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By: Mikhail Petrov

On March 23, 2016, in the published civil case of Belmora LLC v. Bayer Consumer Care AG, the Fourth Circuit considered whether the Lanham Act permits the owner of a foreign trademark to pursue false association, false advertising, and trademark cancellation claims against the owner of the same mark in the United States. Bayer Consumer Care AG (“BCC”) owns the trademark “FLANAX” in Mexico and has sold naproxen sodium pain relievers under that mark in Mexico since the 1970s. Belmora LLC owns the FLANAX trademark in the United States and has used it in the United State since 2004 in the sale of its naproxen sodium pain relievers. BCC and its U.S. sister company Bayer HealthCare LLC (which is licensed to sell naproxen sodium pain relievers in the United States under the brand name ALEVE) contend that Belmora used the FLANAX mark to deliberately deceive Mexican-American consumers into thinking they were purchasing BCC’s product.

Facts

BCC registered the trademark FLANAX in Mexico for pharmaceutical products, analgesics, and anti-inflammatories. It has sold naproxen sodium tablets under the FLANAX brand in Mexico since 1976. BCC’s FLANAX brand is well known in Mexico and other Latin American countries, as well as to Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics in the United States. Belmora LLC began selling naproxen sodium tablets in the United States as FLANAX in 2004. The following year, Belmora registered the FLANAX mark in the United States. Belmora’s early FLANAX packaging closely mimicked BCC’s Mexican FLANAX packaging, displaying a similar color scheme, font size, and typeface. In addition to using similar packaging, Belmora made statements implying that its FLANAX brand was the same FLANAX product sold by BCC in Mexico. BCC points to evidence that the similarities resulted in Belmora’s distributors, vendors, and marketers believing that its FLANAX was the same as or affiliated with BCC’s FLANAX.

Procedural History

BCC successfully petitioned the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) to cancel Belmora’s registration for the FLANAX mark based on deceptive use. Belmora appealed the TTAB’s decision to the district court. In the meantime, BCC filed a separate complaint for false association against Belmora under § 43 of the Lanham Act, and in conjunction with BHC, a claim for false advertising. After the two cases were consolidated, the district court reversed the TTAB’s cancellation order and dismissed the false association and false advertising claims.

Although the district acknowledged that Belmora’s FLANAX has a similar trade dress to BCC’s FLANAX and is marketed in such a way that capitalizes on the goodwill of BCC’s FLANAX, it nonetheless concluded that the Lehman Act does not allow the owner of a foreign mark that is not registered in the United States, and has never been used in the United States, to assert priority rights over a mark that is registered in the United States by another party and used in United States Commerce. BCC appealed the decision.

Rule of the Case

The plain language of § 43(a) of the Lahman Act does not require, as an element of the cause of action, that a plaintiff possess or have used a trademark in U.S. commerce. Under § 43(a), it is the defendant’s use in commerce — whether of an offending “word, term, name, symbol, or device” or of a “false or misleading description [or representation] of fact” that creates the injury under the terms of the statute.

What § 43(a) requires is that BCC was “likely to be damaged” by Belmora’s “use in commerce” of its FLANAX mark and related advertisements. The Supreme Court recently considered the breadth of this “likely to be damaged” language in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., (a false advertising case arising from a dispute in the used printer-cartridge market). The Court concluded that § 43(a)’s broad authorization is framed by two background principles. First, a plaintiff’s claim must fall within the “zone of interests” protected by the statute, defined in §45 of the Lanham Act. Second, a statutory cause of action is limited to plaintiffs whose injuries are proximately caused by violations of the statute.

Reasoning of the Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit first addressed the position, pressed by Belmora and adopted by the district court, that a plaintiff must have initially used its own mark in commerce within the United States as a condition precedent to a § 43(a) claim. The Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred in requiring BCC, as the plaintiff, to have pleaded its prior use of its own mark in U.S. commerce when it is the defendant’s use of a mark or misrepresentation that underlies the § 43(a) unfair competition cause of action.

Although the plaintiffs’ use of a mark in U.S. commerce was a fact in common in the foregoing cases, substantial precedent reflects that § 43(a) unfair competition claims come within the statute’s protectable zone of interests without the U.S. commerce precondition. The Supreme Court has pointed out that § 43(a) goes beyond trademark protection, is cases of generic mark and reverse passing off. See Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp 539 U.S. 23, 29 (2003). These cases illustrate that § 43(a) actions do not require, implicitly or otherwise, that a plaintiff have first used its own mark in United States commerce. If such a use were a condition precedent to bringing a § 43(a) action, the generic mark and reverse passing off cases could not exist. Additionally, the plain language of § 43(a) makes no reference to U.S. commerce. Therefore, neither the Supreme Court in Lexman nor the Lanham Act’s plain language contain an unstated requirement that plaintiff have used a U.S. trademark in U.S. commerce to bring a Lanham Act unfair competition claim.

The Fourth Circuit then examined Lexmark’s two fold inquiry to determine whether BCC can make a § 43(a) claim. The first inquiry is whether the alleged acts of unfair competition fall within the Lanham Act’s protected zone of interests? If so, the second inquiry is whether BCC pleaded proximate causation of a cognizable injury.

BCC adequately pleaded a § 43(a) false association claim for purposes of the zone of interests prong. Lexmark advises that most of the Lanham Act’s enumerated purposes are relevant to false association cases. One such enumerated purpose is making actionable the deceptive and misleading use of marks. Here, BCC lost sales revenue because Belmora’s deceptive and misleading use of FLANAX conveyed to consumers a false association with BCC’s product. Further, by deceiving distributors and vendors, Belmora makes its FLANAX more available to consumers, which exacerbated BCC’s losses.

The Fourth Circuit then turned to Lexmark’s second prong, and concluded that BCC may plausibly have been damaged economically and in its reputation by Belmora’s alleged deceptive use of the FLANAX mark. Therefore, there was enough to conclude that BCC’s injuries were proximately caused by Belmora’s violations of the false association statute.

Holding

The Fourth Circuit conclude that BCC is entitled to bring its unfair competition claims under Lanham Act § 43(a) and its cancellation claim under § 14(3). The district court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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