That’s So Metal: Ninth Circuit Confirms Standard of Review for Finding Unclean Hands on Summary Judgment
In a trademark infringement dispute over the brand name “METAL,” the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit resolved an issue of first impression in holding that when reviewing a grant of summary judgment on an unclean hands defense in a trademark infringement case, the correct standard of review is abuse of discretion. Metal Jeans, Inc. v. Metal Sport, Inc., et al., Case No. 19-55923 (9th Cir. Feb. 16, 2021) (VanDyke, J.) (Wardlaw, J., concurring).
Metal Jeans, an apparel brand claiming ownership of the trademark METAL, brought an infringement claim against Metal Sport, a powerlifting brand with a similar stylized mark that was also used on certain apparel items. In the district court, both parties sought summary judgment on the issue of likelihood of consumer confusion with respect to Metal Sport’s use of the METAL trademark in view of Metal Jeans’ rights in the brand name. The district court determined that material facts on the issue of infringement remained in dispute, and denied both parties’ motions on the merits. However, the district court granted a separate motion for summary judgment filed by Metal Sport claiming that Metal Jeans was barred from pursuing its infringement claim on grounds of unclean hands, while rejecting Metal Jeans’ counter-defense that Metal Sport also acted with unclean hands.
Metal Jeans appealed the unclean hands judgment, which presented an issue of first impression to the Ninth Circuit, namely the standard of review when a district court concludes that a party has acted with unclean hands. The Ninth Circuit noted that its two trademark decisions addressing unclean hands never specified the standard of review applied, and so turned to other cases in which it reviewed district courts’ application of similar equitable doctrines. With this background, the Court found abuse of discretion to be the correct standard of review.
In a separate decision memorandum, the Ninth Circuit explained that to successfully allege unclean hands, a defendant must show that the plaintiff’s conduct (1) is inequitable and (2) relates directly to the subject matter of its claims. The court also noted that factual questions related to the defense of unclean hands may only be resolved on summary judgment if evidence presented by both sides would permit the trier of fact to come to only one conclusion.
The Ninth Circuit assessed the six alleged instances of misconduct on the part of Metal Jeans, which included facts alleging that Metal Jeans provided varying accounts of how it acquired the METAL trademark and provided inaccurate or false information to the US Patent & Trademark Office, along with allegations that Metal Jeans sourced certain products from China despite its use of an “American Made” slogan. The Court determined that many of the factual allegations of unclean hands did not relate directly to Metal Jeans’ trademark infringement claims, nor did such allegations appear to have caused any harm or demonstrate malintent on the part of Metal Jeans.
Applying the abuse of discretion review standard, the Ninth Circuit determined that the district court’s findings of misconduct by Metal Jeans were “not the only reasonable conclusions that could be adduced from the evidence at summary judgment,” and that the district court erred in making the determination of unclean hands at the summary judgment stage. Under that same framework, the Court affirmed the district court’s rejection at summary judgment of Metal Jeans’ counter-defense that Metal Sport also acted with unclean hands, holding that both parties’ claims of unclean hands, along with the merits of the infringement claims, should be resolved at trial.
Issuing a concurring opinion joined by US District Judge Hillman, Judge Wardlaw agreed that the material facts forming the basis of the district court’s finding of unclean hands remained in dispute, but noted that facts pertaining to Metal Jeans’ corporate alter egos may, in a bench trial, provide “significantly stronger” support for an unclean hands determination.