Friday, February 11, 2005

3d Circuit Holds Lanham Act Claim Barred by Laches

The Third Circuit discussed the laches defense to a Lanham Act false advertising claim in Santana Products Inc. v. Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc., No. 03-1845 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2005). In Santana, the plaintiff filed his false advertising claim 7 years after he first learned of the defendant's alleged false statements. The defendant raised statute of limitations and laches defenses. Since the Lanham Act doesn't have a stated statute of limitations, the district court looked to "borrow" one from state law. But it held that the statute of limitations defense didn't fully bar the claim, just that part of it that was outside the 6-year limitation it borrowed from what it viewed as the most appropriate Pennsylvania law, the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL). But because the plaintiff first learned of the false statements outside the UTPCPL's 6-year limit, the district court held that a presumption of laches arose. It also held that the plaintiff's delay was inexcusable. Ultimately, however, it rejected the laches defense because it concluded that the plaintiff had proven that the defendant wasn't prejudiced by the delay. In other words, the district court held that a plaintiff can overcome laches so long as it can defeat a showing of EITHER (a) inexcusable delay OR (b) prejudice to the defendant.

The 3d Circuit held that the district court should have dismissed the Lanham Act claim as barred by laches. It agreed with the district court's choice of the UTPCPL statute of limitations as the proper guidepost for the false advertising claim (take heed -- this may not be the proper source from which to borrow for a Lanham Act trademark infringement claim). It also agreed that a presumption of laches arose because of the plaintiff's seven-year wait. But it disagreed that a plaintiff facing a presumption of laches need overcome only one of the two elements of laches. The plaintiff needs to show BOTH that its delay was excusable AND that the defendant wasn't prejudiced by the delay. (Slip op. at 29.) The 3d Circuit discussed the issue in some detail despite several of its prior opinions expressly so holding, probably because the plaintiff had cited a district court decision written by Senior Third Circuit Judge Becker (when he was a district judge) that adopted the "either/or" rule for overcoming the presumption of laches.

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