In its first trademark case in nearly a decade, the Supreme Court has decided that rulings by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board can have a preclusive effect on future trial court litigation. The 7-2 decision reversed an earlier ruling by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had upheld an earlier trial court decision. The case, which will also have implications for California companies involved in trademark enforcement, involves a 16-year dispute between B&B Hardware, Inc. and Hargis Industries.
The case centers on products with similar-sounding names. B&B makes a fastener called Sealtight, trademarked in 1993, that is used in the aerospace industry. Hargis makes self-drilling and self-taping screws, called Sealtite, used in the metal construction industry. When Hargis applied to register its mark in 1996, B&B opposed the registration and also sued for trademark infringement.
The TTAB found that there could be confusion between the two trademarks and decided in favor of B&B. However, the district court hearing the infringement case chose to disregard the TTAB's decision on the grounds that the TTAB was not an Article III court, and the jury found in favor of Hargis. The 8th Circuit affirmed that decision.
The Supreme Court's decision holds that since the trademark issues before the TTAB were materially the same as those before the district court, the board's findings should be used to preclude further litigation on the same matter. Negotiating the intricacies of trademark protection and enforcement can be challenging and time-consuming for companies. An attorney with experience in intellectual property and trademark law may be able to help clients avoid costly litigation through avenues other than the court system.