Friday, April 10, 2015

Sam’s Club Loses Motion to Dismiss David Yurman Trademark Lawsuit Based on First Sale Doctrine Defense

In September 2014, luxury jewelry designer David Yurman filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Sam’s Club over the alleged unauthorized sales of David Yurman jewelry at Sam’s Club stores.  See David Yurman Enterprises LLC and David Yurman IP LLC v. Sam’s East, Inc. and Sam’s West Inc., Case No. 14-cv-02553 (S.D. Tex. Filed September 4, 2014).  Click here for a news article on the complaint.

In the complaint, Yurman alleged that Sam’s Club, through its purchase and resale of genuine David Yurman jewelry from authorized David Yurman retailers, infringed on Yurman’s trademark rights to the DAVID YURMAN mark as well as intentionally interfered with Yurman’s contractual relations with its authorized retailers. 

Sam’s Club filed a motion to dismiss Yurman’s complaint for failure to state a claim, primarily on the basis that its sale of Yurman’s genuine jewelry was protected by the “first sale doctrine.”  On April 9, 2015, the Court denied Sam’s Club’s motion to dismiss finding that Yurman’s complaint had sufficiently pled causes of actions for trademark infringement (sufficient to overcome Sam’s Club assertion of the “first sale doctrine” defense) as well as for tortious interference with contractual relations.  See David Yurman Enterprises LLC et al v. Sam’s East, Inc., Case No. 14-cv-02553 (S.D. Tex. April 9, 2015) (court order here)

As part of Yurman’s complaint, Yurman asserted that it only sells its jewelry through its own boutiques and authorized retailers who sign an Authorized Retailer Agreement that “expressly prohibits the transshipment, diversion, or transfer of any Yurman products to any other party.”  Yurman further asserted that Yurman’s Authorized Retailer Agreement and the prohibition against selling its jewelry to any other parties were well known in the retail industry, especially retailers of jewelry products.  As such, Sam’s Club was well aware of the prohibition (or certainly became aware after Sam’s Club was notified by Yurman to stop such purchasing), and yet intentionally sought out and purchased Yurman jewelry from one or more of Yurman’s authorized retailers despite knowing that such retailers were prohibited from selling the jewelry to Sam’s Club.  There was no dispute that Sam’s Club was selling authentic Yurman jewelry products at its stores and that Sam’s Club is not a Yurman-authorized retailer of its jewelry. 

Most importantly, Yurman alleged that “Sam’s Club prominently advertised and promoted the jewelry in its stores and on its website, in an effort to drive traffic to its stores” and that in its stores, Sam’s Club was “displaying Yurman products, placards and packaging displaying the Yurman trademark” and supposedly even Yurman-issued certificates of authenticity.  Yurman alleged that Sam’s Club’s actions created “the false impression that Sam’s Club is among Yurman’s network of authorized retailers, and has caused consumer confusion and disappointment.” (e.g., unlike an authorized Yurman retailer, Sam’s Club, at the point of purchase, was not being able to service customers purchasing or attempting to purchase DAVID YURMAN jewelry products sold in its stores).

In support of its trademark infringement claims, Yurman basically argued that Sam’s Club’s “display of the jewelry and its packaging; the prominent placement of placards, certificates, and other Yurman materials; and the prominent advertisement of Yurman products in its stores and on its website to create foot traffic to the stores, all create the false impression that Sam’s Club is authorized to sell Yurman products and that its products have been sourced directly from Yurman.”  In response, Sam’s Club maintained that Yurman’s trademark infringement claims were barred by the “first sale doctrine” (i.e., because Sam’s Club was selling genuine Yurman jewelry identified by the David Yurman trademark, there is no potential for consumer confusion regarding the source of the goods).

The Court stated the following regarding the “first sale doctrine” defense:
Under the rule “a distributor who resells trademarked goods without change is not liable for trademark infringement.” Mary Kay, Inc. v. Weber, 301F. Supp. 2d 839, 852 (N.D. Tex. 2009) (internal quotations omitted). However, there are two exceptions to the rule: 1) “[t]he doctrine does not protect alleged infringers who sell trademarked goods that are ‘materially’ different from those sold by the trademark owner;” and 2) the doctrine will not protected alleged infringers “if they have given off the false impression that they are affiliated with or sponsored by” the trademark owner. Id. The second exception is relevant to this case. Under this rule, an unauthorized dealer may use a mark to advertise or promote truthfully that it sells a certain trademarked product, so long as the advertisement or promotion does not suggest affiliation or endorsement by the mark holder. Id. (quoting Fetzer, 381 F.3d at 484).

In analyzing whether Yurman had pled sufficient facts to show that the use of the Yurman trademark creates a likelihood of confusion as to an affiliation between Sam’s Club and Yurman, the Court noted that “Yurman has pled that the stores had Yurman products and materials prominently displayed, which suggests the Yurman products were highlighted more than other products. . .[and] that Sam’s Club had prominent advertisements of the Yurman products on its website in an effort to drive foot traffic to its stores, which suggests the Yurman jewelry was featured in a way that other jewelry was not. The context of the use was that Sam’s Club was featuring Yurman products more aggressively and prominently than other products to gain more traffic to its stores.”  Because the “[p]rominent and pervasive use of a mark will suggest affiliation,” the Court found Yurman had pled sufficient facts to state claim for likelihood of confusion.

As for Sam’s Club reliance on the “first sale doctrine” defense, “the defense must be apparent on the face of the claim, and the rule does not apply if Sam’s Club has given off the false impression that it is affiliated with Yurman.”  Sam’s Club relied heavily upon another case, Matrix Essentials, Inc. v. Emporium Drug Mart, Inc., of Lafayette, 988 F.2d 587, 593 (5th Cir.1993), which held that “the mere unauthorized stocking and sale of trademarked products is not a trademark violation.”  However, the Court distinguished that case from the instant case because Yurman “alleges more than the mere unauthorized stocking and sale is occurring here. Yurman also alleges prominent and aggressive advertising, including on the Sam’s Club’s website, and a prominent display of Yurman materials and jewelry within its stores. Matrix Essentials anticipates that if more action is taken beyond mere unauthorized stocking and sale of a trademarked product, a claim might survive summary judgment.”  Accordingly, the Court denied Sam’s Club motion to dismiss Yurman’s trademark infringement claim (as well as Yurman’s other claims for false designation of origin and unfair competition, for similar reasons).

As for Yurman’s claim for tortious interference with a contract, Yurman argued that despite Sam’s Club knowledge of Yurman’s Authorized Retailer Agreement with every authorized retailers of its products prohibiting the transshipment, diversion or transfer of its products to any other party,”Sam’s Club obtained significant inventories of Yurman products to sell in Sam’s Club stores throughout the United States. . . .” And if Sam’s Club did not know about the prohibition in the Authorized Retailer Agreement initially, Sam’s Club was certainly put on notice when Yurman demanded that Sam’s Club stop inducing Yurman’s retailers into breaching their agreement (a demand that Sam’s Club refused).  Yurman further alleged that Sam’s Club could not have acquired such large inventories of Yurman products without having intentionally induced one of Yurman’s retailers to breach its Agreement with Yurman.  Based on these factual assertions, the Court found Yurman’s pleadings were sufficient to make out a claim for tortious interference with a contract

Accordingly, the Court denied Sam’s Club’s motion to dismiss.

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