Ninth Circuit Holds that “Reverse Confusion” Need Not Be Pled with Specificity
August 10 2017
A plaintiff seeking to prevail on a trademark infringement claim needs to establish that there is some likelihood of confusion between its mark and that of the defendant. Generally, a plaintiff establishes that there is “forward” confusion by showing that customers believed they were doing business with plaintiff but because of a confusion in their respective marks, were actually doing business with the defendant. Sometimes, however, a plaintiff will seek to establish “reverse confusion” in that a customer believing they were doing business with a defendant actually ends up doing business with the plaintiff. The Ninth Circuit, in the case Marketquest Group v. BIC Corp. (decided July 7, 2017), was faced with the issue as to whether a plaintiff seeking to prevail under a theory of “reverse confusion” is required to plead that theory with specificity.
For nearly 20 years, Marketquest produced and sold promotional products utilizing its registered trademarks “All-in-One” and “The Write Choice.” In 2009, BIC Corporation acquired a competitor in the promotional products field and began publishing promotional product catalogs featuring the phase “All-in-One” and in other advertising, using the phrase “The WRITE Pen Choice for 30 Years.” Marketquest sued BIC for trademark infringement. After the District Court granted summary judgment to BIC, Marketquest appealed to the Ninth Circuit. (This article does not address the other issues decided by the Ninth Circuity other than the pleading requirement.)
In seeking to have the Ninth Circuit reject the appeal, BIC argued that Marketquest could not proceed under a “reverse confusion” theory because it had not specifically pled such a theory in its complaint. The Ninth Circuit began by recognizing that the Lanham Act allows a trademark owner to pursue a cause of action against someone who uses the trademark in commerce “when such use is likely to cause confusion.” Given that neither party questioned the validity of Marketquest’s trademarks, the Ninth Circuit recognized that the main issue before the lower court was “whether there is a likelihood of confusion: that is, whether Defendants’ `actual practice[s were] likely to produce confusion in the minds of consumers about the origin of the goods … in question.’” Since at least 2005, the Ninth Circuit has recognized two theories of consumer confusion: “forward confusion” and “reverse confusion”. See Surfvivor Media, Inc. v. Survivor Prods., 406 F.32 625 (9th Cir. 2005). Because Marketquest was attempting to establish trademark infringement under a theory of “reverse confusion,” BIC argued that it was required to plead such a theory with specificity in its complaint and that having failed to do so, the lower court properly granted judgment against it.
The Ninth Circuit recognized that it had not addressed this issue before, but that the First Circuit, in Dorpan, S.L. v. Hotel Melia, Inc. 728 F.3d 55 (1st Cir. 2013), had. In that case the First Circuit ruled that “`reverse confusion’ is not a separate legal claim requiring separate pleading. Rather, it is a descriptive term referring to certain circumstances that can give rise to a likelihood of confusion.” The Ninth Circuit adopted this approach and ruled in Marketquest’s favor “when reverse confusion is compatible with the theory of infringement alleged in the complaint, a Plaintiff need not specifically plead it.”
BIC argued that at least two prior Ninth Circuit cases required a different result. BIC first cited the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Surfvivor to support its argument that strict pleading is required. However, the Ninth Circuit rejected this argument and held that the only the thing that the Surfvivor case held was that when reverse confusion is the only plausible theory in a trademark infringement complaint, a plaintiff cannot establish a viable trademark infringement claim based on “forward confusion.”
BIC also cited Murray v. Cable National Broadcasting Co., 86 F.3d 858 (9th Cir. 1996) in support of its proposition that in order to plead a “reverse confusion” theory, “a plaintiff must allege that the defendant `saturated the market with advertising’ or alleged actual reverse confusion from customers.” The Ninth Circuit likewise rejected this argument recognizing that its Murray decision was decided before it had even recognized a theory of infringement based on “reverse confusion.” More importantly, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff in Murray had not alleged any cognizable trademark infringement claim regardless of whether it was based on “forward confusion” or “reverse confusion.”
The Ninth Circuit concluded that although Marketquest did not use the words “reverse confusion” in its complaint, nor did it allege that the defendants had saturated the market, it had alleged generally that customers “were confused `as to whether some affiliation, connection or association existed’ among defendants and Marketplace and specifically alleged that there were actual instances of forward confusion (i.e., that consumers that that defendant’s goods came from Marketquest).” Although Marketquest did not raise issues of ”reverse confusion” until its motion for preliminary injunction and later on summary judgment, the lower court’s order did recognize that Marketquest was asserting infringement based on “reverse confusion.” Although it had not pled such a theory with specificity in its complaint, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the lower court properly allowed Marketquest to proceed under a “reverse confusion” theory and held that Marketquest was not required to plead such a theory with specificity in its complaint.
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Marketquest will give plaintiffs some leeway in pleading their theory of trademark infringement. However, plaintiffs will still be required to allege some likelihood of confusion between its mark and that of the defendant in order to avoid a dismissal of their infringement claim.