The US Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) provides, among other things, a forum for trademark owners to oppose the issuance of a certificate of registration for a mark filed by a third party which it believes is confusingly similar to its registered mark. Although the TTAB can issue a decision as to whether two marks are confusingly similar such that one of them should not be entitled to registration, the issue of whether one mark infringes another is beyond the scope of a TTAB proceeding and is instead left to the courts.
Therefore, when a trade mark owner is formulating its enforcement strategy, a common question that arises is whether a TTAB decision holding that two marks are confusingly similar would be dispositive when the same two marks are the subject of a trademark infringement claim before the courts. This issue was recently addressed by the Eighth Circuit in the case of B&B Hardware, Inc v Hargis Industries, Inc and the conclusion reached in this case can be helpful to brand owners contemplating their approach to brand enforcement.
B&B Hardware, the owner of a trade mark registration for the mark Sealtight covering a fastener product that is used predominantly in the aerospace industry, had successfully opposed a trade mark application filed by Hargis for the mark Sealtite covering a line of self-drilling and self-taping screws that are commonly used in the construction of metal buildings. Subsequently, B&B Hardware sued Hargis, making claims of trade mark infringement and unfair competition. The District Court rejected B&B Hardware’s claims and in doing so decided not give preclusive effect to the TTAB decision (that is, the Court did not allow the decision to preclude the issue from being re-litigated) which held that there was a likelihood of confusion between the two marks.
B&B Hardware appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit arguing that the TTAB’s determination that there is a likelihood of confusion between the two marks should have been given preclusive effect by the District Court on the claim of trade mark infringement which, in turn, would have necessitated a finding by the District Court in B&B Hardware’s favour. The Eighth Circuit, however, affirmed the District Court’s decision, holding that regardless of whether the TTAB is an agency whose decisions are entitled to preclusive effect, the decision rendered in the opposition proceedings was not so entitled. Specifically, the Eighth Circuit ruled that preclusive effect should not be given to the TTAB decision at issue because the likelihood of confusion test applied by the TTAB when considering B&B Hardware’s opposition to Hargis’ attempt to register the Sealtite mark did not equate to a determination of likelihood of confusion for purposes of analysing a claim for trade mark infringement.
The decision issued by the Eighth Circuit was not without dissent, however. The dissent took the position that when an administrative agency is acting in a judicial capacity and resolves disputed issues of fact which the parties had the opportunity to litigate, the courts should give the decision issued preclusive effect. In short, the dissent believed that Hargis should not have had the opportunity to re-litigate the dispute at the District Court level after already having done so before the TTAB.
This case, therefore, stands for the proposition that a ruling by the TTAB may not be serve as the final decision on the existence of a likelihood of confusion between two marks. However, as indicated by the dissent, the holding in this case may not be universally applied so careful consideration should be given by a trade mark owner when pursuing a claim of trade mark infringement when the marks at issue were already the subject of a TTAB decision.