10th Circuit Falls into Line on Exceptionality Doctrine in Lanham Act Cases

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Addressing whether the term “exceptional case” in the Patent Act differs in meaning from the same term used in the Lanham Act, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld an award of attorneys’ fees granted under a motion filed under 15 U.S.C. 1117(a) and clarified that the exceptional case standard in the Lanham Act parallels the standard in the Patent Act. Derma Pen, LLC v. 4EverYoung Limited, et al., Case No. 19-4114 (10th Cir. June 8, 2021) (Lucero, J.)

In 2013, Derma Pen sued several companies for infringement of the “DERMAPEN” mark. Four years later, Derma Pen was granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the companies and “their officers, agents, servants, employees, attorneys, licensees, and anyone in active concert or participation with, aiding, assisting, or enabling Defendants” from using the mark. A few months later, Derma Pen filed for an order of contempt against one of the defendants, Stene Marshall, alleging that Marshall, with the help of other actors (related parties), had been violating the earlier-issued injunction. During the subsequent proceedings, despite being the plaintiff, Derma Pen routinely failed to meet its discovery obligations, causing the related parties to file as many as six discovery motions and resulting in the imposition of sanctions on Derma Pen.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court found Marshall in contempt of the injunction, but concluded that the related parties took no part in Marshall’s violation. Subsequently, the related parties moved for attorneys’ fees incurred in the contempt proceeding under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1117(a). The district court granted the motion and awarded more than $190,000 in fees based on application of the “exceptional case” standard set forth in the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2014 decision in Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness. Specifically, the district court decided that the case was “exceptional” because:

  • Derma Pen produced “no evidence of damages.”
  • “[T]he evidence showed [Derma Pen] had no right to enforce the injunction.”
  • “[T]he evidence showed that [the] trademark was abandoned.”
  • “[M]onetary sanctions were imposed on” Derma Pen for misconduct and delay during discovery.
  • Derma Pen was “entitled to no relief against the [related parties].”

Derma Pen appealed.

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding and fees award for the related parties, noting Derma Pen’s misconduct and delay during discovery. In so doing, the Court adopted the Octane Fitness standard as applicable to cases brought under the Lanham Act.

Practice Note: The 10th Circuit noted that it was acting consistently with other circuits that have considered application of the Octane standard to fee disputes under the Lanham Act, citing LHO Chicago River, L.L.C. v. Perillo (7th Cir. 2019) (collecting cases); Xereas v. Heiss (DC Cir. 2021); and Safeway Transit LLC v. Disc. Party Bus, Inc. (8th Cir. 2020).

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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