Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama et al v. Houndstooth Mafia Enterprises LLC et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge R David Proctor on 2/23/2016. (KAM, )
2016 Feb-23 PM 03:09
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, et al.,
ENTERPRISES LLC et al.,
Case No.: 7:13-CV-1736-RDP
The phrase “a day late and a dollar short” has served as the theme of songs, books,
poems, movies, and television shows. As explained below, it is a theme that also characterizes
the respective approaches taken in this case by (1) Michelle K. Lee (“Lee”), the Undersecretary
for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office
(“USPTO”) and the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”), and (2) Defendants
Houndstooth Mafia Enterprises, LLC, Christopher Blackburn, and William Pitts, Jr.
Lee has moved to intervene in this action indicating that she seeks to protect the interests
of the USPTO. The USPTO says that its asserted interest is to avoid the unnecessary vacatur of
one of its precedential decisions. The decision at issue was rendered by the TTAB and was
favorable to Houndstooth Mafia, Christopher Blackburn, and William Pitts, Jr. (“Defendants” in
this case) and unfavorable to the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama and Paul
Bryant, Jr. (“Plaintiffs” in this case). After the TTAB’s ruling, in September 2013, Plaintiffs
filed this action appealing that decision. While this action was pending in this court, Plaintiffs
and Defendants reached a settlement of the matter. Importantly, as part of that settlement, the
parties agreed to the vacatur of the TTAB’s administrative decision. Defendants have explained
that their primary reason for settling was financial—they were a dollar short in defending the
In May 2014, the parties submitted and the court approved the settlement and entered a
Final Consent Judgment. (Doc. # 15). Among other things, the Final Consent Judgment called
for the vacatur of the TTAB’s decision which was favorable to Defendants. (Doc. # 15). After
the court entered final judgment, the parties submitted it to the TTAB. No action was taken.
More than a year passed.
Finally, in June 2015, the TTAB essentially (and inexplicably) treated the court’s Order
as a request, and issued a decision refusing to comply with this court’s Order. (Doc. # 30-2).
Thereafter, Plaintiffs moved to enforce this court’s prior final judgment. (Doc. # 16). In light of
those developments, this court scheduled a hearing, and invited the USPTO to participate.
Through its counsel, the USPTO appeared at the hearing. It was only after the hearing that Lee
sought to intervene − she is more than a day late.
This matter is before the court on (1) Plaintiffs’ Motion to Enforce Consent Judgment
(Doc. # 16), filed July 23. 2015, and (2) the Motion by Michelle K. Lee, Undersecretary for
Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, to Intervene
(Doc. # 28), filed September 17, 2015. These matters have been fully briefed, and the court has
heard argument on the Motion to Enforce Consent Judgment. (Docs. # 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 30,
31). After careful consideration, and with the benefit of that oral argument, the court concludes
that the motion to intervene is due to be denied as untimely, and the motion to enforce the
judgment is due to be granted.
In July 2013, after five years of administrative discovery and depositions, the TTAB
issued a decision dismissing an opposition filed by Plaintiffs against the registration of the
HOUNDSTOOTH MAFIA mark sought by Defendants, Pitts and Blackburn. (Docs. # 16-4 at 3,
22 at 4). The University has licensed the Houndstooth pattern as a trademark in connection with
various goods because it contends the pattern is well-known to be associated with the University.
(See, e.g., Doc. # 22 at 13−14). The TTAB decision held that Defendants could proceed to
registration on the HOUNDSTOOTH MAFIA mark. (Doc. # 1; Doc. # 16-1).
Section 107 of the Lanham Act permits a litigant to appeal a TTAB ruling directly to the
Federal Circuit, 15 U.S.C. § 1071(a)(1). In the alternative, a party may file a civil action
challenging the board’s ruling in a federal district court, 15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(1). Dissatisfied
with the TTAB’s decision, the University and Bryant elected the latter option and filed suit in
this court. (Doc. # 1).
During the course of this litigation, the parties reached a settlement. Pursuant to that
settlement, they presented to the court a Final Judgment of Consent. (Doc. # 14). As part of the
settlement, Pitts and Blackburn assigned to the University all right, title, and interest in and to the
Houndstooth Mafia mark that was the subject of the TTAB decision. (Doc. # 14-1 at 3). In
addition, pursuant to the settlement all parties acknowledged and agreed that the TTAB’s
decision favorable to Pitts and Blackburn should be vacated. (Id.). The court approved the
parties’ settlement, and entered Final Consent Judgment on May 27, 2014. (Doc. # 15). As part
of that judgment, and due to the parties’ express settlement terms, the court ordered that the
TTAB’s decision “is VACATED.” (Doc # 15 at 3 (bold and caps in original)).
It is important to understand the parties’ respective reasons for reaching their settlement.
Defendants pursued a settlement because they “wanted to get what they could,” and their
attorneys “couldn’t afford to do free work on an appeal as they had on a hearing before the
TTAB.” (Doc. # 26 at 7). Plaintiffs were amenable to settlement with one non-negotiable
condition: they required with respect to any resolution of the dispute. They were only willing to
settle if the TTAB’s 2013 decision was vacated. Plaintiffs insisted on this condition because
they are repeat players1 before the TTAB, and were concerned with the precedential effect of the
TTAB’s 2013 decision. (Doc. # 30-1, 30-4, 30-5). Thus, Plaintiffs made it clear that there
would be no settlement unless the parties agreed to vacatur of the TTAB’s unfavorable (and, in
Plaintiffs’ view, incorrect) decision as part of a resolution.
On September 15, 2014, after the court entered its Final Consent Judgment, which
vacated the TTAB’s July 2013 decision, Plaintiffs filed (what they surely believed would be) a
pro forma motion to reopen the administrative action, vacate the TTAB’s decision, and dismiss
the action with prejudice. (Doc. # 16-3). Plaintiffs attached a copy of this court’s Final Consent
Judgment. (Doc. # 16-3, Ex. 2). But the TTAB took no action. It did not vacate its decision. In
fact, for a substantial period of time -- that is, until June 2015 (when it issued an opinion
purporting to deny Plaintiffs’ motion) -- it took no action at all on Plaintiff’s motion or upon this
court’s final judgment.
The TTAB has acknowledged that it monitors litigation such as the proceedings in this
case. (Doc. # 33 at 5). But despite that monitoring, and even after actually receiving this court’s
This repeat-player concern presents a rather interesting angle in this case. The University is facing at least
one other agency proceeding in the TTAB (the Diaz proceeding). The University is concerned that the TTAB’s
belated decision to refuse to vacate its precedential decision involving Houndstooth Mafia will prejudice it in the
Diaz proceeding which is still to be tried before the TTAB. The University also seems concerned that although
there has been a “frequency with which the Board has received similar post-decisioned requests” (Doc. # 16-4, at 23), the TTAB has chosen this case to mount a challenge to such settlement provisions.
Final Consent Judgment (Doc. # 15), the TTAB did not vacate its decision. Nor, at that time, did
it seek to intervene and ask this court to reconsider its ruling. There was no appeal taken to the
Eleventh Circuit. Instead, more than a year later (and after mulling over whether it would
comply with the court’s Final Consent Judgment), on June 23, 2015, the TTAB made its own
“decision” not to comply with the parties’ agreement and this court’s express order contained in
the Final Consent Judgment. (Doc. # 30-2).
After the TTAB entered its June 2015 decision, the University and Bryant filed their
motion to enforce. (Doc. # 16). After receiving a response to that motion, the court set this case
for a hearing. (Docs. #17, 18). Lee did not seek to intervene then. Nevertheless, the court
“invited” counsel for the USPTO to submit briefing and participate in the scheduled hearing.
(Doc. # 17). It was only some time after the court concluded its hearing on the motion (see Doc.
# 22) that Lee belatedly filed her motion to intervene. (Doc. # 28).
Standard of Review
Section 21 of the Lanham Act permits a party dissatisfied with a TTAB decision to either
appeal directly to the Federal Circuit or bring a civil action in a federal district court. 15 U.S.C. §
1071(a), (b); see also Material Supply Int’l, Inc. v. Sunmatch Indus. Co., Ltd., 146 F.3d 983, 989
(D.C. Cir. 1998). “A challenge to the TTAB’s decision in a district court is ‘both an appeal and
a new action, which allows the parties to request additional relief and to submit new evidence.’”
Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System v. Phoenix Intern. Software, Inc., 653 F.3d
448, 452 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting CAE, Inc. v. Clean Air Eng’g, Inc., 267 F.3d 660, 673 (7th Cir.
2001)). “In such an action, the district court wears two hats: ‘[it] is an appellate reviewer of facts
found by the TTAB and is also a fact-finder,’” provided that new evidence is introduced to the
court. Id. (quoting CAE, Inc., 267 F.3d at 674).
Acting in this dual capacity, a district court applies a standard of review that is a hybrid
of deferential treatment and de novo scrutiny. Tequila Centinela, S.A. de C.V. v. Bacardi & Co.
Ltd., 517 F. Supp. 2d 1, 3−4 (D. D.C. 2007). Deferential treatment is granted to the TTAB’s
finding of facts, but “because ‘the district court is just as able as the TTAB to determine an issue
of law,’ review of legal questions is de novo.” Id. (citing Mitchell Cosmetics SARL v. Pramil
S.R.L. (Esapharma), 2005 WL 3273371, *2 (D. D.C. 2005)).
When a party seeks intervention as a matter of right under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 24(a)(2), she is required to (1) file a timely application for intervention, (2) show an
interest in the subject matter of the action and that disposition of the action without intervention
would, as a practical matter, impair or impede her ability to protect that interest, and (3) establish
that her interest was not adequately represented by the existing parties. United States v. U.S.
Steel Corp., 548 F.2d 1232, 1235 (5th Cir. 1977)2 (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2); United States
v. Allegheny-Ludlum Industries, Inc., 517 F.2d 826, 841 (5th Cir. 1975)). “The question of
timeliness lies within the district court’s discretion, which may be reversed only upon a showing
of abuse: timeliness is not limited to chronological considerations, it ‘is to be determined from
all the circumstances.’” U.S. Steel, 548 F.2d at 1235 (citing NAACP v. New York, 413 U.S. 345,
366, 93 S.Ct. 2591, 2603 (1973)). Intervention attempts after final judgments are ‘“ordinarily
looked upon with a jaundiced eye.’” Id. (quoting McDonald v. E. J. Lavino Co., 430 F.2d 1065,
1072 (5th Cir. 1970)). This is because “[i]nterventions after judgment have a strong tendency to
prejudice existing parties to the litigation or to interfere substantially with the orderly process of
the court.” Id.
In Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc), the Eleventh Circuit
adopted as binding precedent all decisions of the former Fifth Circuit handed down prior to the close of business on
September 30, 1981.
The USPTO raises two issues that must be addressed by the court. First, it argues that it
was not required to vacate its 2013 decision in compliance with the Order because “the parties
did not have the right to agree among themselves that the Board’s precedential decision should
be vacated … .”3 (Doc. # 20 at 2). Second, the court must determine whether Lee’s motion to
intervene is timely. The court addresses each of these questions in turn.
Plaintiffs’ Motion to Enforce Consent Judgment
Plaintiffs have moved to enforce the Final Consent Judgment and challenge the USPTO’s
decision to ignore this court’s order to vacate the TTAB’s prior unfavorable ruling. The USPTO
contends that U.S. Bancorp Mortgage Co. v. Bonner Mall Partnership, 513 U.S. 18 (1994),
stands for the proposition that this court was without power to vacate the TTAB decision based
merely on the parties’ settlement. However, this argument misses the mark for at least two
reasons. As discussed below (in Section III(B) of this opinion), the argument should have been
made (if at all) after a timely motion to intervene followed by either (1) a request to modify the
court’s order and/or (2) an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit (the court that reviews this court). As
noted already (and again discussed more fully below), the USPTO did not timely seek to
intervene, filed no motion to modify (or reconsider), and took no such appeal. But even putting
aside the untimeliness of the motion to intervene and addressing the merits of the USPTO’s
argument, U.S. Bancorp does not control here. Rather, this case is more closely aligned with
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., 150 F.3d 149 (2nd Cir.
At another point in its briefing, the USPTO says that it seeks to prevent the unnecessary vacatur of its
“judicial decision. (Doc. # 33 at 12). This argument betrays a misunderstanding (or worse) of the process of
appellate review of the TTAB’s decisions. The court addresses that subject in more detail below.
The USPTO Does Not Have the Authority to Ignore a Reviewing
When this court issued the Order, it was, for all practical purposes, acting as a court of
appellate jurisdiction over the TTAB.4
The [district] court [reviewing an inter partes TTAB decision] may adjudge 
that an applicant is entitled to a registration upon the application involved,  that
a registration involved should be canceled, or  such other matter as the issues
in the proceeding require, as the facts in the case may appear.
15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(1) (emphasis added); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2106 (“The Supreme Court or
any other court of appellate jurisdiction may affirm, modify, vacate, set aside or reverse any
judgment, decree, or order of a court lawfully brought before it for review, and may remand the
cause and direct the entry of such appropriate judgment, decree, or order, or require such further
proceedings to be had as may be just under the circumstances.”) (emphasis added). Although the
language of Section 2106 “applies in terms only to review of a court order, its basic principle is
not inapposite to appellate review of agency orders.” Greater Boston Television Corp. v. F.C.C.,
463 F.2d 268, 277 (D.C. Cir. 1972); see Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Costle, 578 F.2d
337, 346 n. 33 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (“Although 28 U.S.C. § 2106 in terms applies to review of court
The TTAB acknowledges that “we are not an appellate court.” (Doc. # 16-4 at 12). In fact, the TTAB is
not a court at all. It is an administrative body within the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
responsible for hearing and deciding only certain kinds of matters involving trademarks. Administrative Law Judges
of the TTAB are appointed by the United States Secretary of Commerce in consultation with the Director of the
USPTO. According to the USPTO, the TTAB:
is a neutral body that functions like a court for trademark matters at the USPTO. The Board’s
administrative trademark judges are authorized to determine a party’s right to register a trademark
with the federal government. The Board is not authorized to determine whether you have the right
to use a trademark, just whether you have the right to register it. Additionally, the Board is not
authorized to determine questions of trademark infringement or unfair competition or to award
money damages or attorney’s fees. For anything other than determining the right of federal
registration, you must file a case in federal or state court.
http://www.uspto.gov/trademark/laws-regulations/trademark-trial-and-appeal-board , last accessed on February 18,
2016 (emphasis added).
orders, it has been understood to identify a general principle of appellate review that is applicable
to review of agency orders and regulations … .”).
“Administrative agencies  are not free to ignore [a] court’s mandates. This ‘mandate
rule’ is sometimes described as part of the inaptly-named ‘law of the case doctrine.’”
Youghiogheny & Ohio Coal Co. v. Milliken, 200 F.3d 942, 950 (6th Cir. 1999) (citing 18 Charles
A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4478, at
788–93 (1st ed. 1981 & Supp.1999) and Wilder v. Apfel, 153 F.3d 799, 803 (7th Cir. 1998)
(noting that the doctrine applies to judicial review of administrative decisions)). In this sense,
the TTAB, an administrative body, is no different than a lower court which is reviewed by an
appellate court. “The mandate rule is a ‘specific application of the “law of the case doctrine”
requiring that ‘[a] trial court, upon receiving the mandate of an appellate court, may not alter,
amend, or examine the mandate, or give any further relief or review, but must enter an order in
strict compliance with the mandate.’” Norelus v. Denny’s, Inc., 628 F.3d 1270, 1288 (11th Cir.
2010) (quoting Piambino v. Bailey, 757 F.2d 1112, 1119−20 (11th Cir. 1985)). Thus, the
mandate rule requires the TTAB to follow, rather than reexamine (or worse, ignore), this court’s
When a lower court is subject to appellate review, it “is not free to deviate from the
appellate court’s mandate.” Wheeler v. City of Pleasant Grove, 746 F.2d 1437, 1440 n. 2 (11th
Cir. 1984). “A district court when acting under an appellate court’s mandate, ‘cannot vary it, or
examine it for any other purpose than execution; or give any other or further relief; or review it,
even for apparent error, upon a matter decided on appeal; or intermeddle with it, further than to
settle so much as has been remanded.’” Litman v. Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co., 825 F.2d 1506,
1510−11 (11th Cir. 1987) (quoting In re Sanford Fork & Tool Co., 160 U.S. 247, 255 (1895)).
“‘Although the trial court is free to address, as a matter of first impression, those issues not
disposed of on appeal, it is bound to follow the appellate court’s holdings, both expressed and
implied.’” Piambino, 757 F.2d at 1119 (internal citations omitted). If an Article III court is so
bound by an appellate court’s decision, it follows that an administrative body (like the TTAB) is
similarly constrained by a district court’s decision made while that court is acting as an appellate
court reviewing a decision of the TTAB.5
The USPTO’s Position is Wrong on the Merits; This is Not Merely a
Case of Mootness by Settlement.
In addition to not having the authority to ignore this court’s final judgment, the TTAB’s
reason for refusing to vacate its decision is also erroneous. The principle argument offered by
the TTAB is that, under U.S. Bancorp, its “precedential” decision does not become moot based
on the parties’ settlement of the action. But the TTAB misapplies the Supreme Court’s decision
in U.S. Bancorp. It also flatly mischaracterizes the facts of that case.
In U.S. Bancorp, unlike the situation here, the settlement did not involve a provision in
which the parties agreed to vacate a lower court decision. To the contrary, the creditor (U.S.
Bancorp Mortgage Co.) made a request to vacate, but the debtor (Bonner Mall Partnership)
opposed it. Indeed, the Court’s own discussion of the proceedings in U.S. Bancorp makes this
Bancorp then petitioned for a writ of certiorari. After we granted the petition, 510
U.S. 1039 (1994), and received briefing on the merits, Bancorp and Bonner
stipulated to a consensual plan of reorganization, which received the approval of
the Bankruptcy Court. The parties agreed that confirmation of the plan constituted
a settlement that mooted the case. Bancorp, however, also requested that we
Curiously, however, the TTAB refuses to accept the concomitant responsibility placed upon courts to
obey the orders of a “reviewing court.” Section 1071(b)(1) contemplates that district courts may review the TTAB’s
decisions; therefore, the principles of Section 2106 are relevant to such review. And, without question, the
principles that can be extrapolated from Section 2106 require the TTAB’s compliance with this court’s “appellate”
Order. When a Section 1071(b)(1) reversal or remand occurs, the TTAB does not thereafter sit as an independent
arbiter of whether a reviewing court got it right.
exercise our power under 28 U.S.C. § 2106 to vacate the judgment of the Court of
Appeals. Bonner opposed the motion. We set the vacatur question for briefing and
argument. 511 U.S. 1002−1003 (1994).
Id. at 20. Indeed, there was no provision in the U.S. Bancorp settlement where the parties agreed
to ask the Court to vacate the circuit court’s decision. Thus, the question the Supreme Court
actually faced in U.S. Bancorp was this: Is the mere settlement of a case on appeal (or certiorari
review) grounds, in and of itself, enough for a reviewing court to vacate the civil judgment of a
subordinate court? Id. at 19.
To be clear, that is not the question presented here. In this case, the parties expressly
agreed, as part of their settlement, that the TTAB’s decision below would be vacated. Thus, the
court’s decision in U.S. Bancorp is not instructive (much less controlling) here.6 Rather, the
circumstances here closely mirror those presented to the Second Circuit in Major League
Baseball Properties, a case that analyzed U.S. Bancorp but correctly concluded it did not control.
In Major League Baseball Properties, suit was filed over Pacific Trading Cards’ alleged
trademark violations. MLB Properties moved for an injunction in the district court, but the
district judge denied the motion, finding in part that MLB Properties was not likely to succeed on
the merits of its action. MLB Properties appealed to the Second Circuit. While the appeal was
pending the parties reached a settlement. Part of that settlement involved the parties’ joint
request that the Second Circuit vacate the district court’s order and opinion “so that they could
settle their dispute.” 150 F.3d at 150. The Second Circuit granted that request. Its explanation
for doing so is equally applicable here.
In this court’s view, the facts presented in Major League Baseball Properties (and here) are
distinguishable from those in U.S. Bancorp. In all fairness, the Second Circuit’s approach was not so much to
distinguish U.S. Bancorp as it was to explain why the facts before it fell into what the Supreme Court recognized in
U.S. Bancorp as “exceptional circumstances” that could lead to vacatur of a lower court decision after a settlement.
At least in the context of this case, the TTAB’s decision is due to be vacated under either rationale.
 Pacific strongly desired a settlement to avoid [specific] financial consequences
of [defending the appeal].
MLB was agreeable to a settlement but needed a vacatur because, in the course of
defending its marks, it … had to be concerned about the effect of the district
court’s decision in future litigation with alleged infringers. Under trademark law,
MLB must defend its mark against all users or be subject to the defense of
acquiescence. See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1069, 1115(b)(8); McLean v. Fleming, 96 U.S.
245, 257–58, 24 L.Ed. 828 (1877); Bourne Co. v. Tower Records, Inc., 976 F.2d
99, 102 (2d Cir. 1992); Saratoga Vichy Spring Co. v. Lehman, 625 F.2d 1037,
1042 (2d Cir. 1980).
The parties were thus locked in a dispute that they could end on a commercial
basis satisfactory to both. However, a vacatur of the district court’s order and
opinion was a necessary condition of settlement. Unlike Bancorp, therefore, the
victor in the district court wanted a settlement as much as, or more than, the loser
did. MLB, by law, had to continue to test the merits of the district court’s opinion
or risk its marks if it could not obtain a vacatur. The only damage to the public
interest from such a vacatur would be that the validity of MLB’s marks would be
left to future litigation. In our view, these facts met the “exceptional
circumstances” test of Bancorp.
We therefore vacated as moot the district court’s decision and dismissed MLB’s
motions for an injunction pending appeal and for an expedited appeal.
Major League Baseball Properties, 150 F.3d at 152. The Major League Baseball Properties
decision cuts directly against the USPTO’s position here. Quite understandably, Lee argues that
Major League Baseball Properties is distinguishable on a number of grounds. (Doc. # 32). The
The TTAB first argues that Major League Baseball Properties is distinguishable because
it is based on an application of 28 U.S.C. § 2106 which, it says, does not apply here. But, as
discussed above, Section 2106’s principles are at least instructive in appellate review of agency
orders. Greater Boston Television Corp., 463 F.2d at 277; Environmental Defense Fund, Inc.,
578 F.2d at 346 n. 33. And those principles are certainly consistent with this court’s role as a
reviewing court under Section 1071(b)(1).
The TTAB also argues that Major League Baseball Properties is distinguishable because
it vacated a non-final, non-binding, interlocutory order, and that its 2013 decision cannot be
vacated because it has designated it as “precedential.” Again, this is a distinction without a
difference. In Major League Baseball Properties, the order vacated was that of an Article III
court. Here, the TTAB’s opinion, which this court ordered vacated, is an administrative ruling
which the agency itself has self-designated as precedential. Such an agency decision holds no
more legal weight than an Article III court’s decision,7 such as the one in Major League Baseball
Properties. Indeed, any suggestion to the contrary is simply odd.
Next, the TTAB argues that Pacific Trading Cards faced a “Hobson’s choice” between
defending the appeal and facing financial ruin, and that this extraordinary circumstance was not
present in the case before this court. This argument is like bad plumbing: it simply does not
hold water. Houndstooth Mafia and its owners have represented that they could not afford to
defend against the appeal in this court. But that is exactly what they would have been required to
do, absent a settlement. (Doc. # 26 at 7) (noting that Houndstooth Mafia, Pitts, and Blackburn
Undeniably, “the well-reasoned views of the agencies implementing a statute ‘constitute a body of
experience and informed judgment to which courts and litigants may properly resort to guidance.” U.S. v. Mead
Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 227 (2001) (internal citations omitted). And precedent – as a general concept – serves to
promote “the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial
decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” Kimble v. Marvel
Entertainment, LLC, 135 S. Ct. 2401, 2409 (June 22, 2015). We are not dealing here with judicial precedents. The
Supreme Court has recognized that stare decisis in the administrative process may have a more qualified role, NLRB
v. Wyman-Gordon Co., 394 U.S. 759, 766, 89 S.Ct. 1426, 1430 (1969), although subsequent decisions and authors
have recognized the advantages of administrative agency precedent. This court does not question the fact that
agencies have the authority to make certain of their decisions precedential. (Doc. #20 at 10-11). But as explained at
length supra, the USPTO lacks the authority to rely on its precedent to justify ignoring a decision of a reviewing
court. 15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(1).
An analogy illustrates the fallacy of the TTAB’s position. Suppose that by local rule, all of the judges in a
particular district court had agreed to treat (at least within the district) each of the district judges’ decisions as
precedential, in order to aid in uniform judicial decision-making within the district. (Admittedly, this portion of the
analogy is a “stretch” but the analogy serves to make the point). Suppose further that a judge in that district receives
a remand order from the federal court of appeals. The order vacates the district court’s earlier decision. When faced
with the circuit court order to vacate, the district judge mulls it over a year, and finally announces that the court of
appeals was without authority to vacate her order. At a minimum, such determination by a district court would
provoke an interesting response from the court of appeals.
desired a settlement of the appeal to this court because they “wanted to get what they could,” and
their attorneys “couldn’t afford to do free work on an appeal as they had on a hearing before the
TTAB.”). Just like Pacific Trading Cards in Major League Baseball Properties, Defendants
were locked in a dispute that they could not afford to continue litigating and wished to settle.
The dispute could end on a “commercial basis satisfactory to both.” Major League Baseball
Properties, 150 F.3d at 152. But vacatur of the decision appealed from was a non-negotiable
necessary condition to that settlement. Id. Thus, Houndstooth Mafia faced a similar Hobson’s
Finally, the TTAB argues that Major League Baseball Properties is distinguishable
because, in that case, it was the court (rather than the parties) that initially suggested mediation,
(and did so only after indicating that it intended to require Pacific Trading Cards to post a bond
pending appeal). As discussed above, Houndstooth Mafia, Pitts, and Blackburn (just like the
defendant/appellee in Major League Baseball Properties) also faced a financial predicament and
they desired to settle this matter because of that predicament. The fact that in Major League
Baseball Properties it was the court which first raised the idea of mediation is of no moment. In
both cases, the parties examined their options and discussed settlement. One party needed a
settlement for financial reasons, and the other was willing to settle, but unable to do so unless the
order appealed from was vacated.
Thus, the circumstances here are precisely the same
“exceptional circumstances” that were present in Major League Baseball Properties. And those
exceptional circumstances justify the application of the Major League Baseball Properties
equitable exception here.
Another instructive case is Motta v. District Director of INS, 61 F.3d 117 (1st Cir. 1995),
a case discussed by the Second Circuit in its Major League Baseball Properties decision. In
Motta, the First Circuit vacated a lower court’s decision on the ground that “exceptional
circumstances” tipped the equitable balance in favor of vacatur. Id. at 118–19. The INS had
appealed from a judgment of the district court which stayed a deportation pending a decision on
a motion to reopen the deportation proceedings. Id. at 117–18. The First Circuit encouraged the
INS to resolve the case because it was in the interest of all parties. However, the INS (like MLB
Properties and Plaintiffs here) believed that it could not settle without vacatur of the lower
court’s decision given that it was a “repeat player before the courts” and could not relinquish its
right to appeal a decision that might harm it in future litigation. Id. at 118.
The First Circuit concluded that these circumstances were exceptional. Similar to the
Second Circuit’s conclusion in Major League Baseball Properties, the interest in settlement
outweighed the social value of the precedent being vacated. Id. Here, too, the University and
Bryant are repeat players before the TTAB. See infra n. 1. Plaintiffs found themselves in a
position where an opponent wished to settle but Plaintiffs could not agree to a resolution absent
vacatur of the decision under review. (Doc. # 24). As in Major League Baseball Properties and
Motta, the exceptional circumstances of this case justify the unique requirement of vacatur
agreed to by the parties.
The TTAB also asserts that it was not required to comply with this court’s Order because
the court’s docket did not reflect that the court had examined the entire factual record developed
before the TTAB.
This argument might have some traction if the court’s Final Consent
Judgment had actually re-examined the TTAB’s factual findings or did something more than
enter judgment based upon the parties’ express settlement. However, the Order did no such
thing. This was not a decision on the merits.8
To be sure, while the court did not engage in any rigorous factual or legal analysis, the court was
admittedly perplexed by the TTAB’s ruling.
The TTAB further asserts that its refusal to comply with this court’s final judgment is
justified because it has not been presented with any legal authority that would allow this court to
vacate a TTAB decision under the circumstances of this case.9 At its best, this is a strange
argument. It is far wide of the mark not only for the reasons already discussed, but also because
it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps a tortured reading) of 15 U.S.C. §
1071(b). Section 1071(b) provides:
The [district] court [reviewing an inter partes TTAB decision] may adjudge 
that an applicant is entitled to a registration upon the application involved,  that
a registration involved should be canceled, or  such other matter as the issues
in the proceeding require, as the facts in the case may appear.
15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(1) (emphasis and brackets added). The TTAB did not comply with this
court’s Final Consent Judgment, ostensibly because it determined after its own review that the
record before this court did not reveal information justifying the application of the third
subsection of Section 1071(b).
Again, the TTAB simply misapprehends its position in relation to a district court’s
appellate review pursuant to Section 1071(b). First, under Section 1071(b), district courts review
the TTAB’s decisions, not the other way around. The TTAB’s misunderstanding is perhaps best
“THE COURT: Let me ask you this, and I’m going to do this in two parts.
Jason [the AUSA serving as local counsel], how long have you been in Alabama?
MR. CHEEK: A year and a couple months, Your Honor.
THE COURT: That may be long enough. What was Bear Bryant’s signature apparel item?
MR. CHEEK: It was a houndstooth fedora.
THE COURT: If you’re walking down the street in Alabama and see somebody with something on that’s
houndstooth, do you say I wonder if that’s an Auburn fan?
MR. CHEEK: Usually no, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Do you say I wonder if they just like houndstooth. That’s really out of fashion these days.
I don’t see a whole lot of people wearing houndstooth maybe except at Alabama tailgate parties.
MR. CHEEK: Usually.
(See Transcript of Hearing, Doc. 22 at 13−14, Lines 13:19−14:9). Again, as noted above, the court based its Final
Consent Judgment solely on the terms of the parties’ settlement, not the merits of the underlying claim. But it did
find the TTAB’s decision curious.
Apparently, the TTAB on remand determined that this court could not have relied on the “such other
matter as the issues in the proceeding require” because this court did not receive a copy of the administrative record.
illustrated by the fact that, at least twice during the August 20, 2015 hearing before the court,
counsel for the TTAB referred to the Order (i.e., this court’s Final Consent Judgment) as a “piece
of paper.” (Doc. # 22 at 6, 11). To be crystal clear—the court’s Final Consent Judgment is not
merely a “piece of paper”; it is an order of a court sitting in appellate review (pursuant to 15
U.S.C. § 1071(b)) over a decision of the TTAB. “Administrative agencies  are not free to
ignore [a] court’s mandate.” Youghiogheny & Ohio Coal Co., 200 F.3d at 950. “Appellate”
court orders are not merely “pieces of paper” that a court (much less an Article II administrative
agency) may choose to disregard, even after taking a substantial period of time to mull it over.
Disagreement with an appellate court’s order (or its rationale) does not justify non-compliance.10
And the TTAB’s decision is even more problematic because it has simply misread (or, worse,
misstated) Supreme Court authority as its basis for inaction.
For all of these reasons, the court concludes that Plaintiffs’ Motion to Enforce Consent
Judgment (Doc. # 16) is due to be granted.
Motion by Michelle K. Lee, Undersecretary for Intellectual Property and
Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, to Intervene
The University and Bryant appealed the TTAB’s 2013 decision to this court on
September 19, 2013. (Doc. # 1). On May 27, 2014, the court entered its Final Consent
Judgment. (Doc. # 15). That final judgment acknowledged that the parties had fully resolved
Under the All–Writs Act, federal courts have authority to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid
of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” 28 U.S.C. § 1651; U.S.
Commodity Futures Trading Comm’n v. Amaranth Advisors, LLC, 523 F. Supp. 2d 328, 335 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).
“[I]njunctions [under the All–Writs Act] are needed to prevent third parties from thwarting the court’s ability to
reach and resolve the merits of the federal suit before it.” In re Baldwin–United Corp., 770 F.2d 328, 339 (2d Cir.
1985). If a court finds an injunction “necessary and appropriate,” the All–Writs Act empowers the court “to enjoin
and bind non-parties to an action when needed to preserve the court’s ability to reach or enforce its decision in a
case over which it has proper jurisdiction.” Id. at 338 (citing United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S.
159, 174 (1977) (“The power conferred by the Act extends, under appropriate circumstances, to persons who,
though not parties to the original action or engaged in wrongdoing, are in a position to frustrate the implementation
of a court order or the proper administration of justice.”)).
their differences; it also operated to close this case. And it ordered, consistent with the express
terms of the parties’ settlement, that TTAB’s decision be vacated.
On June 3, 2015, Plaintiffs filed with the TTAB a Request to Reopen, Vacate and
Dismiss Without Prejudice.
(Doc. # 30-1 at ¶ 2).
Nothing occurred for three months.
Consequently, Plaintiffs filed a gentle reminder in the form of a Notice of Filing. (Id. at ¶ 3).
Again, nothing happened. It was not until June 23, 2015, a year after the USPTO, the TTAB,
and Lee received notice of the final judgment, that the TTAB ruled, and denied Plaintiffs’
“request.” So, after deliberating over a year, the TTAB said (in essence), “we don’t have to
follow your order – we don’t have to vacate our decision.”
Plaintiffs challenge Lee’s Motion to Intervene as untimely. In response, the USPTO
asserts that, as a non-party, it had no way of knowing that its “interests” were affected by this
court’s Final Judgment until the court explained its views during the hearing on August 20, 2015.
(Doc. # 33 at 6). That argument is not only incredible, but also made in bad faith. The USPTO
was on notice, no later than June 3, 2014 (when Plaintiffs filed their request to vacate and
attached this court’s Final Consent Judgment), that this court, had pursuant to the parties’ express
settlement terms, ordered vacatur of the TTAB’s decision.11 (See Doc. # 30-1).
To the extent the TTAB disagreed with the settlement’s terms or the Final Consent
Judgment’s requirements, and wished to challenge those requirements, it was required to
intervene in this action. But how did the Director, USPTO, and TTAB respond to the parties’
The USPTO asserts that even as of June 3, 2014, it had no way of knowing its interests would be affected
because the TTAB still had to consider whether to vacate its 2013 decision (read: our interests aren’t affected by the
district court’s order until we say our interests are so affected). The argument drips with self-importance.
Moreover, it runs contrary to the USPTO’s own representations. In its Reply in Support of its Motion to Intervene,
the TTAB has represented that the “Director monitors developments in these cases to ensure that  the TTAB’s
decision is being defended.” (Doc. # 33 at 5). As the Director was monitoring this case to ensure the TTAB’s
decision was being defended, she and the USPTO knew (or should have known) as of at least May 27, 2014, that
they had an interest in this case. But even in the absence of such monitoring, at least by June 3, 2014, when it
received Plaintiffs’ request to vacate, the USPTO knew this court had ordered vacatur of the TTAB’s decision.
agreement and the court’s Final Consent Judgment? Did they seek to intervene,12 or ask this
court to reconsider13 its Final Judgment, or give notice of an appeal?14 No. Quite to the
contrary. Rather than timely act, after more than a year of mulling over the Final Consent
Judgment, on June 23, 2015, the TTAB issued its own ruling refusing to comply with the Order.
(Doc. # 16-4). That led Plaintiffs, on July 23, 2015, to move to enforce the Final Consent
Judgment. (Doc. # 16). And it was not until September 17, 2015 (after a hearing on the motion
to enforce took place), that the Director filed her motion to intervene in this long-since-closed
action. (Doc. # 28). The University and Bryant oppose the motion and argue that it is untimely.
(Doc. # 30). The court agrees.15 Lee’s motion is untimely.
As already noted, in deciding an issue of timeliness, a court must consider “all the
U.S. Steel, 548 F.2d at 1235 (citing NAACP, 413 U.S. at 366).
intervention is sought after a final judgment, the motion is ‘“ordinarily looked upon with a
jaundiced eye.’” Id., quoting McDonald v. E. J. Lavino Co., 430 F.2d 1065, 1072 (5th Cir. 1970).
As a threshold, Rule 42 requires a timely motion to intervene. Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(a); U.S. Steel Corp.,
548 F.2d at 1235.
“A motion for reconsideration made after final judgment falls within the ambit of either [Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure] 59(e) (motion to alter or amend a judgment) or Rule 60(b) (motion for relief from judgment or
order).” Region 8 Forest Serv. Timber Purchases Council v. Alcock, 993 F.2d 800, 806 n.5 (11th Cir. 1993) (citing
Inglese v. Warden, 687 F.2d 362, 363 n.1 (11th Cir.1982) and Woodham v. American Cystoscope Co., 335 F.2d 551,
554−55 (5th Cir. 1964)). Rule 59 allows a party to move to alter or amend a judgment in a civil case. Fed. R. Civ. P.
59(e); Serrano v. U.S., 411 Fed. Appx. 253, 254 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e)). But, “a motion to
alter or amend a judgment must be filed no later than [twenty-eight] days after the entry of the judgment.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 59(e) (emphasis added). Rule 60(b) allows a party to seek relief from a final judgment in a civil case for a
number of reasons, including mistake, excusable neglect, newly discovered evidence, fraud, and any other reason
that justifies relief. Serrano, 411 Fed. Appx. at 254 (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)). But Rule 60(c) provides that “[a]
motion under Rule 60(b) must be made within a reasonable time C and for reasons (1), (2), and (3) no more than
one year after the entry of the judgment or order or the date of the proceeding. Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(c) (emphasis
Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 provides that “[i]n a civil case, except as provided in Rules
4(a)(1)(B), 4(a)(4), and 4(c), the notice of appeal required by Rule 3 must be filed with the district clerk within 30
days after entry of the judgment or order appealed from.” (Emphasis added). Rule 4(a)(1)(B) extends the time for
filing a notice of appeal to sixty (60) days where one of the parties is the United States or a United States agency.
Again, the timeline of these events renders the argument that the Director “had no way of knowing that
her interests would be adversely affected” wholly disingenuous. (Doc. # 33 at 7).
This is because “[i]nterventions after judgment have a strong tendency to prejudice existing
parties to the litigation or to interfere substantially with the orderly process of the court.” Id.
Here, the parties had differing motivations that led them to want to resolve the case, but
they each relied on the fact that they reached a binding, final accord. An express and material
term of that compromise was that the TTAB’s decision would be vacated. Absent the parties
agreeing to that term, there would not have been a deal.
The parties reached their settlement nearly two years ago. After notifying the TTAB of
their settlement and the Final Consent Judgment, that agency rested on its laurels. Then after a
year of inactivity, the TTAB said (in the inimitable words of ESPN Game Day’s Lee Corso),
“Not so fast.” This is truly ironic because the TTAB itself, was very slow in saying that, and
even slower in seeking to intervene (through Lee) in this court. As already noted, after the
TTAB issued its decision ignoring the vacatur term of the final judgment, Lee did not ask to
intervene when the motion to enforce this court’s judgment was filed.
Likewise, she did not
intervene at the time that this court invited the USPTO to be heard on the motion to enforce.
Rather, it was not until after the hearing on the motion to enforce that the belated motion was
filed. Lee is more than a day late. The Director’s Motion is untimely, and any right to intervene
in this long-closed action has been waived. See U.S. Steel, 548 F.2d at 1235.
“[W]aiver is the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.” United
States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 733 (1993) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
Waiver can be implied by conduct. Cf. Edwards v. Allied Home Mortg. Capital Corp., 962 So.2d
194, 209 (Ala. 2007) (“A party’s intent to waive a right may be found from conduct that is
inconsistent with the assertion of that right.”). In this instance, the USPTO’s monitoring of
developments in these cases, the TTAB’s year-long silence in the face of the court’s final
judgment, and Lee’s belated efforts to intervene at this late date, speak louder than the pretextual
words offered to this court in its motion to intervene. Rather than exercise its right to intervene
in this tribunal, and, if necessary, appeal this court’s order, the USPTO (through the TTAB) took
it upon itself to conduct its own review of this court’s order, and self-determine that it would not
comply with the final judgment. In doing so, it slumbered on its right to intervene for the
purposes of either asking this court to change its decision or asking the Eleventh Circuit to
review the final judgment.16 Actions have consequences. So, too, does inaction. Because the
Director’s Motion is untimely and the right to intervene has been waived, the Motion by
Michelle K. Lee, Undersecretary for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States
Patent and Trademark Office, to Intervene (Doc. # 28) is due to be denied.
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs’ Motion to Enforce Consent Judgment (Doc. # 16) is
due to be granted, and the Motion by Michelle K. Lee, Undersecretary for Intellectual Property
and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, to Intervene (Doc. # 28) is due to
be denied. A separate order will be entered.
DONE and ORDERED this February 23, 2016.
R. DAVID PROCTOR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
As counsel candidly stated at oral argument, the TTAB’s position is tainted with procedural
irregularities. (Doc. 22 at 41, 43).
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?