacating the Fifth Circuit’s judgment. Id. at 660. The Supreme Court expressed this message by pointing out the importance of juries:
The witnesses on both sides come to this case with their own perceptions, recollections, and even potential biases. It is in part for that reason that genuine disputes are generally resolved by juries in our adversarial system. By weighing the evidence and reaching factual inferences contrary to Tolan’s competent evidence, the court below neglected to adhere to the fundamental principle that at the summary judgment stage, reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party.
The Fourth Circuit applied this fundamental principle from Tolan to Variety Stores, Inc. Variety Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d at 662. The court noted that Wal-Mart’s evidence purporting to show weaknesses in Variety’s trademark was improperly uncredited. Id. Both parties had produced evidence, that in the Fourth Circuit’s view, genuinely disputed the strength of Variety’s “Backyard” trademark, an issue that should have been resolved by a jury. Id. at 663-64. The court vacated the judgment for partial summary judgment for Variety. Id. at 667.
Tolan expresses a fundamental principle that makes summary judgment such an “extraordinary” remedy. Crediting the non-movant with permissive inferences is crucial to allowing both sides an opportunity to be heard in a dispute.
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1The Backyard Grill branding is all but disappeared from Wal-Mart stores. This is a photo of a friend’s Backyard Grill from Wal-Mart. A search of “Backyard BBQ brand” ironically came up with a Wal-Mart listing for grills. Wal-Mart’s new branding appears to be “Expert Grill.”