Thursday, September 03, 2009

6th Circuit decision affirming dismissal of TM infringement complaint under rule 12(b)(6)

In a decision with potentially important procedural ramifications, the 6th Circuit today affirmed the rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of a trademark infringement complaint for failure to state a claim.

In Hensley Mfg., Inc. v. ProPride, Inc., No. 08-1834 (6th Cir. Sept. 3, 2009), the plaintiff alleged it was the owner of the HENSLEY mark, which it purchased from Jim Hensley when it purchased Hensley’s trailer hitch business. Jim Hensley then started working with a competing company (ProPride). At ProPride, Hensley designed a competing trailer hitch, and to promote it, ProPride created some print advertisements and webpages that talked about “the Jim Hensley Hitch Story,” described Jim Hensley’s history of designing trailer hitches at Hensley Mfg., and touted how he has now designed an even better hitch at ProPride. The ads and webpages all contained a disclaimer that Jim Hensley is no longer affiliated with Hensley Mfg. The complaint attached the ads and print-outs of the webpages.

The district court dismissed the complaint under rule 12(b)(6) finding that the allegations and attachments showed that the fair use defense applied as a matter of law.

The 6th Circuit affirmed. The court held that it need not get into the likelihood of confusion factors because the complaint and its attachments showed, as a matter of law, that the word “Hensley” was not being used as a trademark (i.e., an indicator of source). Examining the attachments closely, the court held that they conclusively demonstrated instead that the name “Hensley” was being used lawfully solely to refer to the individual accomplishments and reputation of Jim Hensley, and the attached ads and webpages did not create a likelihood of confusion as to source.

The 6th Circuit also expressly approved of the district court’s having based the dismissal on the “fair use” defense, even though, by first moving to dismiss the complaint, the defendants hadn’t even pleaded it yet. The 6th Circuit reasoned that there’s nothing wrong with dismissing a complaint where the allegations conclusively establish an affirmative defense as a matter of law.

IMPLICATIONS: One of the lessons here might be to be careful not to plead yourself out of court. Specifically, it might be useful to consider whether the complaint in this case could have been dismissed under rule 12(b)(6) if the plaintiff hadn’t attached copies of the offending ads and webpages. On the other hand, the 6th Circuit referenced at the outset the (arguably heightened) “plausibility” pleading standard in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), although it did not ultimately appear to rest the dismissal in any significant way on the “implausibility” of the factual allegations in the complaint itself. So it may conversely be useful to consider if there is such a thing as a trademark complaint that is too bare-boned. At minimum, however, in any trademark case where a plaintiff is considering unusually detailed factual allegations and/or attaching copies of the allegedly infringing uses to the complaint, the pleader would do well to consider whether the pleading would survive the sort of analysis the 6th Circuit used here.

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