Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Intellectual Property
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The case revolves around a dispute over the estate of Dr. Lester Frank Sumrall, who founded a church that grew into a global evangelical empire, LeSEA, Inc. After his death, his son and grandson, Lester Sumrall, claimed they should have inherited part of his estate, including copyrights to his works and his right of publicity. They alleged that LeSEA, now controlled by other family members, had wrongfully taken ownership of these assets.The case was initially heard in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The district court dismissed the claims brought by Lester Sumrall and the Lester Sumrall Family Trust against LeSEA and its affiliates, ruling in favor of LeSEA on all counts. The court found that the copyright claims were untimely and that LeSEA owned the copyright to a particular photograph, the "Traveler Photo," taken by Lester Sumrall. The court also dismissed various state law claims for damages under the doctrine of laches, citing inexcusable delay in asserting rights and prejudice to the adverse party.Upon appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court agreed that the copyright claims were untimely and that LeSEA owned the copyright to the Traveler Photo. The court also upheld the application of laches to the state law claims, noting that laches is equally applicable in suits at law in Indiana. Finally, the court dismissed the claim for LeSEA's alleged use of Dr. Sumrall's right of publicity, as the Trust failed to plead the required half-ownership. View "Sumrall v. LeSEA, Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute between GeLab Cosmetics LLC, a New Jersey-based online nail polish retailer, and Zhuhai Aobo Cosmetics, a China-based nail polish manufacturer. The founders of GeLab, Xingwang Chen and Shijian Li, are both Chinese citizens. The dispute centers around the ownership of GeLab and allegations of trade secret theft. According to Chen, he and Li founded GeLab with Chen owning 60% and Li 40%. They entered a joint venture with Zhuhai, which was supposed to invest in GeLab for an 80% ownership stake. However, Chen alleges that Zhuhai never sent the money and instead began using low-quality materials for GeLab's products, selling knock-off versions under its own brand, and fraudulently claiming majority ownership of GeLab. Zhuhai, on the other hand, asserts that Chen was its employee and that it owns 80% of GeLab.The dispute first began in China, where Li sued Chen for embezzlement. Chen then sued Li, Zhuhai, and Zhuhai's owners in New Jersey state court, alleging that he had a 60% controlling interest in GeLab and that Zhuhai had no ownership interest. The state defendants counterclaimed, seeking a declaratory judgment that Zhuhai owns 80% of GeLab. GeLab then filed a second action in New Jersey against Li alone. The state court consolidated the two cases.While the New Jersey proceedings were ongoing, GeLab filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against Zhuhai and its owners, alleging violations of the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Illinois Trade Secrets Act. The defendants responded that Zhuhai owns GeLab and that it cannot steal trade secrets from itself. The district court stayed the federal case, citing the doctrine of Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, reasoning that judicial economy favors waiting for the New Jersey court to determine who owns the company. GeLab appealed the stay.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to stay the proceedings. The court found that the federal and state cases were parallel as they involved substantially the same parties litigating substantially the same issues. The court also found that exceptional circumstances warranted abstention, with at least seven factors supporting the district court's decision. These factors included the inconvenience of the federal forum, the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation, the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent fora, the source of governing law, the adequacy of state-court action to protect the federal plaintiff's rights, the relative progress of state and federal proceedings, and the availability of concurrent jurisdiction. View "GeLab Cosmetics LLC v. Zhuhai Aobo Cosmetics Co., Ltd." on Justia Law

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In 2016, Nerio and her minor daughter sought admission to the U.S. without the required authorization. They applied for asylum and withholding of removal based on Nerio’s fear that her partner’s nephew, Walter, would harm them if they returned. Nerio testified that she and her partner, Yuny, have been together for 10 years. Around a year after they met, Nerio became pregnant. Yuny left Guatemala in 2009, but Nerio continued living with, and later near, Yuny’s family. Walter considered her as his “inferior” based on Nerio’s indigenous heritage, refusing to treat her as family. She further testified that around 2015, Walter began trying to physically harm her. Twice that year, he tried to hit her with his motorcycle. In February 2016, he shot at her with a rifle. Nerio obtained a protective order but did not press criminal charges because of family pressure.The Seventh Circuit upheld the denial of relief, finding that substantial evidence supports the immigration judge’s determination that Nerio failed to establish that the Guatemalan government is unable or unwilling to protect her. The IJ reasonably weighed the generalized country conditions report against Nerio’s specific testimony. View "Nerio Perez v. Garland" on Justia Law

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Since 2013, Home Chef has created and delivered meal kits. In 2014, Home Chef began using its “HC Home Mark,” covered by five federal trademark registrations. Home Chef later merged with Kroger, and now delivers meals directly to customers and offers them for sale in Kroger stores, through Kroger’s website, and through food delivery services.Grubhub, an online food-ordering and delivery marketplace, owns numerous trademark registrations covering the GRUBHUB name and stylized variations. In 2021, Grubhub was acquired by JET, which owns food-delivery brands worldwide and combines its “JET House Mark” with local brand names when conducting business in various countries. JET has used the JET House Mark since 2014. JET had filed an international trademark application for the JET House Mark. A USPTO examiner found the JET House Mark “highly similar” and “confusingly similar” to the HC Home Mark and Home Chef Home Logo. JET withdrew its application. JET later combined the GRUBHUB word mark with the JET House Mark. Grubhub invested millions of dollars in rebranding its print and electronic materials.After receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Home Chef, Grubhub sought a declaratory judgment that its Logo did not infringe Home Chef’s marks. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of Home Chef's motion for a preliminary injunction. The district court did not clearly err in finding that Home Chef failed to meet its burden to show a likelihood of success on the merits of its infringement claim. View "Grubhub, Inc. v. Relish Labs LLC" on Justia Law

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The defendants each licensed computer code from Live Face for $328. Live Face then sued them for copyright infringement, seeking about $483,000 in damages. Live Face has roughly 200 copyright suits pending. After more than five years, with summary judgment pending, Live Face successfully moved to dismiss its suit with prejudice. It argued that a 2021 Supreme Court case (Google) made the defendants’ fair-use defense insurmountable. The defendants sought fees; the district court denied the motion, finding that the defendants did not prevail because of their defenses but rather due to a fortuitous, unforeseen change in the law.The Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded. The Copyright Act authorizes prevailing parties to recover costs and fees, 17 U.S.C. 505. Four nonexclusive factors are relevant: the frivolousness of the suit; the losing party’s motivation for bringing or defending against a suit; the objective unreasonableness of the claims advanced by the losing party; and the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. The defendants did prevail because of their defenses, including their fair-use defense. No matter which side prevailed in Google, the law would favor one of these parties. It is unclear whether Google changed anything relevant here, without a proper analysis of how Google affected Live Face’s claims. Even if Google did change something fundamental, the defendants raised defenses apart from fair use, which might have defeated Live Face’s claims. View "Live Face on Web, LLC v. Cremation Society of Illinois, Inc." on Justia Law

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Menasha licensed Nulogy’s software, Nulogy Solution. Years later, Deloitte reviewed Menasha’s systems in hopes of better integrating Nulogy Solution into Menasha’s other software. Deloitte and Menasha asked Nulogy to share proprietary information. Nulogy alleges that the two used this information to reverse engineer an alternative to Nulogy Solution. In 2020, Nulogy filed suit in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, alleging breach of contract by Menasha and violations of trade secrets by Menasha and Deloitte. Deloitte objected to jurisdiction in Canada.Nulogy voluntarily dismissed its trade secret claims against both companies and refiled those claims in the Northern District of Illinois under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, 18 U.S.C. 1836(b). The breach of contract claims against Menasha remained pending in Canada. Menasha moved to dismiss the U.S. trade secrets litigation. Menasha’s contract with Nulogy contained a forum selection clause, identifying Ontario, Canada. Deloitte did not join that motion but filed its own motion to dismiss arguing failure to state a claim. The district court dismissed the claims against Menasha but reasoned that the forum non-conveniens doctrine required the dismissal of the entire complaint, including the claims against Deloitte.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Nulogy’s claims against Menasha but reversed the Deloitte dismissal. Deloitte has no contractual agreement with Nulogy identifying Canada as the proper forum and continues to insist that Canadian courts do not have jurisdiction. View "Nulogy Corp. v. Menasha Packaging Co., LLC" on Justia Law

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Sullivan registered copyrights for two “illustration collections,” comprising 33 individual illustrations, and sued Flora for infringing those copyrights, 17 U.S.C. 504(c)(1). A jury found that Flora willfully infringed Sullivan’s copyrights and awarded statutory damages for each of the individual illustrations infringed ($3,600,000). The Seventh Circuit rejected the court's test for calculating statutory damages, which focused exclusively on how the illustrations were copyrighted. The court adopted the “independent economic value test”: “A protected work has standalone value if the evidence shows that work has distinct and discernable value to the copyright holder.” On remand, the district court denied Flora’s request to reopen discovery; held that Flora had waived arguments challenging the independent economic value of certain illustrations; granted Sullivan summary judgment; and entered the same verdict, finding that the 33 illustrations constitute separate works.The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that, in entering summary judgment, the district court violated the remand mandate and improperly weighed the evidence. The case must proceed to trial on the question of damages. The scope of the remand was narrow and limited to determining whether Sullivan’s illustrations “constitute 33 individual works or instead are parts of two compilations (corresponding with the two advertising campaigns in which Flora used the illustrations).” At trial, Flora is not prohibited from “nitpicking” specific aspects of the 33 illustrations to show that they lack independent economic value. Flora is not permitted to relitigate the issues of infringement or joint authorship. View "Sullivan v. Flora, Inc." on Justia Law

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NBA Properties owns the trademarks of the NBA and NBA teams. In 2020, a Properties investigator accessed HANWJH’s online Amazon store and purchased an item, designating an address in Illinois as the delivery destination. The product was delivered to the Illinois address. Properties sued, alleging trademark infringement and counterfeiting, 15 U.S.C. 1114 and false designation of origin, section 1125(a). Properties obtained a TRO and a temporary asset restraint on HANWJH’s bank account, then moved for default; despite having been served, HANWJH had not answered or otherwise defended the suit. HANWJH moved to dismiss, arguing that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over it because it did not expressly aim any conduct at Illinois. HANWJH maintained that it had never sold any other product to any consumer in Illinois nor had it any “offices, employees,” “real or personal property,” “bank accounts,” or any other commercial dealings with Illinois.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss and the entry of judgment in favor of Properties. HANWJH shipped a product to Illinois after it structured its sales activity in such a manner as to invite orders from Illinois and developed the capacity to fill them. HANWJH’s listing of its product on Amazon.com and its sale of the product to counsel are related sufficiently to the harm of likelihood of confusion. Illinois has an interest in protecting its consumers from purchasing fraudulent merchandise. HANWJH alleges no unusual burden in defending the suit in Illinois. View "NBA Properties, Inc. v. HANWJH" on Justia Law

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The Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court granting summary judgment to Defendants on all claims asserted against them, including misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of an implied contractual obligation to assign patent rights but vacated the judgment awarding attorneys' fees, holding that a reduction in fees was warranted.REXA, Inc. sued Mark Chester and MEA, Inc. for misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of an implied contractual obligation to assign patent rights, alleging that Chester and MEA incorporated and disclosed confidential designs. The district court granted summary judgment to Defendants. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part, holding that the district court (1) properly granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants; but (2) abused its discretion in awarding Chester and MEA approximately $2.357 million in attorneys' fees, which they requested as a sanction for REXA's litigation conduct, where the court did not make specific findings about each of REXA's objections to the fee petition. View "REXA, Inc. v. Chester" on Justia Law

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Life Spine makes and sells a spinal implant device called the ProLift Expandable Spacer System. Aegis contracted with Life Spine to distribute the ProLift to hospitals and surgeons. Aegis promised to protect Life Spine’s confidential information, act as a fiduciary for Life Spine’s property, and refrain from reverse-engineering the ProLift. Aegis nonetheless funneled information about the ProLift to its parent company, L&K Biomed to help L&K develop a competing spinal implant device. Shortly after L&K’s competing product hit the market, Life Spine sued Aegis for trade secret misappropriation and breach of the distribution agreement. The district court granted Life Spine a preliminary injunction barring Aegis and its business partners from marketing the competing product. Aegis argues that the injunction rested on a flawed legal conclusion—that a company can have trade secret protection in a device that it publicly discloses through patents, displays, and sales.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. While public domain information cannot be a trade secret, a limited disclosure does not destroy all trade secret protection. Life Spine did not publicly disclose the specific information that it seeks to protect by patenting, displaying, and selling the ProLift. Life Spine’s trade secrets are not in the public domain but are accessible only to third parties who sign confidentiality agreements. View "Life Spine, Inc. v. Aegis Spine, Inc." on Justia Law