Wednesday, November 04, 2020

press release in supplement battle could be false advertising

ThermoLife Int’l LLC v. NeoGenis Labs Inc., 2020 WL 6395442, No. CV-18-02980-PHX-DWL (D. Ariz. Nov. 2, 2020)

Plaintiff/counterdefendant ThermoLife and defendant/counterplaintiff HumanN both hold patents related to the use of nitrate technology for supplements. ThermoLife alleged that HumanN engaged in false advertising and false marking by, among other things, marking three of its nitrate-related products with inapplicable patent numbers. HumanN’s counterclaims were based in part on a previous, unsuccessful lawsuit that ThermoLife filed against HumanN, in part on a press release that ThermoLife’s principal Kramer issued after this lawsuit was filed, and in part on ThermoLife’s alleged interference with HumanN’s business relationship with

This decision deals with ThermoLife’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims.

The prior litigation was stayed when the PTO instituted proceedings to reexamine the ThermoLife patent asserted in the suit. During reexamination, Kramer allegedly sent a letter to HumanN to “open a dialogue for possible resolution” of the litigation. He “threatened to bring a false advertising suit” and another infringement suit based on two additional patents if “HumanN did not...negotiate a deal.” Kramer and ThermoLife allegedly “promise[d] to stifle competition for HumanN if HumanN agree[d] to a sub-license, and alternatively threatened to drive HumanN out of business entirely if it [did] not.” ThermoLife voluntarily dismissed the infringement suit, but allegedly continued to demand that HumanN pay licensing fees despite HumanN’s contention that it didn’t practice the patent.

ThermoLife also told Amazon that HumanN’s products infringed another of ThermoLife’s patents, as a result of which Amazon took down some of HumanN’s product listings. This allegedly caused HumanN to expend “significant efforts to restore its product pages,” rendered HumanN “unable to sell three of its top selling products on Amazon” for one month, and diminished HumanN’s seller ranking.

ThermoLife ultimately sued again, and issued a press release entitled “ThermoLife Serves HumanN A Beet Down For Selling Falsely Advertised And Misbranded Products Including SuperBeets, BeetElite, And Neo40.”  

The Sherman Act attempted monopolization counterclaim was dismissed because of failure to sufficiently define the relevant market, albeit with leave to amend.

Lanham Act false advertising: This was based on the “Beet Down” press release, which disclosed that ThermoLife had filed this action and described ThermoLife’s basis for doing so.

ThermoLife argued that because the press release simply repeated the allegations contained in its complaint in this action, while prefacing each set of allegations with the phrase “has alleged,” the press release was truthful. Not so. The headline was not qualified and affirmatively stated that HumanN “sell[s] falsely advertised and misbranded products.” “Resolving all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant, this is a statement of fact.” Also, a quotation from Kramer included an assertion that “HumanN relies on false representation after false representation to deceive consumers into purchasing HumanN’s products.” This was also plausibly a statement of fact rather than a statement of opinion.

Arizona’s state-law litigation privilege also didn’t bar HumanN’s Lanham Act claim. And the press release wasn’t protected by Noerr-Pennington immunity. It accused HumanN of falsely marking HumanN’s products with patents the products do not practice; it didn’t mention ThermoLife’s patents except for in Kramer’s quote, “ThermoLife holds the patents for the technology in HumanN’s products, not HumanN.” But that seemed to be about ThermoLife’s earlier contention that “contrary to HumanN’s false advertising, none of [the] patents that HumanN licenses and falsely marks on its products protect ‘patented Nitric Oxide technology.’ ” ThermoLife couldn’t claim Noerr-Pennington immunity for asserting its patent rights “in a press release about a lawsuit that has nothing to do with enforcement of its patents.”

The substantive analysis was the same for Arizona unfair competition and trade libel claims, but the court had to analyze Arizona’s litigation privilege. At this stage, ThermoLife hadn’t shown that it was entitled to a qualified privilege. Although the general rule is that “[a]nyone may describe what transpired at a public proceeding so long as the publisher provides a fair and accurate rendition...[o]ne exception to this wide application is the speaker who by design uses the privilege to republish defamation he previously made during the public proceeding.” This was because “[t]he privilege does not sanction self-serving re-publication.” That was exactly the scenario alleged here. Arizona also holds that a speaker can forfeit its entitlement to the qualified privilege via “abuse of that privilege,” such as by “excessive an unprivileged recipient not reasonably necessary to protect the interest upon which the privilege is grounded.” Given the posture, it was vital that “whether the occasion for the privilege was abused is a question of fact for the jury.”

Tortious interference with relations with Amazon: Federal patent law preempts state tort law where the state tort is based on “conduct that is protected or governed by federal patent law.” Thus, “patentees do not violate the rules of fair competition by making accurate representations, and are allowed to make representations that turn out to be inaccurate provided they make them in good faith.” HumanN didn’t sufficiently allege that plaintiffs acted in bad faith when they told Amazon that HumanN’s products infringed. “HumanN has not identified any authority suggesting that a judicial determination of infringement is a prerequisite to notifying a potential infringer (or a third party) of infringement.” And, while HumanN alleged specific facts suggesting that ThermoLife was aware that HumanN’s product didn’t infringe the initially asserted patent yet chose to file suit anyway, it didn’t provide any comparable allegations concerning the report to Amazon, which involved different patents.

Arizona also has a Patent Troll Prevention Act (PTPA), which prohibits “an assertion of patent infringement in bad faith.” The statute expressly exempts civil actions “that include[ ] a demand or assertion of patent infringement.” But HumanN sufficiently alleged that ThermoLife “threaten[ed] HumanN with sham litigation, even after [ThermoLife] dismissed its sham infringement suit.” As for bad faith, ThermoLife argued that the challenged communications contained “a detailed infringement analysis” and that there is “no dispute” that it provided information set out in the PTPA as relevant to the bad faith analysis: the patent number, contact information of the patent owner or assignee, infringement facts, and an explanation of standing. But on a motion to dismiss HumanN plausibly alleged bad faith. HumanN alleged that ThermoLife’s infringement analysis was unsupported, contradictory, and without merit and that, after ThermoLife dismissed its infringement suit, ThermoLife still “insisted” that HumanN grant a $1 per unit licensing fee and pay $1 million in “back damages” within 10 days. Those could plausibly show bad faith, and providing the information listed in the statute isn’t automatically sufficient to defeat a PTPA claim. The statute made clear that the factors are “nonexclusive”—a court may consider “[a]ny other factor that the court determines to be relevant.”

The court found it unnecessary to resolve whether federal law preempted the PTPA because ThermoLife raised the issue only in passing in a footnote.

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