The Steep Price of Not Being Exceptional

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Addressing the appropriate standard for determining what makes a trademark case sufficiently exceptional to warrant an award of attorney fees, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the denial of a renewed motion for attorneys’ fees under the Octane Fitness standard. LHO Chicago River, LLC v. Rosemoor Suites, LLC, Case No. 20-2506 (7th Cir. Feb.19, 2021 (Kanne, J.)

Some say that imitation is the highest form of flattery—but not in the world of trademarks. And certainly not according to LHO Chicago River. In 2014, LHO rebranded one of its Chicago hotels as “Hotel Chicago.” Two years later, Rosemoor did the same to its hotel on the west side of Chicago. LHO sued Rosemoor for trademark infringement (among other claims). Ultimately, LHO dropped the lawsuit after an unsuccessful motion for preliminary injunction. Rosemoor’s quest for attorneys’ fees, however, lived on.

Rosemoor’s initial request for attorneys’ fees amounted to $500,000. According to Rosemoor, the case was exceptional as defined by the Lanham Act and therefore justified reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees. Rosemoor’s first request was denied. Rosemoor appealed, arguing that the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees was based on an incorrect standard as to what makes a trademark case exceptional. The renewed request for attorneys’ fees totaled $630,000. Once again Rosemoor was left to cover its own fees, and once again it appealed, but to no avail.

In denying Rosemoor’s initial request for attorneys’ fees, the district court used the “abuse-of-process” standard as explained in Burford v. Accounting Practice Sales. According to Rosemoor, the district court should have used the standard articulated in Octane Fitness v. ICON Health & Fitness to determine whether the case was exceptional. The Seventh Circuit agreed with Rosemoor regarding the appropriate standard, but did not agree that the case was exceptional.

Under Octane, “a case can be ‘exceptional’ if the court determines, under the totality of the circumstances, that it ‘stands out from others with respect to [1] the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (considering both the governing law and the facts of the case) or [2] the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.'” Relevant considerations for a party’s litigating position “include ‘frivolousness’ and ‘objective unreasonableness.'”

The Seventh Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the case was not exceptional and did not warrant fee shifting. The Court explained that LHO’s preliminary injunction pleading was not “frivolous or unreasonable,” LHO provided evidence of actual customer confusion, the disputed mark was “not plainly unworthy of protection,” LHO provided evidence of the mark’s secondary meaning, and Rosemoor failed to show that LHO engaged in exceptional litigation misconduct.

Practice Note: When the post-litigation dust settles, practitioners should help their clients evaluate whether their case truly is exceptional within the meaning of the Lanham Act and would thus warrant an award of attorneys’ fees. Appealing a disappointing judgment without strong “exceptional” grounds may end up costing more than it is worth.

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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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