Federal District Court finds that “Houston College of Law” Creates Likelihood of Initial-Interest Confusion with University of Houston
Meet Dave. Dave is a college student in Florida. He spent the first couple of years at school mostly partying, but lately he’s been working on getting his grades up, and he’s thinking about applying to law school. Dave doesn’t have any lawyers in his family, but he’s familiar with the University of Houston because he likes high-scoring college football teams. Dave saw an ad for Houston College of Law and, thinking it must be part of the University of Houston, he checked out its website.
Recognizing the red and white color scheme, Dave started clicking through the website to find out more. Pretty soon, Dave realized that Houston College of Law may not be part of the University of Houston. “Hey, Tony,” he said to his roommate, “is Houston College of Law the one you’re applying to?” “No, you dumb***,” Tony said. “That’s the one with the moot court teams. U of H has its own law school. It’s the one in the top 50.” “Oh,” Dave said sheepishly. “Well I’m going to check out this Houston College of Law anyway.”
Did actionable trademark infringement just happen here? That, essentially, is the difficult issue presented in Board of Regents of the University of Houston System v. Houston College of Law, which I first covered here. You can read the Houston Chronicle’s coverage here.
On October 14, Judge Keith Ellison issued this opinion and granted the University of Houston’s motion for a preliminary injunction to stop South Texas College of Law from changing its name to Houston College of Law, finding there was a substantial likelihood that prospective law students would confuse Houston College of Law with the University of Houston, at least initially, and that such “initial-interest confusion” is actionable in the Fifth Circuit.
Wow. That was a really long sentence. Let’s break this down.
What Issues Were Most Important to the Decision?
Like most trademark infringement opinions, Judge Ellison’s opinion walks through eight factors—the “digits”—to determine the likelihood of confusion. But the decision really came down to three key issues.
First, there was the typical “Battle of Surveys” between two experts. UH’s expert did a survey that found a 25% net confusion rate. Houston College of Law’s expert’s survey found a 6% net confusion rate. “Thus,” Judge Ellison deadpanned, “as is so often the case in high-stakes litigation, highly qualified experts have presented dueling reports that reach significantly different results.”
The judge found that UH’s expert’s methodology was more reliable, and that was a major factor supporting the decision. The lesson for lawyers who handle trademark litigation is that it is important to work closely with the expert ahead of time to make sure the methodology is as defensible as possible. I know, easier said than done.
Second, UH benefitted from citing anecdotal examples of actual confusion, such as misdirected mail and email, including confusion by prospective law students. These instances of confusion were minor—and probably fleeting—but the cumulative effect was to bolster UH’s argument that people are likely to associate Houston College of Law with UH.
Third, UH won the legal argument on initial-interest confusion. I explained the concept of initial-interest confusion when I wrote about the preliminary injunction hearing: When a consumer walks into a bar called the “Velvet Elvis” thinking it is affiliated with Elvis Presley and then realizes it is not, initial-interest confusion has happened. Even though the consumer is not confused at the “point of sale,” the initial confusion has succeeded in getting him “in the door.”
Houston College of Law’s lawyers argued the doctrine of initial-interest confusion doesn’t make sense when the product at issue is a three-year law degree. Even if Dave goes to the Houston College of Law website thinking it is affiliated with the University of Houston, they might say, Dave is eventually going to figure out the two institutions are not affiliated. No one is going to go to the wrong law school for three years by mistake. No harm, no foul.
But Judge Ellison disagreed. Even if the initial confusion only causes Dave to go to the Houston College of Law website, the judge would say, Houston College of Law has unfairly obtained some benefit from the goodwill built up by the University of Houston, and that is the kind of harm the Lanham Act is intended to remedy.
What Issues Were Less Important to the Decision?
Three issues received a lot of attention at the hearing but relatively less attention in the opinion.
First, the lawyers at the hearing spent a lot of time talking about Houston College of Law’s intent to cause confusion with the University of Houston, particularly the change in school colors from crimson and gold to “Cougar” red and white. You know it’s a trademark lawsuit when people get worked up arguing about different shades of red.
Judge Ellison did go over the evidence and arguments on intent in some detail, and he did find the change in school colors “troubling.” Ultimately, however, intent was not a major stated factor in his decision. He found the question of intent a “close call” that did not weigh in either side’s favor in the likelihood of confusion analysis.
Second, as I described when I first reported on the hearing, there was a lot of evidence and argument about whether the University of Houston still calls its law school “College of Law.” This was potentially important, because it is easier to confuse “Houston College of Law” with “College of Law” than with “Law Center.” But Judge Ellison sidestepped this issue by focusing on just two of the UH trademarks at issue: “University of Houston” and “University of Houston Law Center.” This meant he didn’t even have to address UH’s use vel non of “College of Law.”
Third, many hours were billed arguing about whether, after the Supreme Court’s eBay decision, trademark infringement creates a presumption of irreparable injury to support granting an injunction. At least one prescient commentator predicted that Judge Ellison would avoid the need to decide this issue:
If Judge Ellison issues an injunction, I expect he will say something to this effect: “It is unclear in the Fifth Circuit whether a showing of trademark infringement creates a presumption of irreparable harm, but in this case it is unnecessary to decide that issue because there is evidence of irreparable harm.”
Turns out that is essentially what Judge Ellison said: “Irrespective of the presumption, the Court concludes that monetary damages will not adequately compensate UH.”
And yes, you guessed it, the commentator quoted above was Five Minute Law.
Update: At a hearing on October 26, Houston College of Law’s lawyers agreed to stop using “Houston College of Law” and to adopt a new name. See Gabrielle Banks’ coverage in the Houston Chronicle here.
Overtime: The Way Opinions Should Be Written
At the risk of going over my five minutes, I have to note two things about the Board of Regents opinion that are a credit to Judge Ellison and—it must be said—a discredit to some other courts by comparison. First, there is the simple fact that Judge Ellison wrote his own opinion at all. Often, trial court judges simply sign an order that has been prepared by the winning side. To be fair, writing an opinion is a lot of work (and federal judges typically have more staff support than state court judges).
But the more disappointing reason many trial court judges don’t like to write their own opinions and orders is that their main concern is not getting reversed on appeal. They figure that signing a one-sided order prepared by the winning side is likely to maximize the chances of the order holding up on appeal. But should that be the judge’s greatest concern?
The second thing that is impressive about Judge Ellison’s opinion is less obvious: it is not a one-sided opinion that pretends the decision is easy. For each sub-issue, Judge Ellison considered the best arguments made by each side and gave each side its due. For example, in deciding which expert survey was more persuasive, he explained the strengths and weaknesses of each, concluding that “neither survey is without flaw” but that the UH survey was “substantially stronger.” I don’t necessarily agree with the decision—I’m still a little skeptical about initial-interest confusion—but the important thing is that the process be fair and impartial.
If you don’t spend a lot of time reading court opinions, you might be thinking “what’s the big deal, isn’t that what judges are supposed to do?” The problem is that even when judges write their own opinions, they often do so as if they were writing a brief for the winning side. All of the losing arguments are absurd. The winning arguments are stated so strongly that the reader wonders how it could have come out any other way. When this style is employed, it is fairly obvious.
But I will let you in on a little secret that may not be so obvious: there is nothing to stop the judge from writing an opinion that simply ignores facts and arguments that do not support the decision. Believe me, it happens. Unless the reader was personally involved in the case or takes the time to read the briefs, he probably won’t even realize the judge has done this.
And that’s a shame.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation (and sometimes even trademark litigation) at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas Super Lawyer® for Business Litigation.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.