New England Law | Boston

Return to the New England Law | Boston home page.
New England Law Opportunities

April 22, 2015

Creeping Doctrines / Shifting Fees

Too often the catch-all term “intellectual property”— useful in describing practitioner specialty areas, law school courses, and text books, among other things— serves a subtly insidious function. It suggests that those discrete bodies of law which it encompasses—roughly, copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret law—have fundamental commonality. Not only, it implies, do those legal areas overlap, but more critically that those overlaps somehow count for more than any divergences.

This has a real effect on the development of the law. Courts are quick to presume that a rule applicable to one area of intellectual property ought to apply to all. The burden, it seems, is on one challenging such an extension to show why a given area of law, say trademark law, is distinct enough from another, such as patent law, so that a rule for one should not apply to another. The courts, for instance, over the past decade worked to extend a rule from a 2006 patent case that denies prevailing patent infringement plaintiffs entitlement to injunctive relief (eBay Inc v. MercExchange) to copyright and trademark law. We are now seeing that process inexorably repeat itself with respect to statutory fee-shifting.

To be sure, there is a clear, natural and forceful argument as to why the fee-shifting rules for patent law ought to be the same as those in trademark law. To start with, federal trademark law’s Lanham Act and the U.S. Patent Act contain identical statutory fee-shifting language. Namely, “The court in exceptional cases may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party.” When the Lanham Act was amended in the 1970s to add this provision, moreover, the Senate committee proposing the change made clear that it was intending to make trademark law more like patent law (which had operated under such language since the 1950s).

This apparently deliberate act of statutory duplication has led two appellate courts recently to conclude, with relative ease, that the two provisions should be interpreted in the same way. More specifically, both suggested (one in a holding last fall and one in dicta a little over two weeks ago) that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent clarification of the meaning of the statutory language in the Patent Act in Octane Fitness, LLC v. INCO Health & Fitness, Inc., ought to apply with equal force to the Lanham Act. See, respectively, Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster and Slep-Tone Entertainment Corp. v. Karaoke Kandy Store, Inc. The Supreme Court itself appeared to telegraph the propriety of such as result when it cited, in its Octane opinion, a trademark case and noted the “identical” nature of the two provisions.

The issue, though, is hardly as straightforward as these courts make it seem. There remain strong contrary arguments against conflating the two standards. Although it is of course a rule of statutory interpretation that similar language should be construed in a similar way, “pari passu,” that rule is usually coupled with the limitation that it applies to statutes enacted “for the same purpose.” The primary purposes of the Lanham Act are to make consumer purchasing decisions easier and safer by insuring the integrity of brand information in the marketplace and to protect brand good-will from misappropriation (i.e., to protect consumers and brands). The primary purpose of the Patent Act, by stark contrast, is to encourage the creation and disclosure of new inventions by granting exclusive rights for limited times to inventors (i.e., to incentivize innovative activity). As a direct consequence of these differing purposes, for well over a century the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the foundational Patent and Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, does not apply to trademark law.

Second, Octane was decided in an atmosphere steeped in the purported problem of patent trolls—those much-maligned entities alleged to assert frivolous patent claims without actually making or selling patented products, while often engaging in litigation misconduct. In rejecting the stingy objective baselessness and frivolity standards previously used by the Federal Circuit for awarding attorney’s fees, the Octane decision opened the door to more opportunities for prevailing defendants to receive attorney’s fees. This should, in the words of Octane, deter a patent plaintiff from bringing a borderline case that “stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position” or litigating them in an “unreasonable manner.” Octane itself, for instance, was a case where a prevailing defendant claimed a right to attorney’s fees against a losing patent-owning plaintiff that had asserted a weak patent infringement claim.

Trademark law, though, has had nothing close to the “troll” problems faced by patent or even copyright law because it contains built-in checks against trolling. A trademark infringement plaintiff must actually use its trademark to have rights in it, and must show a likelihood of confusion in a real marketplace to prevail on its claim.

Consistent with this view, the (remarkably terse) legislative history of the fee-shifting amendments to the Lanham Act makes clear that they were designed firstly to aid prevailing plaintiffs seeking attorney’s fees against counterfeiting defendants. In fact, the Senate Report contains a definition of “exceptional cases” that defines the term using language only relevant to losing defendants (“i.e., in infringement cases where the acts of infringement can be characterized as ‘malicious,’ ‘fraudulent,’ ‘deliberate,’ or ‘willful.’”). Although the statutory language clearly applies to prevailing parties of either stripe, this legislative emphasis on preventing counterfeiting by trademark defendants at a minimum counsels against knee-jerk extensions of a rule designed to reign in patent plaintiffs.

All of this is not meant to suggest that there aren’t good reasons for applying the Octane standard to trademark cases. Some might even suggest that general civil litigation in the U.S. would benefit from giving district courts more discretion to award attorney’s fees to all prevailing parties. But it does counsel against an all-to-easy rush to superimpose patent or copyright law rules onto trademark law. All three may be forms of “intellectual property,” but hopefully courts considering the issue (such as the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio as it picks up the Slep-Tone case on remand) will not make the mistake of presuming that what is good law for one must be so for the others.

Peter Karol

April 21, 2015

Memory Battles and National Human Rights Trials

This post originally appeared on the IntLawGrrls blog, available here.

I teach transitional justice at New England Law | Boston, and this past week I began the unit on national human rights trials. This topic is one of my favorites due largely to my experience observing national human rights trials like that of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and former Guatemalan leader José Efraín Ríos Montt. Fujimori is currently serving a twenty-five year sentence in Peru for his role in serious human rights crimes during the 1990s while president; while Ríos Montt has been under house arrest awaiting the resumption of his trial since 2013, when the Guatemalan Constitutional Court pointed to procedural errors as a reason to annul his conviction for crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in massacres of indigenous communities in 1982–83.

While observing both trials, I was fascinated by the media coverage of these proceedings and how the local coverage of these historical trials impacted public debates outside of the courtroom. My own research and writing on this topic seeks to respond to the fact that, generally speaking, we often forget the important role of media in transmitting the content of human rights trials although it can dramatically influence the overall transitional justice process.

In my recent article, “Memory Battles: Guatemala’s Public Debates and the Genocide Trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt,” I conducted a systematic evaluation of news reports and opinion pieces from local news outlets to study the nuances of Guatemala’s debate over whether or not the country had suffered a genocide. What I discovered was a “memory battle” about interpretations of the past war. Based on these findings, I challenge the idea that transitional justice mechanisms will naturally lead to a collective memory that results in a widespread societal condemnation of human rights violations. Instead, I draw from the field of memory studies to debunk the assumption that there is a smooth path towards a national narrative about atrocity. Different societal actors accompany the transitional justice process, actively and purposefully seeking to use judicial and non-judicial justice mechanisms to construct public memories that fit within their own interpretations and political agendas resulting in many contested versions of the past.

This situation presents a paradox for transitional justice advocates: on the one hand, tolerating expression of different interpretations and opinions of the past promotes the ideals of democracy. However, when versions of the past justify or explain away atrocity, they challenge the political project of building a culture of rights and the rule of law. I decided to examine how this paradox plays out when a transitional justice project includes national criminal trials given that most scholarship focuses more directly on the relationship between truth commissions and memory. I found that, up until now, scholars often wrote about memory and trials based on theoretical speculations as opposed to empirical research. This narrow focus can best be explained by the fact that transitional justice evolved as a response to the inability or unwillingness to conduct criminal trials, a trend that has begun to change only in the last decade with a rise in national human rights trials especially in Latin America.

I conclude my article by arguing that a country’s long-term interpretation of its past, and its agenda for the future, depends on which camp of memory-makers in a transitional justice setting wins this memory battle. It is my position that a collective memory is the first step towards cultivating its collective consciousness, which leads to a conscience that can influence how its members buy into this culture of rights, accountability, equality, and other essential attributes to sustainable peace. Importantly, it is often the nature of the memory making process itself, as opposed to a final memory product that predicts the outcome of memory surrounding national human rights trials.

Based on my close study of the media and memory-making in transitional justice settings, I strongly recommend that any new transitional justice project should consciously contemplate the role of memory production in its design and implementation.

Lisa J. Laplante

April 2, 2015

Texas v. United States

Judicial opinions are written to persuade. Perhaps this is the reason why Judge Hanen’s opinion in Texas v. United States resorts to truncated arguments, neglecting to discuss the opposing position. Furthermore, nowhere in the opinion does the judge indicate the devastating effect that the opinion will have on the people involved. Instead of focusing on the families that are at risk of being ripped apart through deportation as a result of his decision, Judge Hanen portrays the battle as an abstract political one between states that “bear the brunt of illegal immigration” while the (incompetent?) “powers that be” in the capitol are “rubberstamp[ing]” applications to avoid deportation or giving them only a “pro forma review.” No matter how long an opinion is—and this one is more than 120 pages long—it will sound polemical instead of persuasive if it does not recognize the other side’s arguments.

Among other things, Judge Hanen’s opinion holds illegal the decision by Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to limit removal actions against some parents of citizens and permanent residents. The United States had claimed that this decision was not subject to judicial review under the federal Administrative Procedure Act on the grounds that it was a discretionary prosecutorial decision. Judge Hanen disagreed, holding that it was reviewable because, among other things, the statute used the term “shall” in relation to deportation instead of “may.” The judge’s handling of this one small point—the interpretation of “shall” in the statute—is illustrative of his failure to voice the United States’ argument in any but the weakest way. Similarly, his reluctance, in discussing this point, to recognize what is at stake for the families involved may show his fear that doing so would make the reader less sympathetic to his position.

This is certainly not the first time that a court has had to interpret a statutory instruction expressed through the word “shall.” The United States Supreme Court took up the issue in Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, holding that the statute there, which said that the local police department “shall arrest” those who violated domestic violence restraining orders, gave the local police discretion as to whether to arrest or not. Judge Hanen’s failure to deal with this case or with similar cases shows his effort to persuade through blunt assertion instead of through legal analysis.

Justice Scalia, writing for the Court in Castle Rock, denied that a mandatory arrest statute requires the police to make arrests for domestic violence restraining order violations. Instead, he said, “We do not believe that these provisions of Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory.” (Emphasis in the original). He followed this with a lengthy discussion showing that police discretion to arrest has long “coexisted” with statutory mandatory arrest language. He also questioned how mandatory arrest would work in a setting, like plaintiff Gonzales’s, in which the person violating the restraining order is not present. Scalia’s point is that the statute cannot mean what it says because it would not be workable in that form. Furthermore, he engaged directly with the dissenting Justices’ position that other states have found mandatory arrest statutes in the context of domestic violence to be “more mandatory” than in other contexts.

In contrast, Judge Hanen in Texas v. United States paid only very quick lip service to the fact that some interpret “shall” as “may” before concluding that “shall” in the applicable statute is “imperative” and deprives the Department of the “right to do something that is clearly contrary to Congress’ intent.” There is no mention of Castle Rock or of any other similar case, except for one low-level Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision. The implication is that this position is not worth considering. This is confusing since immediately prior to this conclusion, he wrote that “DHS does have the discretion . . . to determine how it will effectuate its statutory duty and use its resources where they will do the most to achieve the goals expressed by Congress.” Given this, one would have thought the interpretation of “shall” would be a more complicated problem for him. What comes through to the reader from Judge Hanen’s very brief analysis is that he is upset that the government has announced that it will not enforce the removal laws against “a class of millions of individuals” despite the unmentioned fact that it is continuing to enforce them—at what many consider to be the highest rate ever—against others.

Similarly, Justice Scalia in his opinion in Castle Rock recognized the powerful effect that his reading of the statute would have on powerless members of our society. It took him several paragraphs to recount the story of the abduction and murder of Gonzales’s children by her ex-husband who violated a restraining order; Scalia also detailed the police’s delaying tactics and refusal to do anything about the violation. This opinion, too, is written to persuade, but the sympathetic portrayal of the harm done by the failure to arrest helps to convince the reader that Scalia was aware of the horrific pain inflicted. In contrast, the reader of Texas v. United States does not have any reason to believe that Judge Hanen understood the devastating pain that could be inflicted by tearing families apart. His lack of empathy for the victims of his approach makes the opinion sound even more one-sided than it might otherwise.

It is this anxiety to persuade through a one-sided approach and the unwillingness to admit to the harm done by the decision’s result that hopefully will be remedied on appeal, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Judith G. Greenberg