Alternative Defense to False Advertising Claim Carries the Day
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has sua sponte reissued its earlier decision in a trademark and false advertising case, revising certain evidentiary rulings but not the outcome of the case between two charities claiming the same historical heritage. Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta v. Florida Priory of the Knights Hospitallers of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Case No. 11-15101 (11th Cir., Dec. 18, 2012) (Wilson, J.).
In its earlier decision (IP Update, Vol. 15, No.10) the dissent argued that the district court’s admission of testimony about the history of the organizations by an individual affiliated with one of the parties was error. In vacating its earlier decision, the 11th Circuit, in a unanimous opinion, agreed that the testimony was improperly admitted. Notwithstanding that ruling, the case conclusion on false advertising remains unchanged. In the reissued decision, the 11th Circuit looked to the district court’s alternative decisional basis that did not rely on the now-excluded testimony.
The plaintiff is a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church that offers charitable services, while defendant is also a charitable organization, having an ecumenical, rather than Roman Catholic, association. The plaintiff filed trademark infringement and false advertising claims under the Lanham Act and state law claims based on the defendant’s use of word marks that were confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s registered marks. The plaintiff also claimed defendant falsely claimed a connection to plaintiff dating back to the 11th century. The defendant counterclaimed, asserting that the plaintiff committed fraud on the PTO for failing to disclose the existence of other organizations that used similar word marks.
The district court ruled in favor of the defendant on all counts, finding that the plaintiff committed fraud on the PTO based on the defendant’s use of a similar mark before the plaintiff.
In its original decision, the 11th Circuit reversed the district court on its fraud holding that was based on a declaration in support of registration submitted by the applicant’s representative attesting that there were no similar marks under 15 U.S.C. § 1051 (a)(3). The 11th Circuit concluded that the representative could not have intended to deceive the PTO in attesting to an oath that he believed was entirely accurate, as he was personally unaware that any other organization was using the marks for which plaintiff sought a trademark.
The 11th Circuit found that it was error for the district court to rely on Global-Tech Appliances, a patent case, for the applicable standard for a claim of fraud on the PTO for a trademark. The 11th Circuit found that standards cannot be imported between different intellectual property, such as patents and trademarks. The appeals court also found that if a declarant subjectively believed the applicant has a superior right to use the mark, there is no fraud, even if the declarant was mistaken (such as in this case).
In its reissued decision the 11th Circuit has maintained its reversal of the district court’s fraud finding and vacated the district court’s judgment of no infringement of the design mark, explaining that the district court considered only one of the seven likelihood-of-confusion factors in Frehling Enterprises v. International Select Group. However, with regard to the earlier split on the false advertising charge, the panel members in the reissued decision were now unanimous.
The false advertising claim involved the Florida Priory’s advertising of a connection to the historic Order of Malta. The plaintiff claimed that this was a misrepresentation that had deceived its Catholic customers into contributing money to the interdenominational Florida Priory.
The factual issue rested on competing versions of events dating back prior to 1800. The district court adopted the version put forward by Florida Priory’s purported expert to establish the historical connection. Reliance on that evidence was basis for the dissent voiced by Judge Pryor in the original 11th Circuit decision.
The expert evidence relied on by the district court was the testimony of the prince grand master of the Ecumenical Order, whose testimony admitted under Fed. R. Evid. 702. Judge Pryor argued that the district court considered the testimony without first qualifying the witness as an expert as to the history on which he testified.
In the reissued opinion the 11th Circuit distinguished what each side believed to be the correct version of pre-1800 history of the Order of Malta. However with regard to the false advertising claim, the underlying district court decision held that the Florida Priory could not be held liable for false statements for two reasons: because it shared a pre-1800 history with plaintiff Order; and because (in the subject advertising) the Florida Priory did associate itself with the Ecumenical Order, a non-Catholic organization.
In its revised opinion, the 11th Circuit looked to the district court’s second reason to affirm the judgment; noting that while the district court erred “when it permitted … a lay witness … to testify about historical matters,” the error was harmless because the Florida Priory’s defense based on the district court’s alternative ground was sufficient.