New Jersey Courts Hands Victories to Open Government Records Advocates

Over the past month, the New Jersey courts have handed down several rulings clarifying the scope of New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, or OPRA.   The rulings have resulted in several significant victories for advocates of more access to public records.

In Paff v. Galloway Township, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the scope of a municipality’s obligation to disclose electronically stored information.  The plaintiff had requested specific information fields from emails sent between the Township Clerk and Chief of Police, including “sender,” “recipient,” “date” and “subject” over a two-week period.    The Supreme Court found that this information about the emails—in legal parlance, “metadata”— is a government record under OPRA and must be produced.  Although this may impose some burden on a municipality, the Court point to the ability under OPRA to charge a service fee where the records requested require “a substantial amount of manipulation or programming of information technology.”

In North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the issue of public access to criminal investigatory records associated with the shooting of an individual by police following a high-speed chase.  The Court ultimately ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to disclosure of unredacted Use of Force Reports under OPRA and dash-cam recordings of the incident under the common law, but not to investigative reports, witness statements, and similarly detailed records while the investigation remained ongoing.

The next case, in re New Jersey Fireman’s Association Obligation to Provide Relief Applications Under the Open Public Records Act, involved the polar opposite of the typical OPRA case.  In that case, the question was whether, after a public entity denies a citizen’s record request, the public entity may institute a court action to obtain a judgment from the court declaring the record to not be subject to disclosure.  The Court ultimately ruled that this procedure may be proper in some instances, but under the facts of the case, since the public entity had already denied the OPRA request, only the requestor may file an action to compel the disclosure.

In North Jersey Media Group v. State of New Jersey Office of Governor, a case stemming out of the “Bridgegate” scandal, New Jersey’s Appellate Division held that the court has the authority under OPRA to impose civil penalties for knowing and willful violations of OPRA, and remanded the case for a ruling on whether certain individuals in the Governor’s office intentionally violated OPRA.

In Verry v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, the Appellate Division held that a local a fire department should be considered an “instrumentality” of the larger fire district, and is therefore a public agency required to comply with OPRA.

For more information, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Update: Ban on Registering “Disparaging” Trademarks Unconstitutional

In a unanimous opinion based on differing rationale, the Supreme Court held that the federal prohibition on registering “disparaging” trademarks is unconstitutional.  (Matal v. Tam, No. 15-1293).  Four of the Justices fully agreed with Justice Alito’s opinion and four other Justices, led by Justice Kennedy, filed a separate opinion agreeing that the prohibition is unconstitutional, but citing a different basis.  (Newly confirmed Justice Gorsuch did not participate).

This case arose when a dance-rock band applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for federal trademark registration of the band’s name “The Slants.” The members of the band are Asian-American and chose their name – a derogatory term for a person of Asian descent – to “help ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” The PTO denied the application pursuant to the Lanham Act, which prohibits registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . .  in contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.”  On appeal, the Federal Circuit held this provision of the Lanham Act unconstitutional as against the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. (See Litigation Law Blog’s previous post about the Federal Circuit’s decision from December 23, 2015 and The Supreme Court’s Decision to Review the Case from September 29, 2016)

Upholding the Federal Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court reiterated that “trademarks are private, not public speech,” and that “public expression may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The Court found that the government engaged in “viewpoint discrimination,” and that the expressive components of trademarks prohibit viewing them as “commercial speech.”  Scrutinizing the restriction in the Act, the Supreme Court held that the clause was not sufficiently narrowly drawn, i.e., it restricts more than just “harmful” discrimination, but also anything that disparages any person, such as, the phrase “Down with racists.”  Per Justice Alito, the restriction “is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause. In this way, it goes much further than is necessary. . . ,” and violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of Free Speech.

This landmark decision has important implications for the Washington Redskin’s Case. In 2014, The PTO ordered cancellation of the REDSKINS mark under the disparagement clause for its offensiveness to Native Americans. The team’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit was stayed pending the outcome of this case.

For more information on trademark registration or the implications of Matal v. Tam, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Supreme Court Narrows Choice of Court to File Patent Infringement Actions

The Supreme Court used a dispute over flavored drink mix to settle a question regarding the proper venue for patent infringement actions, unanimously ruling in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, No. 16-341, that such actions, when brought in the venue where a defendant corporation “resides”, may only be brought in the judicial district where the corporation is incorporated.

The patent venue statute, 28 U.S.C. §1400(b), provides that patent infringement actions may be brought in “the judicial district where the defendant resides or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business.”  Interpreting that law in Fourco Glass Co. v. Transmirra Prods. Corp., the Supreme Court held that a domestic corporation “resides” only in its state of incorporation for patent venue– differing from the general venue statute, 28 U.S.C. §1391(c), which provided that a corporate defendant “resides” in any state in which it is subject to personal jurisdiction, including any state in which the corporation conducts a sufficient amount of business.  A 1988 congressional amendment to the general venue statute appeared to expand its scope and undermine the holding in Fourco.  Indeed, in 1990, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the general venue statute had generally supplanted the patent venue statute, and that corporations could be sued for patent infringement in any venue where the corporation was subject to personal jurisdiction.

However, the Supreme Court held in TC Heartland that Congress did not intend to supplant or change the meaning of the patent venue statute as set forth in Fourco.  The Court noted, among other things, that congressional amendments to the general venue statute in 2011 clarified that it does not apply when venue is “otherwise provided by law,” and deleted statutory language broadening the scope of the law.

Although the Court’s ruling is technical in nature, it will have a real effect on where patent infringement plaintiffs can file lawsuits.  Commentators have predicted that the decision will increase litigation in Delaware, New York, and California.

For more information on intellectual property law or the implications of TC Heartland, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Supreme Court Clarifies Rules on International Service by Mail

Resolving an issue that has divided state courts and the federal circuit courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Walter Splash, Inc. v. Menon, No. 16-254, that the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters (referred to colloquially as the Hague Service Convention), permits parties to serve documents by mail so long as the recipient’s country has not objected.

At issue was Article 10(a) of the Hague Service Convention, which reads: “Provided the State of destination does not object, the present Convention shall not interfere with— (a) the freedom to send judicial documents, by postal channels, directly to persons abroad.”  Rejecting a narrower reading, the Court held that the phrase “send judicial documents” must be read broadly to include service of initial process.  The Service Convention allows for service by mail, the Court reiterated, if the recipient’s country has not objected and such service is otherwise authorized under applicable law.

Beyond resolving a previously unresolved issue, Justice Alito’s unanimous opinion for the Court is notable for another reason:  unlike other opinions interpreting domestic statutes in which Justice Alito and other Justices have refused to look at “legislative history,” the Walter Splash decision looks to various “external” sources as an aid to interpretation.  The French version of the Hague Service Convention must also be considered as “equally authentic,” Justice Alito wrote, and it includes the word addresser, which has been interpreted to mean “service or notice.”  Justice Alito also pointed to the statements and testimony of Philip Amram, member of the U.S. delegation involved in drafting Hague Service Convention, and his article written shortly after the treaty’s passage, earlier drafts of the Convention, which stated that service by mail would be allowed.  Justice Alito also pointed to the decisions of courts in other countries – Canada, the U.K., Greece, and the Court of Justice of the European Communities – that have similarly decided the issue.

For more information about the Hague Service Convention or managing litigation against a non-U.S. based entity please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

 

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N.J. Supreme Court Finds Material Breach by Company That Knowingly Refused to Cooperate with Arbitration Demands Filed in Compliance with the Arbitration Agreement

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that a company’s refusal to cooperate with plaintiffs’ arbitration demands was a material breach of their arbitration agreement, which barred the company from later compelling arbitration. Tahisha Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC 

The plaintiffs had purchased cars from BM Motoring, LLC and Federal Auto Brokers, Inc. d/b/a BM Motor Cars (BM).  As part of the transaction, each plaintiff signed an arbitration agreement requiring resolution of disputes through arbitration in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association (AAA).  The plaintiffs had filed demands for arbitration against BM with AAA.  In one case, despite repeated requests by AAA, BM refused to advance the filing fees that the arbitration agreement obligated BM to pay, resulting in dismissal of the arbitration for nonpayment of fees. In another case, a plaintiff’s claims were dismissed based on BM’s failure to comply with AAA’s rules and procedures.  The plaintiffs then jointly filed the present action against BM, who moved to dismiss the complaint in favor of arbitration.

Ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor, the Court noted that arbitration agreements are governed by general principles of contract law.  BM’s arbitration agreement required arbitration in accordance with AAA’s rules and therefore permitted arbitration before the AAA.  The Court held that BM’s failure to pay the AAA fees or to respond to plaintiffs’ arbitration demands violated BM’s duty of good faith and fair dealing that New Jersey law implies in all contracts.  Specifically, BM’s actions destroyed the benefit plaintiffs expected in signing the arbitration agreement, namely, the ability to arbitrate claims.  Accordingly, BM was barred from later compelling arbitration.

The New Jersey Supreme Court refused to enact a bright-line rule on the issue, emphasizing the fact-sensitive nature of its determination.  Nonetheless, businesses that include standard arbitration clauses in their agreements, should be aware that a failure to cooperate in bringing the case before an arbitrator may result in a waiver of the arbitration agreement.

For more information, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Third Circuit Rules that Samsung Cannot Compel Arbitration Based on Clause “Buried” in Safety and Warranty Guide

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that Samsung cannot force arbitration in a consumer fraud class action about the battery life of its Galaxy Gear S Smartwatch.  Noble v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc.

Plaintiff had purchased a smartwatch but found, after trying three of them, that the battery lasted for only a few hours, compared to the advertised “24 to 48 hours with typical use.” Finding that others were in a similar position, Noble filed a class action complaint in federal court in New Jersey. Samsung sought to compel arbitration based on an arbitration clause in the company’s 143 page “Health and Safety and Warranty Guide,” included in the Samsung Smartwatch box.

Affirming the district court’s decision denying Samsung’s motion to compel arbitration, the Third Circuit found that Noble had no actual or constructive notice of the arbitration provision because it was not “reasonably conspicuous.”  The “Guide” in which the arbitration clause was included, “buried” the terms on page 97 of the document.  Unlike previous cases involving “shrinkwrap” or “clickwrap” agreements, Samsung’s “Guide” did not clearly inform customers that they are agreeing to certain terms upon purchase and use of the product.

The Third Circuit’s decision is a reminder to businesses to ensure not only the visibility of their terms and conditions, but also an indication that the terms are a contract to which a consumer is binding himself.

For assistance in editing your company’s agreements or product enclosures, or for further information on the Noble decision, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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News-Gatherer not Nightcrawler: District Court Denies NYPD’s Motion to Dismiss Photojournalist’s First Amendment Complaint

The U.S.  District Court in Manhattan recently allowed a photojournalist’s complaint against the New York Police Department (NYPD) and City of New York to go forward.  In Jason B. Nicholas v. The City of New York, 15-CV-9592, the photojournalist-plaintiff alleged that the NYPD’s and City’s revocation of his press credentials violated his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Nicholas recounted a series of encounters with the NYPD that led to the revocation, including an altercation with a retired NYPD detective while on assignment for the New York Daily News.  On multiple occasions, Nicholas refused to stay in an NYPD-imposed “press pen,” resulting in his press credentials being seized.  In the most recent incident, while photographing a rescued worker being loaded into an ambulance on-scene at a building collapse in Manhattan, Nicholas’s credentials were seized and revoked by the NYPD for allegedly not being in the press pen near the scene, although he alleges that other photographers were outside of the press pen and operating unimpeded.  The credentials were not returned until nearly eight months later.

Refusing to dismiss Nicholas’s complaint, the Court held that he had stated a viable claim for violation of his First Amendment rights.  The Court reiterated that “under the First Amendment, press organizations have a . . . right of access to newsworthy events in their capacity as representatives of the public and on their own behalf as members of the press.” The Court observed that “[e]qual press access is critical” to news-gatherers, citing case law extending protections against content-based or arbitrary exclusions.

The Court also allowed Nicholas’s due process claim, finding he had sufficiently alleged facts to show he had a protected interest in his press credentials; he was deprived process for revocation of his protected interest by the NYPD’s establishment of a “frozen zone” post-exigency; he was injured as a result of an official policy, custom, or practice of the municipality; and he was in danger of future harm, as evidenced by the pattern of multiple revocations of his press credentials by the NYPD.

Commentators and scholars have pointed to this recent decision, as well as decisions dating back decades upholding First Amendment claims by journalists excluded from covering public officials, including a case from the District of Columbia Circuit that found it impermissible to exclude White House press passes in a content-based or arbitrary fashion.

For more information, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Procedural Issues May Determine Immediate Fate of President’s Executive Order Before Diverse Panel of Ninth Circuit Judges

The near-term fate of President Trump’s Executive Order barring entry from seven Muslim-majority countries was before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on February 7, 2017.  The Court must decide whether to stay a Temporary Restraining Order, or “TRO,” entered by U.S. District Judge James L. Robart, stopping enforcement of the Executive Order in response to a challenge by the States of Washington and Minnesota.  The three judges on the panel exemplify judicial diversity: Hon. William C. Canby, Jr., is an 85-year old Carter appointee based out of Phoenix; Hon. Richard Clifton is a 66-year old George W. Bush appointee from Hawaii; and Hon. Michelle Friedland is a 44-year old Obama appointee from San Francisco.

Although many controversial and politically charged issues are ultimately at play, the oral argument stands as a reminder to all that sometimes procedural issues are outcome determinative.  Washington’s Solicitor General Noah G. Purcell, representing the two plaintiff states, explained that a TRO is not normally appealable to the Circuit Court unless it is functionally a full preliminary injunction.  Thus, he urged the Court to consider the Government’s application as one seeking a writ of mandamus, under which the Court may only overturn a district court decision in the most extraordinary of circumstances.   And although the states had a heavy burden to obtain the TRO in the first place, the panel was quick to point out that it was the Government that was seeking a stay of the District Court’s TRO and the Government, therefore, bore the burden of persuading the Court that a stay was necessary.

On the merits, both sides faced tough questions. All three judges questioned Department of Justice Attorney, August E. Flentje, on whether there was any evidence supporting the Government’s assertion that there would be “irreparable harm” if the Executive Order were not allowed to go into effect. The Government, the judges observed, was hard pressed to point to a single example in the recent past of an entrant from one of the seven banned countries that had been arrested for terrorism related activities.  For his part, Mr. Purcell was peppered with questions about whether the Executive Order is different from other immigration orders, like President Reagan’s ban on entry by most Cuban immigrants.

The Ninth Circuit panel took the case under advisement, noting its understanding of the time sensitive nature of the issue and the need for a prompt decision.

For more information, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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No Right of Public Performance for Sound Recordings Under New York Common Law

Answering a question certified to it by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the New York Court of Appeals held in Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., that New York’s common law does not protect the right to publicly perform a sound recording. The plaintiff is a company formed by two former members of the “Turtles,” a band most famous for its 1967 hit, “Happy Together.” Federal Copyright law began to recognize limited protection for sound recordings in 1971: owners of sound recordings produced after February 15, 1972, were granted the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute and prepare derivative works of those recordings. In 1995, Congress passed the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRA), now codified at 17 U.S.C. § 114, which afforded a limited right of public performance with respect to copyrighted sound recordings. The DPRA was aimed at prohibiting public performance of sound recordings by digital radio services, and excluded AM/FM radio stations, bars, restaurants, and stores, which maintain the ability to play (i.e., “perform”) copyrighted sound recordings.

Because the Turtles’ music was recorded before 1972, the band members were forced to rely on state common law protection. Analyzing the history of the common law in the state, a majority of New York’s highest court held that no such protection exists under New York’s common law. Analyzing cases going as far back as 1872, the Court found that, in contrast to federal statutory protection, New York’s common law copyright protection is “very slight at best,” and is limited to the right of first sale of a work.

The Court’s ruling does not address other causes of action like unfair competition and does not overrule cases that disapprove of “piracy,” i.e., surreptitiously recording a live performance and selling it. Nonetheless, the Court’s decision is a victory for digital radio services like Sirius, Pandora, and the like, which have fought nationwide over the right to play older un-copyrighted works without paying licensing fees.

For more information on copyright law or the New York Court’s decision in Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Supreme Court to Review Whether “Offensive” Names Can Be Trademarked

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to review the Federal Circuit’s decision to strike down the Lanham Act’s ban on “disparaging” trademarks.  The case, Lee v. Tam, No. 15-1293, involved an Asian American dance-rock band’s attempt to trademark their name THE SLANTS. The U.S Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) refused, citing the Lanham Act’s prohibition on “disparaging” trademarks. The Federal Circuit held that this prohibition violated trademark applicants’ First Amendment Rights. (See Litigation Law Blog’s previous post about the Federal Circuit’s decision from December 23, 2015.)

The Supreme Court’s decision could impact the more famous battle over an attempt to cancel the trademark registration for the NFL’s Washington Redskins as disparaging to Native Americans.

In the Washington Redskins case, a federal district court had ruled that the football team’s trademark disparaged Native Americans.  The team had appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which was scheduled to hold oral argument in December.  On October 18, 2016, the Fourth Circuit agreed to stay consideration of the appeal until the Supreme Court decides Lee v. Tam.

For more information on the Lanham Act or the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Lee v. Tam, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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