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Tuesday, September 25, 2012
by Tony Dutra
I went to small claims court once. The case prior to mine was brought by a woman claiming harm from a hairdo that didn't come out the way she had hoped. The trial was postponed because each party wanted to present multiple witnesses, including an expert for each. The judge said, "I've always said that there are no small claims, just small amounts."
An opinion I reviewed in a trademark dispute in the 11th Circuit this week reminded me of the "Bad Do" case. It's about an ancient order of knights, and who gets to use the order's name. The dollars at issue appear to be minimal. The heritage issue appears to be huge. It is no small claim.
The parties' are fighting over the use of the name "Knights of Malta" in soliciting charitable contributions. The crux of the complaint is whether the defendant can claim a connection to an 11th century order of the Knights Hospitaller based on competing views of events during Napolean's first traipse through Europe.
Here's what the Southern District of Florida had to say about the dispute:
The parties present themselves as Christian charities. The Court struggles with the parties' characterizing themselves in that manner, however. The amounts of money each party has raised for charitable purposes are unimpressive, which leads the Court to believe that the members of both [organizations] are more interested in dressing up in costumes, conferring titles on each other and playing in a "weird world of princes and knights" than in performing charitable acts.
This judge apparently believed this was a "small claim." He was wrong. The plaintiff hired former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement to argue its appeal. And the 11th Circuit chastised the lower court judge. It said, "These remarks are wholly inappropriate in the context of a judicial proceeding and a published judicial opinion." The main reason the appeals court didn't use its authority to reassign the case was that this "belittling commentary" did not exhibit "actual bias in favor of, or against, one party over the other."
The court had a couple of interesting legal points to make here. First, it reversed the lower court's finding of fraud on the Patent and Trademark Office, based on the plaintiff's failure to tell the PTO of the defendant's existence. In doing so, the court made it quite clear it is very hard to show fraud after In re Bose, 580 F.3d 1240, 91 USPQ2d 1938 (Fed. Cir. 2009). And second, a dissenting opinion offered a reasoned argument about qualifications for expert testimony on historical facts under Fed. R. Evid. 702.
That's right. There was a dissent. Appellate court judges disagreed on the weight the lower court gave to the defendant's view of what happened in 1798.
After my story on this case appeared online, I heard from the plaintiff's representative. He apparently was displeased that I didn't spend enough time reporting on the dissent's arguments that the defendant's expert was unqualified (to put it mildly) as a historian.
Let this be a lesson to the Southern Florida district court: There are no small claims.
Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta v. Florida Priory of the Knights Hospitallers of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta, the Ecumenical Order, No. 11-15101 (11th Cir. Sept. 11, 2012)
My full review of the 11th Circuit's opinion is here.
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