Thee I Dismiss: No Love for Failure to Add Necessary Party
After concluding that a trademark owner’s case for failure to add a necessary party was untenable, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of the case because the necessary party enjoyed sovereign immunity and could not be added. Lee et al. v. Anthony Lawrence Collection, L.L.C. et al., Case No. 20-30769 (5th Cir. Aug. 24, 2022) (Jolly, Elrod, Oldham. JJ.)
Curtis Bordenave and Paige Lee are in the business of owning trademarks. They petitioned the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) for a federal registration of the mark THEEILOVE. The phrase “Thee I Love” comes from Jackson State University, which has used the phrase for roughly 80 years. Collegiate Licensing Company is a licensing agent that handles the licensing of Jackson State’s trademarks to manufacturers that make and sell Jackson State merchandise.
Despite Jackson State’s decades-long use of the phrase, it never applied for a federal mark until after Bordenave and Lee had already done so. Jackson State did register a mark under Mississippi law in 2015 for use on vanity plates and in 2019 for use on other merchandise. It also claimed to have common-law rights to the mark under the Lanham Act.
Bordenave and Lee sued Collegiate Licensing Company and a few of the licensees in charge of producing and selling Jackson State’s merchandise for various claims related to their licensing, manufacturing and selling of “Thee I Love” merchandise, including trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. Bordenave and Lee sought damages, a permanent injunction barring the defendants from producing or selling any more “infringing” merchandise, and a declaration that defendants infringed Bordenave and Lee’s registered marks. The defendants moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. Pro.12(b)(1) and (7), arguing that Jackson State was a required party, and because Jackson State enjoys sovereign immunity, Bordenave and Lee’s case should be dismissed. The district court dismissed the case without prejudice under Rule 12(b)(7). Bordenave and Lee appealed.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. First, the Court determined that Jackson State was a required party, stating that Jackson State had an interest in the action that would be impaired or impeded if Jackson State was not joined in the suit. The Court reasoned that even if Jackson State remained free to challenge Bordenave and Lee’s ownership of THEEILOVE elsewhere, it could still face challenges protecting its interest if it was not joined in this action.
Next, because Jackson State has sovereign immunity, the Fifth Circuit considered whether the district court abused its discretion in dismissing the case rather than proceeding without Jackson State. Jackson State enjoys sovereign immunity as an arm of the State of Mississippi. Because Jackson State had a non-frivolous claim here, the Court found that dismissal was required because of the potential injury to Jackson State’s interest as an absent sovereign.
Finally, the Fifth Circuit considered the four factors under Rule 19(b) that determine whether an action should continue without the absent party or be dismissed. The factors are as follows:
The extent to which any prejudice could be lessened or avoided
Whether judgment would be adequate
Whether the plaintiff would have an adequate remedy if the action were dismissed for nonjoinder.
The Fifth Circuit concluded that all factors favored dismissal. Both the defendants and Jackson State would be prejudiced without Jackson State’s involvement because they would not be able to adequately defend their right to the mark, and the prejudice against Jackson State could not be lessened. The Court explained that judgment without Jackson State would not be adequate because it retained an interest in the mark and retained some control over which companies receive its licenses. The Court also found that Bordenave and Lee would have an adequate remedy if the case was dismissed because the PTO is the proper forum for determining the owner of the trademarks.