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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

SCOTUS Decision on Agency Determinations and Issue Preclusion

Today the Supreme Court decided B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc., a case about the preclusive effect of determinations made by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) when reviewing trademark registrations. Writing for a seven-Justice majority, Justice Alito concludes that “a court should give preclusive effect to TTAB decisions if the ordinary elements of issue preclusion are met.”

Going forward, parties in trademark litigation will likely continue to litigate whether “the ordinary elements of issue preclusion” are, in fact, met with respect to any given TTAB decision. As Justice Ginsburg emphasizes in her brief concurrence, the Court recognizes that “for a great many registration decisions issue preclusion obviously will not apply.” Ginsburg explains that “contested registrations are often decided upon a comparison of the marks in the abstract and apart from their marketplace usage,” and that, if so, “there will be no preclusion of the likelihood of confusion issue in a later infringement suit.”

What may be of broader interest is the Court’s discussion of “whether an agency decision can ever ground issue preclusion.” The answer: yes, it can.

Quoting a number of earlier decisions (citations omitted), Justice Alito writes:

“[B]ecause the principle of issue preclusion was so well established at common law, in those situations in which Congress has authorized agencies to resolve disputes, courts may take it as given that Congress has legislated with the expectation that the principle of issue preclusion will apply except when a statutory purpose to the contrary is evident. This reflects the Court’s longstanding view that when an administrative agency is acting in a judicial capacity and resolves disputed issues of fact properly before it which the parties have had an adequate opportunity to litigate, the courts have not hesitated to apply res judicata to enforce repose.”

The Court then addresses – and dismisses – potential constitutional concerns with agency preclusion. Although Justice Alito finds that Hargis did not present any direct constitutional challenge, he discusses the Seventh Amendment and Article III in the context of Hargis’s “statutory argument that we should jettison administrative preclusion in whole or in part to avoid potential constitutional concerns.” Alito writes that “the Seventh Amendment does not strip competent tribunals of the power to issue judgments with preclusive effect; that logic would not seem to turn on the nature of the competent tribunal.” And he rejects the argument that “it might violate Article III if an agency could make a decision with preclusive effect in a later proceeding before a federal court.”

Justice Thomas writes a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Scalia, that is much more skeptical of agency preclusion. His opinion begins:

The Court today applies a presumption that when Congress enacts statutes authorizing administrative agencies to resolve disputes in an adjudicatory setting, it intends those agency decisions to have preclusive effect in Article III courts. That presumption was first announced in poorly supported dictum in a 1991 decision of this Court, and we have not applied it since. Whatever the validity of that presumption with respect to statutes enacted after its creation, there is no justification for applying it to the Lanham Act, passed in 1946.   

 [Cross-posted at the Civil Procedure & Federal Courts Blog]

Posted by Adam Steinman on March 24, 2015 at 11:10 PM in Civil Procedure | Permalink

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