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Message Received: Service of Complaint by Email Found Sufficient

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s entry of default judgment against the defendant because email service of the complaint was proper under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. Viahart, L.L.C. v. He GangPeng, Che Haixing, Aszune, Case No. 21-40166 (5th Cir. Feb. 14, 2022) (Wiener, Graves, Ho, JJ.)

Viahart manufactures, distributes and retails toys and educational products under registered trademarks. Viahart sued approximately 50 defendants for selling counterfeit products bearing its trademark on several online marketplaces. At the time Viahart filed its complaint, it moved to serve all defendants by email. The district court denied the motion but permitted Viahart to conduct discovery to determine the identities and addresses of the defendants through the online marketplaces. After attempting to obtain contact information for the defendants, Viahart again moved to serve the defendants by email. In the motion, Viahart documented its efforts to serve defendants physically and provided proof of attempted service for various defendants. The district court granted the motion, and Viahart served the defendants via email.

Viahart subsequently moved for entry of default judgment against defendants that failed to appear or otherwise respond to the complaint. The district court granted the default judgment motion and determined that each defaulting defendant was liable for $500,000 each plus attorneys’ fees and costs. The judgment permanently enjoined defendants from using Viahart’s trademarks, competing with Viahart unfairly, and withdrawing any funds from the online marketplaces or payment processors. Three of the defendants—GangPeng, Haixing and Aszune—appealed the judgment, arguing that service was improper, that they were improperly joined with the 50 other defendants and that “there was no trademark infringement.”

The Fifth Circuit found no error in the district court’s entry of default judgment. The Court noted that it reviews the entry of default for an abuse of discretion and the underlying factual determinations for clear error. The Court determine that Viahart properly complied with the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure in its attempts to serve GangPeng, including documenting its attempts to personally serve GangPeng and attaching the required affidavits that allowed the district court to authorize substitute service. As for Haixing and Aszune, the Court found that under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, email service was appropriate because it was court ordered, was reasonably calculated to notify the defendants and was not prohibited by an international agreement.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the defendants’ misjoinder argument, finding that there was no basis for misjoinder under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 20 and 21. The Court found that the complaint sufficiently alleged that the defendants were all working together and that their conduct arose out of the same transaction, and therefore joinder was appropriate. Finally, the Court rejected the defendants’ argument that there was “no trademark infringement” because factual questions and unpled affirmative defenses cannot be raised on appeal of a default judgment when they were not presented to the district court. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s default judgment.

© 2023 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume XII, Number 62
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